An Asian food odyssey: How we ate our way through the weird and wonderful delicacies of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan

 
Steve Dinneen
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The Hong Kong skyline at sunset

Hong Kong is an unlikely, frenetic mash-up of cultures and topography. You can sing karaoke at the top of a skyscraper, hike along the green ridges of the Dragon’s Back hills and go surfing at Big Wave Bay, all within the space of a couple of hours.

It's also a gateway to the less-explored islands of the South China Sea, home to the most exciting, varied, occasionally outright disgusting food on the planet. Getting there from London is as pleasant and comfortable as a long-haul flight can be thanks to a new route from Gatwick with Cathay Pacific; its fancy new A350 plane is even supposed to get you there with less jet-lag.

Here’s how I ate my way through Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.

Hong Kong


Fresh seafood on sale in Hong Kong

I’ve written about the food scene in Hong Kong before, having visited some of its most celebrated restaurants, many of them the kind of Michelin-rated palaces to gastronomy that you can find in cities across the world. They tend to congregate at the top of sky-scrapers, boasting views across the bay, with its gaudy nightly light display.

Most of them are fine (and some of them, including Qi – Nine Dragons, which serves fiery Sichuan cuisine, are exceptional), but the places that make the biggest impression are altogether more subtle affairs, spartan boxes squeezed into the very architecture of the city, as if they had grown there like mushrooms.

One such place is Tsim Chai Kee, a noodle bar with all the design flourishes of a young offenders institution. In the basement, an elderly woman prepares a mountain of wantons, creating the fist-size balls with a single hand and popping them on a table that sags under the weight.

On a busy day they can shift thousands of them, which is no surprise; this is the food of gods, the giant prawns giving each mouthful a satisfying crunch, the broth rich with umami. Each bowl costs less than £3. Heaven is a place at that sagging table.

Around the corner is Dragon, which specialises in roast meat. In the UK, this would be called a single-item restaurant and would carry the air of novelty; here – as in much of the world – this is how most restaurants function, specialising in one thing and doing it properly.

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At Dragon we stooped beneath dangling electrical wires, clambered over piles of stacked ephemera and settled next to an air-conditioning unit, where we were served divine slices of roast pig slathered in sticky barbecue sauce. The meat is hung in giant, coffin-like ovens that heat to over 400 degrees celsius, cooking the entire creature in just 90 minutes.

A short stumble through a bustling fruit market brings you to Kung Lee, another sparse room that opens onto the street, where a man feeds sugar cane into a mangle and the air is thick with an unfamiliar odour, at once sweet and bitter.

It’s the smell of turtle jelly, a thick black-purple slop made from boiling turtle shells that’s supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Bowls of it sit in refrigerators marked with the Uber Eats slogan; ordering this grim concoction from your iPhone is about as perfect an example of Hong Kong’s frenetic blend of modernity and tradition as you could hope to find.

As the light began to wain I joined the crowds around the macabre wet-market, where tanks writhe with every shade of sea life. The pièce de résistance was a tray of metre-long fish, sliced in half lengthways, their hearts still vainly pumping blood through emptying arteries while hunks of their flesh was sliced off for people’s tea. You won’t find that in Asda.

In stalls across the street, dried swim-bladders are flogged for extortionate prices to rich Honk Kongers who believe the high levels of collagen will keep them looking young (smart locals will avoid buying them on humid days because they’re prone to soaking up the moisture, therefore weighing – and costing – more).

There is talk of this market being closed down, or at least shifted elsewhere, to make way for flats. Hong Kong’s famous street-food stalls, selling curried fish balls and squid tentacles, are already becoming rarer, with the local government refusing to offer licences to new vendors, meaning the businesses will eventually die alongside their owners.

It’s not surprising: Hong Kong has a housing shortage that makes London look positively empty (not to mention the fact that these oily boxes would no doubt fail any number of health and safety tests), but it’s still sad to see tradition being swept aside in the break-neck dash towards the future.

These markets and restaurants, for me, represent Hong Kong at its finest, capturing its chaotic energy, its seething bustle of human traffic, its neon lights reflected in a thousand fish tanks. It’s a place where you can have a fruit-seller flog you a hairy melon, watch a man cutting people’s hair on the street and inhale the incense billowing out of a temple, all from the same standpoint.

The warren of alleyways and man-made canyons formed by dizzying apartment blocks beckon you, willing you to get lost amid their ever-changing tangle of shops and bars and clubs.

