Hong Kong, though once controlled by the British, remains quintessentially Chinese, though its role as a port and trade center reflects a mix of cooking styles from a wide range of Chinese regional cuisines.
Many of Hong Kong's visitors come to the dynamic and bustling port city for one thing only—to dine. Asian tourists are known to return again and again, not only for the incomparable shopping or fascinating sightseeing, but also for the territory's Epicurean delights. Similarly, many European and American repeat visitors come to discover new chefs, new eating adventures, new dishes.
No one is quite sure exactly how many eating places there are in Hong Kong but there are some 6,000 licensed restaurants and the variety of cuisines, ambiances and price ranges the restaurants offer is one of Hong Kong's delicious world-beating attractions. Although there is something for almost everyone, the major culinary glory of Hong Kong is its Chinese restaurants: the true gourmet can depend on finding the finest ingredients, chefs and standards of service in the world.
In this section, we explore some of the variety found in Hong Kong's Chinese cuisines.
Of all China's regional cuisines, that of Canton (Guangdong) province is generally recognized to be the finest and has been considered so for centuries. An old Chinese adage advises anyone seeking the ideal life on where to live, marry and die—and asserts that eating should be carried out in Canton City (Guangzhou). Many Chinese emperors traveled to the southern region for dining pleasures, or summoned or lured Cantonese chefs to Beijing's imperial kitchens.
The reasons for Canton's pre-eminence in culinary matters are manifold—climatic, sociological and prehistoric. Cantonese people, more than any other race except the French, believe that they "live to eat" rather than vice versa!
Not that nature was particularly kind to the southern Chinese. Much of their land was far from fertile, food shortages and famine were ever-present fears, and meat supplies were limited. What they lacked in natural resources, however, they made up for with native resourcefulness.
Nothing is allowed to go to waste in a Cantonese kitchen, and no animal is taboo—it is said that anything that shows its back to the heavens is fair game for a Cantonese cook! There is another saying which proclaims that the only thing with four legs a man should not eat is a table!
Freshness is the keyword in Cantonese cuisine. Twice-daily trips to the fresh vegetable and meat markets throughout Hong Kong are still the custom for traditionalist housewives. Cooked foods must look as if they have just been harvested, plucked, or caught in the South China Sea. Judicious usage of natural oils and garnishes emphasizes every dish's gleaming freshness, and the cooking methods enhance rather than smother the ingredients' inherent qualities.
Steaming and stir-frying are a Cantonese cook's pride and the most popular dishes are seafood (the one plentiful natural resource for coastal communities), pork (largely imported), fowl (primarily the versatile chicken) and vegetables, which have an honored place in a cuisine that has been influenced by Buddhist and Taoist vegetarian beliefs.
Seafood, ducks and geese are much favored by the Chiu Chow people, who originate from the country around Swatow. Their cuisine has been influenced by that of the Fukienese people in the adjacent province.
Stronger, earthier tastes are the preference. Garlic and vinegar sauce is a palate-pleasing dip for the region's spicy goose. Tangerine jam is the sweet companion for steamed lobsters. Fish is complemented by broad bean paste.
Yet the Chiu Chow people perfected the cooking of two of south China's more expensive and subtle ingredients—sharks' fins and birds' nests. Both dishes are evidence of the coastal people's seafaring traditions. The sharks were caught throughout the South China Sea, and the most preferred supplies still come from the waters off the Philippine islands. Birds' nests are gathered from steep cliff-faces, and the finest raw material of congealed swallows' saliva, imported from the Gulf of Siam, is a much-prized delicacy.
Centuries of emigration, in response to South China's over-population, brought the Cantonese and Chiu Chow peoples to many places throughout Southeast Asia, and then throughout the world.
Hong Kong is not just an Asian crossroads and meeting point. It is a cultural and culinary melting pot, and also a living museum for culinary traditions. Thus, Chiu Chow cuisine thrives in Hong Kong, and visitors can also discover the lesser-known delights of such other southern Chinese cooking styles as those of the Hakka people and the Tanka and Hoklo "sea gypsies".
