Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Hong Kong food and "Chinese food"

I've always loved Chinese food. You know, sweet and sour chicken, Moo Shu pork, broccoli with beef, General Gao's chicken, Garlic beef, etc.

Now, as you might expect, there's a difference between US Chinese food and Hong Kong Chinese food. But it's not that the US Chinese food is made up (well, General Gao's chicken is, but it's not too far from other dishes that are authentic). Rather, it's that what is popular in Hong Kong is very different from what is popular in the US. Almost all of the above can be found somewhere in Hong Kong. But just about none of them is considered "standard fare".

What is standard: noodle soups with various vegetables and seafood, and a hard-boiled egg. Small pieces of pork in a delicious sauce, but every piece has been carefully selected to make sure it has a bone in it. Fish. Lots of fish. Seafood is king here. Eel, squid, jellyfish, and some other things I can't recognize. Mushrooms and other fungi. Cabbage. Pea pods. Steaming hot soups you can sip slowly with your steaming hot tea. Crazy for a place that already has hot weather, but I guess that's what they like. Most of it is in a very bland sauce.

Now, I had been informed that though China has many separate cuisines, the US Chinese food we get is most often from Hong Kong. So I was wondering whether I was misinformed, or whether I was missing out on the "real" Hong Kong food.

It turns out neither is the case. Once, at a restaurant with a bunch of other people (local Hong Kongers and foreigners), a local ordered for the whole table, and we ate family style. Out came a bunch of dishes, including sweet and sour pork. One of the foreigners excitedly asked what that dish was called. "Gu lou yuhk". I recognized the last word, "yuhk" as literally meaning "meat" but "meat" most often means "pork". We got the characters for it so we could recognize it on the menu. Another local asked, "Oh, so you guys like this?" To us, it was obvious that this is far superior to fungi on noodles, but to her, it was all good, and since foreigners didn't like some things, she was surprised we would all like "Gu lou yuhk". I asked whether "Gu lou gaai" meant "sweet and sour chicken", trying my mix-and-match language skills. One local said "yes". Another local repeated it and looked at me with a confused expression. "Sweet and sour chicken?!" Those crazy Americans!

I think chicken is most often served with bones and skin. I don't mean drumsticks. I mean small pieces of chicken with the bones chopped inside it, so you can suck out the marrow. For me (and most Americans), that's too much work. It wouldn't be battered. I suspect this is what she was thinking when I asked about sweet and sour chicken. Generally, I think Hong Kongers are willing to work more for their food than Americans are. I want the process to be efficient. Why bother having the bones there when I can eat it faster without them? They want the process to take some time. Hence the chicken feet that you chew on for hours. You have to search them out to pay the bill. Once I went to an American restaurant with some locals and mainland Chinese, and when the server came to take away our plates, a mainland Chinese person told me that he thought this was rather rude, as if they're saying we should leave. I can imagine many restaurants in the States where they'd say, "Darn right, we want you to leave!"

Later I tried to look for "Gu lou yuhk" on menus. I never found it. A local student I know happened to be eating at the same restaurant I went to, and stopped by my table to see if I needed help with translating the menu. I asked if they had "Gu lou", and he asked them. It wasn't on the menu, but they did have it. This verified to me that "pork" is the only thing you get "Gu lou", so that you don't even have to say "yuhk". It also demonstrated that although everyone knows what it is, generally speaking no one cares to order it, so it's never on the menu. It would be as if foreigners to America hated hamburgers, hot dogs, steak and eggs, french fries, and fried chicken, but loved cole slaw, and ordered it for a meal every time they could.

As an American I think of a dish as primarily what kind of meat it features, then what kind of preparation is has, which includes what vegetables might be on it or what kind of sauce it's in or how it was cooked. I think for Hong Kongers, a dish is primarily a combination of vegetables and seafood, and sometimes there might be meat as a kind of flavorful addition, like one might add garlic or nutmeg to a dish.

And "seafood" is really big here. It's not a matter of whether a dish has seafood. It's whether it has eel, sea cucumber, jellyfish, shrimp, or squid. These are generally bland flavors, and so the sauce used is bland, to make sure you can taste the flavors.

Dessert is a strange concept here. It involves beans. And is not necessarily sweet. Around now, in anticipation for the Mid-Autumn festival, mooncakes (made of hardened bean paste with egg yolks in the middle) are available. These are kind of sweet, but not what you'd expect when you hear "cake". A Hong Kong local told me he didn't like it because it was too sweet.

Tomorrow we head to Vietnam. So I won't be posting here until Tuesday. But then you'll see what we did in Vietnam. So be patient and you will be rewarded.


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