I eventually crashed out in one of those vertiginous towers overlooking the market, a smart serviced apartment by Madera Hollywood that's mercifully close to the TurboJet terminal at the Shun Tak Centre. From here you can get to Macao in under an hour; in a few months you’ll be able to drive, with a new 30 mile sea-bridge about to link the two. Look out of the window as your plane arrives in Hong Kong; the ribbon of concrete trailing into the ocean is something to behold.

Macao


Macao is famous for its firework displays

Macao is a very different beast. The first thing you see are the towering silhouettes of the casinos – dozens of glass and concrete behemoths looming over the horizon, shrouded in sickly neon mist, firing laser beams into the sky. There’s the hulking, lotus-shaped Grand Lisboa, the rust-coloured reproduction of Las Vegas’ Wynn, the opulent towers of the Galaxy. Unlike mainland China, gambling has been legal here since 1850, and the industry makes up more than half of the local economy.

Everyone I speak to who has been to Macao went to either gamble or to watch a sporting event (and then gamble). You could embrace this – bungee jump from the top of the Macao Tower, blow your load at the casino, check out the pandas at the zoo. But there’s another side with an altogether more subtle charm, a laid-back, lazy atmosphere that’s a perfect tonic to a frenetic few days in Hong Kong.

In most cities you benefit from looking above street-level; in Macao you should do the opposite. In the old-town, the cobbled lanes with their jaunty pastel-coloured buildings are quietly spectacular. Tiny shrines litter the pavements, built into shops-fronts like pieces of street art, each one no more than half a metre high. The area’s colonial past is apparent everywhere you look, from the shuttered windows and European architecture to the street signs, which are printed in both Chinese and Portuguese.

The ruins of St Paul dominate the old town centre, with hundreds of tourists climbing the steps to the facade of the centuries-old Portuguese church, while the smell of sweet Macanese sausage wafts up from the parade of shops below (I spotted an image of Princess Diana being used to sell rice balls here, although I doubt Lady Di actually ate them).

Macao lays claim to one of the first “fusion” foods, combining elements of Chinese, Indian, African, South American and Malaysian cooking styles. Restaurante Litoral is the most famous – and one of the first restaurants on the island with a female proprietor – with its menu of hearty, north-African dishes, including spicy chicken, stewed meat, and fish-cakes. Both the food and the venue conjure memories of childhood holidays to the Algarve.


Portuguese egg custard tarts

Macao is also responsible for introducing the egg custard tart to Asia, with the famous Lord Stow’s Bakery still churning them out in the quiet waterside village of Coloane (and in bakeries across Asia; the company claims to shift up to 14,000 of them every day). The rows of seafood restaurants and antique shops feel like a different planet to the new town with its concrete and casinos.

The most authentic Portuguese experience I found was at restaurant António, where the eponymous António Coelho cooks classic Mediterranean dishes; grilled sardines, duck rice, rabbit stew. As I sat on the humid balcony, drunk on Portuguese wine, Coelho emerged from beneath an oil painting of himself to personally flambe some Crêpe Suzette, while a guitarist sang love songs in Portuguese; cognitive dissonance soon sets in, and returning to casino-land (where you can find the most competitive rates for accommodation; my suite at the Sofitel was excellent, and it’s only a 25 minute drive to the airport) is a jarring experience.

Taiwan


Shennong Old Street in Taiwan

Taiwan is the most politically complex of these three regions. Both Hong Kong and Macao belong to China but have more or less autonomous control over their social and economic policy. Taiwan, on the other hand, disputes China’s claim over it. The passports of Taiwanese people read “Republic of China”, as opposed to the “People’s Republic of China” seen in mainland passports.

China maintains that “Republic of China” no longer exists and refuses diplomatic relations with anyone who says otherwise. A slightly uneasy status quo is maintained, and like Hong Kong and Macao, British passport holders don’t require a visa.

Despite being just over 90 minutes away from Hong Kong, Taiwan feels utterly different, a world away from both mainland China and the other autonomous regions. It’s trendier, quieter, more orderly. It reminds me a little of Seoul, or the cooler suburbs of Tokyo. It’s vividly green, with a hiking route running through the city, and thick forest at its fringes.

And the food... Addiction Aquatic Development for Fish is a bizarrely-named collection of fancy wet-markets and seafood restaurants, a kind of sprawling combination of Wholefoods and Wright Brothers. Here giant spider crabs are hauled from tanks and weighed up for dinner and you will consume things you never even knew existed.

There are various restaurants all congregated around a balcony; I ordered a heaving platter of seafood at La Mer, full of creamy raw prawns, bright orange sea urchins and several unidentifiable molluscs. From a rich fish-head soup I plucked out a vast, globular eye, sucked out the inedible, plasticky centre and took it home as a souvenir.