The three East China Sea provinces of Kiangsu, Chekiang and Fukien, together with their two adjacent inland provinces, make up what is called the Eastern School of Chinese cuisine. The hundreds of different regional and village recipes were brought into the dominant port city of Shanghai. "Shanghainese" cuisine is, therefore, the most diverse in China.
Foreign influences arrived in the city in the 19th Century (and survive in modern Hong Kong in the "Russian" bakeries that emigre Shanghainese opened after 1949). The climate, however, remained the major influence. Cold winters called for food that was oilier and sweeter than that in the south. The enervatingly-hot summers encouraged the development of cooling soya bean dishes, while food preservation was essential, explaining Shanghainese restaurants' specialities of preserved vegetables, fish, shrimps and mushrooms.
Stewing, braising and frying are the most common forms of Shanghainese cooking. The slow "red cooking" techniques necessitate quick eating, or the hot oiliness of some dishes turns into something less appetizing.
Breads, noodles and dumplings are eaten more frequently than rice and the general Chinese love of seafood is evident albeit often in salted form. "Yellow" fish, usually marinated in wine lees, is on all menus, and Hong Kong's Shanghainese restaurants do a roaring trade in "hairy" crabs every October and November during the annual season for the Yangtze River crustaceans.
A Shanghainese menu is virtually a geography lesson, for almost every eastern speciality originates from a particular city. For example, Shanghai crabs are associated with the Sung Dynasty garden city of Suzhou, which also devised the succulent Chinese ham in honey sauce. Another garden city, Hangzhou, has been immortalized in culinary circles with its invention of Beggar's Chicken and, as Hangzhou's West Lake is famed for its fine watercress and freshwater fish, Shanghainese chefs honor many of their dishes with a "West Lake" title.
A Shanghainese menu can be an embarrassment of riches. It will also contain Cantonese and Szechuan dishes, as well as hundreds of snack items and such tempting specialities as Nanking's pressed duck or Wuxi's sweet-and-sour pork spare ribs or Hangzhou's quick-fried shredded eel or... the list is endless.
Whereas Shanghainese restaurants are generally informal, purist Beijing (or Peking) eating places tend to fit the stereotype of the Westerner's idea of a "Chinese" restaurant: red brocade, tasseled lanterns and a more formal, more "imperial" style.
A multi-course meal of Peking Duck is probably the best-known aspect of Pekinese culinary grandeur, while imperial theatricality is flamboyantly evident in the noodle-making exhibitions provided by culinary jugglers at some of Hong Kong's Beijing restaurants. The elaborate ceremony of smashing open clay-baked Beggar's Chicken is another touch of Beijing culinary class.
The almost-mythological three-day Imperial Banquets, with their 365 dishes, are a gastronomic experience few can enjoy, but many "Beijing" dishes are more accessible, and less expensive, than first-timers imagine. "Sizzling" dishes, such as Hilsa herrings, appeal to many, as do the glorious crunchy "toffee" apples and bananas. "Silk thread" breads, pancakes, onion cakes, noodles and heavyweight dim sum pastries are favorites with visitors from northern climes. They also appreciate the Beijing chefs' use of sesame oil.
Imperial grandeur is not the order of the day at Hong Kong's Mongolian barbecue restaurants. Convivial informality is the rule as diners gather round a hot pot ("fire kettle"), recreating the campfire ambiance of ancient times up on the Mongolian steppes. Marinated preserved slices of meat, traditionally mutton, are placed in ladles and dipped into a moat of simmering stock. Piquant side sauces, quick-boiled vegetables and side orders of dumplings or noodles complete the satisfying meal, which is a fun-filled experience.
International travelers recognize the similarities between Mongolian cooking and that of Japan, Korea or Switzerland. When they meet Szechuan cuisine, they see other similarities—with the spicy cuisines of Thailand, India and the Malay peoples; the food of China's western school, named after the province of Szechuan is a chili-clad hot experience.
