It is hard to have a conversation in Hong Kong without mentioning food, especially when many still greet each other by asking, ‘Have you eaten yet?’. The vast majority of Hong Kong’s 10,000-odd restaurants serve Chinese food, of course.
Cantonese is by far the most popular Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong, but Chiu Chow, Shanghainese, Sichuanese and Northern Chinese are also widely available.
Cantonese cuisine is famously fresh: there’s an emphasis on freshly slaughtered meat (mostly pork and chicken) and seafood. Simple techniques such as steaming and stir-frying allow the ingredients to retain their delicate and well-balanced flavours.
Chiu Chow cuisine makes liberal use of garlic, vinegar and sauces; it’s famous for goose and seafood dishes. Shanghainese cooking uses a lot of salted and preserved foods and relies on stewing, braising and frying. Sichuanese is the most fiery, making great use of chillies and pungent peppercorns. Northern Chinese food uses a lot of oils (eg sesame and chilli) coupled with ingredients such as vinegar, garlic, spring onions, bean paste and dark soy sauce.
Steamed bread, dumplings and noodles are preferred to rice, and lamb and mutton, seldom seen on other Chinese menus, are also popular.
The full range of international fare is on your doorstep, too: Italian, Japanese, British pub grub, French, Korean, Indian and Mediterranean food is all well represented across most price ranges. Central is the best pick for Western restaurants, especially Soho, though you’ll also find a fair few in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Hong Kong is home to Yum cha and if you haven’t experienced the phenomena, then don’t leave Hong Kong without stuffing yourself silly during this unique dining practice. Yum cha (literally ‘drink tea’) is the usual way to refer to dim sum, the uniquely Cantonese ‘meal’ eaten as breakfast, brunch or lunch between about 7am and 3pm. Eating dim sum is a social occasion, consisting of many separate dishes that are meant to be shared.
The bigger your group, the better. Dim sum delicacies are normally steamed in small bamboo baskets. The baskets are stacked up on trolleys and rolled around the dining room. You don’t need a menu (though these exist, too, but are almost always in Chinese); just stop the waiter and choose something from the trolley. It will be marked down on a bill left on the table.
The trick is not to order everything at once. Each trolley has a different selection, so take your time and order as they come. It’s said that there are about a thousand dim sum dishes, but you’d be doing well to sample 10 in one sitting. Dim sum restaurants are normally brightly lit and very large and noisy – it’s rather like eating in an aircraft hangar.
For street food, head for Woo Sung St in the Temple Street Night Market, which runs parallel to the east, or to the section of Temple St north of the temple towards Man Ming Lane. You can get anything from a fried snack to go or a simple bowl of noodles to a full meal served at your very own kerbside table.
There are a few seafood and hotpot restaurants as well, or you might pop into Mido, Hong Kong’s best known cha chan tang (cafe with local dishes). You’ll also find a surfeit of fortune-tellers and herbalists and some free, open-air Cantonese opera performances here.
The Chinese are not traditionally known for their sweet tooth and you can head to the colourful wholesale fruit market (corner Shek Lung and Reclamation Sts), for a healthy dessert here. The market is always a hive of activity from midnight to dawn.
Alternatively, you can try a steamed cake that can be eaten occasionally as dim sum, often with strong tea. The more daring can slurp a sweet soup, a southern specialty made by boiling pulses, seeds and root vegetables, are consumed as a late-night snack, for their taste and their positive effects on health.
Traditional desserts do not contain dairy products, as many Chinese are lactose-intolerant. All this, however, has been changing as people adopt and increasingly Westernised way of life. These days, many Chinese teenagers call themselves “chocoholics”, and office workers talk about saving stomach space for cheesecake!
This article was written by Andrew Stone and was first published in www.lonelyplanet.com in August 2010. It was refreshed and updated in November 2012