Another night I ate at the smart Wulao Hot Pot, where you order piles of raw ingredients and boil them up in a spicy cauldron. It’s popular with young Taiwanese on dates, presumably because you end up so messy you have to remove all of your clothes at the earliest opportunity. If you prefer to slum it, Raohe night market is an unmissable, endless stretch of street-food stalls and acupuncture clinics and places to buy novelty covers for your mobile phone.

It’s flanked at the east side by the Ciyou Temple, with its intricately-carved exterior lit up at night like a fairground attraction. The temple was virtually empty aside from one statue of a god, which had attracted a dozen or so young Taiwanese people, each one rolling carved bones on the ground; this is the deity in charge of romance, and the bones are the way one communicates with him. If you’re looking for love, a combination of this chap and Tinder are a sure thing.

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The reason I was at the night market, however, was for something rather less romantic: this is a hotspot for one of Taiwan’s most distinctive, least pleasant food crazes. You smell it long before you see it. The odour hits you like a sucker-punch, billowing through market, clinging to your clothes and sitting in your nostrils like balls of rancid cotton wool.

Compared to this, the turtle jelly I found in Hong Kong is like the perfumed fart of an angel, while this originated in the festering bowels of Satan himself. The culprit is an innocuous looking stall with a blinking sign that reads “Stinky Tofu” (as if there were any doubt).

It’s made by deep-frying blocks of tofu that have been fermented in brine, and while the taste isn’t as repugnant as the smell – soy sauce squelches out as you pierce the crispy skin with your teeth – it still lingers long after you’ve swallowed it, like a particularly ferocious stilton.

Those with more subtle palates should instead take the monorail to the end of the line, where you can catch a cable-car into tea country. From here the rolling sprawl of the city makes way for immaculately-manicured tea plantations. Oolong teas grown in Taiwan account for about a fifth of the world’s production.

When I was there, a fine mist of rain gave the area a wistful quality, and the walk between the numerous tea houses set into the hills was silent and meditative. Inside one of the tea houses I ate noodles flavoured with tea oil while a bearded man poured black tea with the intensity of a hip London barista.

My final stop involved a train journey down the island’s rugged east coast, before swinging inland through Taroko National Park’s Swallow Grotto, where sheer cliffs rise for hundreds of feet on either side. The rain was heavier, bouncing sideways between the cliffs like television static.

Here you can hike for miles through tunnels bored into the rock, and wander beside the network of rivers, stopping every so often to buy sweet wild boar sausages from local vendors. Keep driving inland and eventually you will reach Silk Place Taroko, a five-star mountainside hotel where you can soak in the spectacular views from the comfort of a rooftop jaccuzi, or make the short hike to a hilltop temple adorned with giant golden Buddhas. If there is a more perfect corner of the world, I’m yet to come across it.

Flights

Cathay Pacific flights from Gatwick to HKG cost from £716.30 return inclusive tax (economy) or £1363.30 inclusive tax (premium economy), cathaypacific.co.uk. Cathay Pacific operates 43 non-stop flights from Hong Kong to the UK per week, including five daily services to Heathrow and four-times-weekly services to Gatwick and Manchester. By December 2017, the airline will have increased its frequency to 49 non-stop flights between the UK, with both Gatwick and Manchester moving to daily operations.

Macao

For more information contact the Macao Government Tourism Office, macaotourism.gov.mo; I stayed at the Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16, sofitelMacao.com; To book the TurboJet from Hong Kong go to turbojet.com.hk

Hong Kong

For more information contact the Hong Kong Tourism Board at discoverhongkong.com; I stayed at the Hotel Madera, to book go to maderagroup.com/hotel_madera; Central & Cheung Wan Foodie Tour costs HK$750 per person, which includes six restaurants, hongkongfoodietours.com; Dragon’s Back Hiking Tour can be booked at discoverhongkong.com/seasia/see-do/great-outdoors/hikes/dragons-back-hiking-tour.jsp; To book a table at Qi - Nine Dragons go to qi-ninedragons.hk

Taiwan

For more information contact the Taiwan Tourism Bureau at taiwan.net.tw or go to their Facebook page at Taiwan Tourism UK; In Taipei I stayed at the Amba Songshan design hotel, go to amba-hotels.com/en/songshan to book; in Hualien I stayed at Silks Place Taroko, go to silksplace-taroko.com.tw to book; For more information on Addiction Aquatic Development go to addiction.com.tw

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