Saturday 16 January 2021 10:30 am

Best of travel: A food odyssey across the South China Sea

Throughout January we’re remembering better times and sunnier climes by reposting some of our favourite travel stories from the last decade. In this instalment, our Life&Style editor Steve Dinneen eats a path across the South China Sea.

Read more: The best of travel: Spending a week in an ‘apocalypse dome’

•••

Hong Kong’s most celebrated restaurants are the kind of Michelin-rated palaces to gastronomy that you can find in cities across the world. They congregate at the top of sky-scrapers, boasting views across the bay, with its gaudy nightly light display.

Most of them are fine, some are even excellent, but the places that make the biggest impression aren’t these aerial cathedrals to dim sum but the strange, spartan boxes that grow like mushrooms into the very architecture of the city.

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. Here, 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, which is 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 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 (the air-sacs that keep fish afloat) 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.

Read more: We travel to Europe’s first psychedelic mushroom retreat

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 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 hairy melon, watch a man cutting people’s hair on the street and inhale the incense billowing out of a temple, all from a single 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. 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 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.

Virtually everyone who’s been to Macao went to either gamble or to watch a sporting event (and then gamble). But if you’re here for the food, there are altogether more gastronomic pleasures to be found, with local chefs combining elements of Chinese, Indian, African, South American and Malaysian cooking styles in a frankly overwhelming mash-up worthy of the self-professed inventors of fusion food.

The area’s colonial past is apparent everywhere, from the shuttered windows and European architecture to the street signs, which are printed in both Chinese and Portuguese. 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 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, the smell of sweet Macanese sausage wafting up from the parade of shops below.

Restaurante Litoral is the island’s most celebrated place to eat – 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.

Read more: The best of travel: Why Okinawa is Japan’s Alex Garland destination

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 is jarring.

•••

Next stop, Taiwa, the most politically complex of the three regions. Both Hong Kong and Macao are part of China but have more or less autonomous control over their social and economic policy. Taiwan, on the other hand, disputes China’s claims over it. The passports of Taiwanese people read “Republic of China”, as opposed to the “People’s Republic of China”. China maintains that this country no longer exists and refuses diplomatic relations with anyone who says otherwise. A slightly uneasy status quo is maintained (like Hong Kong and Macao, British passport holders don’t require a visa).

Despite being just over 90 minutes away from Hong Kong, Taiwan is a world away from both mainland China and the 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.

Read more: The Best of Travel: How L’Enclume transformed a Cumbrian town

And the food is outstanding… 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. Here various restaurants congregate 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 its plasticky centre and took it home as a keepsake.

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 subsequently remove all your clothes. If you prefer to slum it, Raohe night market is an 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 guy and Tinder are a sure thing.

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

Compared to this stuff, the turtle jelly I found in Hong Kong is like the perfumed fart of an angel, while this odour must have originated in the festering bowels of Satan himself. The culprit is an innocuous looking stall with a blinking sign that reads “Stinky Tofu”.

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 might prefer to 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 intense concentration of a hip London barista.

My last stop involved a train journey down the island’s rugged east coast, 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 TV 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.

Share: