Meandering through Sheung Wan

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Just to avoid the impression that I did nothing but eat in Hong Kong, I also spent a few lazy hours wandering the streets of Sheung Wan in a dumpling and pork induced stupor, planning which dumpling place I’d hit next and remembering dumplings past.

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Sheung Wan is where the edible dried miscellany vendors hawk their wares. If you can dry it, someone here sells it as food or medicine. If you need a whole Yunnanese ham, one hundred kilos of fish maw or a bag of assorted turtle plastrons, this is where you will find it. As far as I know, of these three ingredients only one ends up in a dumpling.

Every store has a rich odor of its own, a musty smell that permeates even the passing trams on Des Vouex Road. I find it homely but it is probably not the olfactory overload that most tourists are seeking. You can always head over to the Flower Market Street over in Kowloon.

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The surrounding alleyways are packed with small packing houses, distributors and vendors. Porters lug boxes in and out of trucks, and onto low-slung metal trolleys. A few streets specialise in abalone, bird’s nest and ginseng. Judging by the “No Photography” signs on the abalone vendors, I’d wager that a proportion of the abalone is smuggled.

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Pickled cabbage vessel, cracked and leaking lurid chili. Not everything stays intact.

French Fry Coated Hotdog vs Molecular Gastronomy

Newley spots a french fry coated hotdog, I cook a french fry coated hotdog, then friends create the sort of french fry coated hotdog that would make Herve This or Ferran Adria cry tears of simultaneous joy and fear. Austin Bush and talented chef collaborator Hock have cooked a sous-vide potato confit with panko crust and hot dog foam.

The lengthy process began by cooking hot dogs and potatoes sous-vide; the hot dogs at a carefully calculated temperature and time ratio of 53.2ºC for 73 hours and 22 minutes, the potatoes at 84.7C for 2 hours 17 minutes (Starch begins to break down at temperatures of 78C and above. Natural pectins, which are the molecular glue holding all plant cells together, do not begin to break down until 85C):

For that bit of extra luxury, the potatoes were prepared confit with the help of the finest street fat available, Crisco.

There was supposed to be a methylcellulose tomato sauce “ribbon” but it failed.

They mock me for my lack of a “modern” kitchen. This is a throwdown, biatches. I know you’re in my country, Austin.

Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Lin Heung interior

Lin Heung is proof that the advice from random strangers on the Internet is better than anything published elsewhere. A commenter whom I’ve never seen before mentioned this dim sum joint amongst a handful of the sort of hawker stalls that pique my interest, so I decided to hit it up. Just because I don’t know you does not mean that I don’t trust you.

On a Sunday, Lin Heung is dim sum as competitive sport. Half of the trolleys enter the crowded, windowless room and a mob of ravenous Hong Kongers descend upon it, dim sum chit in hand. There are no clear patterns as to what particular dumplings are most sought after: the crowd seems self reinforcing. Hubbub causes further hubbub. Seating is communal, insofar as there is nowhere else to sit.

Lin Heung siu mai
siu mai at Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Everything here surpasses their base ingredients. You can taste the chunks of roughly-cut roast pork in the siu mai.

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Their tofu skin is light and barely toothsome; steamed beef balls are as beefy as whichever cut and organs were ground into them. This is the first time that I’ve seen people compete for simple plates of steamed offal. There is none of the premium dumplings; no prawns in anything that I could see. Seafood is on the menu but not off the cart.

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The biggest commotion breaks out over their bao; steamed buns. The reason is obvious, the actual bun, normally a neutral and flavourless element is tasty. It tastes like a real bread not simply a indistinct white casing for pork or bean.

It is a very rare occasion that you can find a street vendor or restaurant that is elevating food and doing something greater than selecting the best components at their disposal then cooking them to order. As much as I enjoyed both Lung King Heen and Maxim’s this felt more like home.

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Anthony Bourdain gave it his thumbs up. I think that he was onto something.