Distinctively different from all other Chinese cuisines, it developed in the fertile but mountainous region that stayed out of the Chinese mainstream until relatively recently.
Although the peppery peasant fare absorbed many influences from the southern non-Chinese lands, the famous Szechuan chili is a native bombshell! Fried, to increase its explosiveness, it stimulates both the appetite and the palate.
Ginger, garlic, onions and brown peppercorns are other additions, and a good Szechuan cook creates magical subtleties with them. As in Thailand, there is a "court" cuisine in which the tongue-thrilling potency is moderated. In all Szechuan restaurants, the menu or the order-takers will immediately advise which dishes are cool, medium or hot, so that diners can choose their preferred level of spiciness.
Szechuan specialities include smoked duck, a fascinatingly-complex blend of cooking techniques and taste contrasts. It is seasoned with orange peel, cinnamon, coriander and other ingredients, then marinated in rice wine, then steamed, then smoked over a charcoal fire sprinkled with camphor wood chips and red-tea leaves—the result is a gourmet's magical mystery tour!
Bamboo shoots and bean curd are frequently met in Szechuan dishes, yet their subtle flavors and textures survive brilliantly in their heavily-sauced recipes. Each Szechuan platter is a self-contained balance of aromas, flavors and spices—side sauces are rarely seen.
No Hong Kong visit would be complete without a trip to one of the territory's fine teahouses or restaurants that specialize in dim sum. Served throughout daylight hours, dim sum (literally meaning "to touch the heart") are snacks of freshly-steamed or fried Chinese "canapes". These remarkably-diverse examples of culinary innovation (and engineering) feature many different ingredients.
Large dim sum restaurants offer scores of different varieties, though the daily selection will always include steamed shrimp dumplings (har qau), steamed pork and shrimp dumplings (siu mai), deep-fried spring rolls (tsun quen) and steamed barbecued pork buns (cha siu bau). Dim Sum ladies wheel their trolleys through the bustling teahouses, willingly allowing customers to lift up the lids of the bamboo baskets to identify and check the contents.
The dim sum baskets or plates (containing two or four pieces) are inexpensive, enabling visitors to enjoy a diverse and speedy meal from sun-up to sundown throughout Hong Kong. Dim Sum are a speciality of the Cantonese people, and the cooks are highly-regarded specialists.
A glance through the Hong Kong Tourist Association's Dining and Entertainment guide immediately confirms Hong Kong's unique status as the international hub of Asia. The territory boasts a fine selection of Indian, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Thai restaurants. There are also Burmese restaurants. Various restaurants in the city's deluxe hotels present multi-ethnic menus that are an Asian pot-pourri.
European cuisines are well-represented, most notably in the major hotels. Several deluxe salons of French cuisine are world-renowned havens for classic or nouvelle cuisine dishes prepared by European master chefs. The deluxe hotels compete for gourmet appreciation and custom with a year-round parade of festivals and visiting master chefs. Each hotel sets out to make at least one mark on Hong Kong's culinary map.
Independent restaurateurs add to the competitive variety, and many of Hong Kong's expatriate communities relish the rivalry—German, Italian and French menus are plentiful. There are also restaurants specializing in Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Austrian, British, Mexican and American cuisines. Lebanese and kosher foods are available, and Muslim visitors find restaurants specializing in halal meats. Vegetarians have a rich choice of Chinese or Indian menus. Fast food fans are not forgotten by the city's food and beverage entrepreneurs. Burger restaurants and pizza parlors have found much favor with local customers and major American food chains have opened branches throughout the territory. Fast food Chinese-style—from noodle shops, corner cafes and roadside dai pai dong stands—is a day-long standby, and many seasonal snacks can be enjoyed at open-air street cafes or counters.
Hong Kong's status as the dining capital of Asia is assured. Hong Kong surely offers some of the finest value, the best Chinese cuisine and the most exciting variety of dining experiences.
So, when in Hong Kong, do what the Cantonese do—live to eat!
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This page modified January 2007
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