Location: 162 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

And they ask me why I go back.

Sunset over the museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
It is because I can see this. Sunset over the museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Although I still haven’t finished writing about Hong Kong, I’m actually back in Cambodia and have taken Phnomenon out of retirement. It’s just like wearing an old, fermented fish-smelling sneaker of which I could never dispose.

It is damn good to be back.

City Hall Maxim’s Palace, Hong Kong

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When people play the standards well, it is still exciting. To be sure, City Hall Maxim’s Palace isn’t the sophisticate jazz stylings of Lung King Heen but those culinary riffs wouldn’t exist without a benchmark. In Hong Kong dim sum, that ticking metronome is Maxim’s. They make the classics in plenteous quantity and they do it consistently well. Whatever your expectations are about Maxim’s dim sum, it is likely that they’ll be met.

After negotiating the queue, Maxim’s is like stepping into a Chinese wedding where you don’t know anyone. There’s a preponderance of movement, food, red and gold but the focus is getting you seated and a meal inside you at speed rather any nuptial function. The cheapish chairs and tables are somehow reminiscent of a suburban reception centre. It is a mixed crowd. Local families read newspapers while their children tend to their Pokemon, or whatever it is that children interact with on their Nintendos these days. Backpackers look bewildered.

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Steaming trolleys rotate through the cacophonous hall, waitresses yelling out the names of their contents. I speak yum cha. I don’t know the words for “Goodbye” or even “Thank you” in Cantonese but I can ask for a plate of fried squid. It isn’t the most functional or appropriate way to know a language but I never go squidless. I probably sound like the rudest person in the room, but also, the hungriest. The waitstaff are au fait with you poking around on their trolley and taking your time. You could nurse a few dumplings for the best part of a morning. It would be the most pointless of mornings, but you could do it.

Anyhow, on with the dumpling porn

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Har gau, two sizeable prawns lurk amongst the shredded bamboo shoot within. In the background is cheong fun but with chicken and shiitake instead of the usual prawn. Maybe Maxim’s does take the occasional liberty with dim sum standards.

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Sin Chet Kuen

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Siu Mai, plus corn and prawn ball that I picked out because it looked hilarious. Eating for one’s perverse sense of humour is probably not the best idea.

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The damage: around HK$400 for two.

Address: 2nd Floor, City Hall Low Block, Hong Kong
Phone number: 852 2521 1303

Lung King Heen: 3 star dumplings

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Scallop and prawn dumpling, Lung King Heen

It’s a strange thing to live in the bottom half of the planet that has no Michelin stars. In some ways, it has an internal logic for Michelin: the guide’s ostensible purpose was to get people out into the provinces by car and thereby burn through more Michelin rubber. Awarding stars to somewhere that can’t be accessed by automobile does not sell more French tyres. Hong Kong is one hell of a drive from France: it’s a possible but improbable journey, but the stars, they be there.

Maybe Michelin makes tyres for planes these days.

With low-cost carriers now offering flights for roughly the price of buying a beer onboard said plane, I thought that it was about time that I did some serious offshore eating and start collecting stars like a proper, credentialed food critic. Maybe it would convert me to the lifestyle of a high-end eater and my days eating delicious soup in the gutter would be over. I could credibly complain about foie gras and table linen like somebody that works for a serious but doomed print publication.

So I booked in for at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant. I’m probably not making the most of the experience by eating dim sum but then again, what have I got to prove to anyone? I love dumplings. If I could take the chance at having a meal at the only Cantonese restaurant that Michelin has awarded three stars to, and have them make me a selection of dumplings I would. And did.

Critics probably like writing about serious dining because it gives you much more to write about. Filling a thousand words is easy when you eat twenty courses and you’ve got much more leeway to pick faults when you’re paying a huge bill at the end. They seated me five minutes late. The linen on the table was not perfectly flat. Service is obvious, cookie cutter silver service. English is great. The room is simple: wood panelling; huge windows frame Hong Kong’s harbour which is the “View of the Dragon” to which the restaurant’s name refers. These things are utterly meaningless when it comes to food, but maybe they’re supposed to matter to someone.

Physically, Lung King Heen’s menu has weight and silken texture. Inside, it’s much the same, classic Cantonese dishes subtly tweaked with premium ingredients and new presentation. It is a menu that plays with your memory of other Cantonese food from your past – if you don’t eat much of it, you’d never notice but if you’re an aficionado, I imagine that Lung King Heen’s head chef Chan Yan-tak is permanently winking at you from the kitchen.

There are both vegetarian and organic vegetarian options on the menu which must seem abhorrent to the average Cantonese chef, but if it’s bringing in the stars, maybe it matters. I skipped most of it for the dumplings but ordered roast suckling pig. On with the dumpling porn.

Lung King Heen Xiao Long Bao

Xiao long bao come served on individual baskets; minimising the chances of puncturing the soup filled dumpling as you extract it from the steamer basket.

lung king heen roast pork

The roast suckling pig is presented separated; squares of rich meat topped with a square of pancake and a larger, thin pork skin hat. It’s tough to tackle with chopsticks and keep together in a single bite.

Lung King Heen Goose ball

Sesame balls, unexpectedly filled with chunks of roast goose. Scallop dumplings have two whole scallops in them; spring rolls with sea whelk crispness on the outside and gooey interior with chunks of whelk that taste like the fresh sea. The pastry on the beef and morel dumplings tasted like unadulterated butter.

About ten dumplings in, the whole experience reminded me of Maytel from Gut Feeling’s assessment of Thomas Keller’s food:

I know that if I was to put an oyster with a big dolllop of caviar and cover it all in a butter sauce people would probably applaud me too

Top end dining seems to be caught in a self perpetuating cycle – you get lauded by Michelin, you ramp up the use of premium ingredients, you get lauded further. Lung King Heen’s use of luxury ingredients is still restrained and judicious amongst the dumpling menu but it could go awry very quickly.

Does Hong Kong need Michelin’s external validation? The locals already know that they’re onto a good thing and somehow quantifying that experience into a range of zero through three stars seems to do it a grand disservice. I’ve always found anonymous food reviewing somehow dishonest. We all bring our prejudices to the table and stating those prejudices brings out the best in critics; even if that prejudice is unadulterated dumpling love. I’m not looking forward to Michelin stepping south of the equator. We have our own laughable hat system.

Price: ~HK$400 a head
Location: Four Seasons Hotel, Fourth Floor, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong
Telephone. (852) 3196-8888

Parachute Foodblogging 2: Restoran Nasi Kandar KL

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is the perfect town for stopover eating: parachuting into town for the few hours between flights. I’ve done it once before but this time was a bit more of a nostalgia trip. For me, breakfast in KL is synonymous with nasi kandar; Malaysian Tamil Muslim food from a cheap restaurant, leaden curries matched with feather-light .

Restoran Nasi Kandar KL on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, just around the corner from Petaling Street is by no means the greatest nasi kandar in town, but it feels like my nasi kandar. The grime-streaked yellow facade seems unchanged and the Indian Malaysian guy at the front counter still seems overwhelmingly pleased to see me. It was just between the cheap backpacker joint where I spent the most of my time in Malaysia and Pasar Seni station. The obvious place to stop on the way to eat somewhere else every day. They do an excellent roti canai: the accompanying curry is passable but the roti is spot on: buttery, both fluffy and elastic. It’s some of the best eating in transit that can be done.

Just in case roti is not enough, there is a decent kopitiam across the road with the usual jumble of vendors: a roast meat guy, various noodle soups and fried noodles stands that encircle a coffee shop. I hit up the pork and rice just in preparation for Cambodia.

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Fatty rice but dry pork. I should have had that third roti.