I love dim sum, the small Cantonese dishes of bite-sized dumplings, buns, and squid. The dim sum places around where I live are generally authentic, the cart-pushing servers fluent not only in Cantonese but Mandarin, Shanghainese, and various other dialects. Some even speak Vietnamese given the location not far from that biggest immigrant enclave on the east coast. But none of this was adequate preparation for my first trip to Hong Kong.
It seems like a past life, almost 15 years ago. My first long trip out of the country and I found myself spending time in Hanoi, Beijing, Guangdong, and of course, Hong Kong. Talk about culture shock. Overall the trip went wonderfully. I learned so much and, in Hong Kong, got to experience both the British-influenced (i.e., westernized) and the traditional (i.e., no tourists anywhere to be seen) sides of the city. It was an eye opener.
One of the highlights was joining my Hong Kong-born friend for dinner with her extended family in the traditional part of town. A ferry, a trolley bus, then a winding walk eventually brought us into a tiny alley never before seen by anyone that looked like me. I knew this because everyone stared at me like I had just landed from another planet. Perhaps they weren’t so wrong in that judgment. In any case, we climbed some narrow stairs to the second floor of a small restaurant, to be greeted by a congested room filled with three large round tables. My friend’s family took up two of the tables, about 10 or 12 aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents, and assorted other relations squeezed around each one. The noise from the constant chatter didn’t seem to bother the third table, itself filled with a mirror image of personnel eagerly mimicking the decibel level from our group.
And then the food came. There was some dim sum, but mostly larger dishes of entire fish, various meats, myriads of vegetables, and a virtual field of rice. Dish after dish after dish was loaded onto the huge circular turntable that comprised most of the surface in front of us. I soon learned that you had to be quick grabbing your share from the plates as everyone fended for themselves. Being adept with your chopsticks was a necessity as the plate you were serving from would often continue on its orbit before you got a second chance. My plate filled, and refilled, and refilled again.
There were so many dishes it is hard to narrow them down for discussion. Almost universally I gorged myself on each plate whether I knew what it was or not. Usually I asked for an ID from my friend (no one else spoke English), but on a few occasions she would tell me “try it first to see if you like it,” or more ominously, “you don’t want to know.” I reveled in the dumplings filled with shrimp or pork or spinach. They went down smoothly and deliciously. The fish, succulent and still staring at the crowd, was dreamy. Being originally from New England, the lobster was a rare familiar sight, though even here the presentation style is chopped up by the cleaver-wielding chef rather than whole as on the coast of Maine. With all the other food available, the ease and speed of extraction was as welcomed as the lobster was tasty.
At some point it appears the gathered group of relatives became comfortable enough with my non-native speaking presence to begin a game of trying to gross me out. Granted, they didn’t admit this was the game (at least in any words translated to me), but this goal became readily apparent as I watched them ask the waiters to bring more and more exotic dishes.
So on came the duck tongues. If you picture a ducks bill but remove the outer hard part you have a good idea of what duck tongue looks like, complete with the former quacking implement and its associated tendons. For those who have had beef tongue, this has more or less the same texture (though perhaps tastes a little more like chicken). It was delicious.
Out next came the jellyfish. In my first job I studied the jellyfish of Chesapeake Bay and have a thing for the jellyfish displays at aquariums, so seeing this mass of jellied stringiness on a plate was an interesting psychological experience. Jellied textures are low on my desirable list for foods, but the saltiness gave the otherwise taste-deprived strips enough flavor to actually be enjoyable. In fact, I liked it. I really liked it. This, no doubt, caused the carefully watching crowd some consternation.
Next out were the chicken feet. Try to imagine the last time you saw a live chicken strutting around the local farm or zoo. Put bluntly, chicken feet have zero edible meat (though I later found that the webbing of duck feet provide a more substantive snack). Still, I chewed and sucked and gnawed what little cartilage and skin held the tiny bones together and spat out the hard parts. Violating physics, my discard plate seemed to have more in it than the original serving plate. In the end I liked the taste, but wouldn’t bother eating them in the future because the caloric intake is more than offset by the calories spent trying to extract it.
There were many more dishes, all of which I found tasty, even the ones they refused to identify. But the one dish that I didn’t particularly like was the one most standard – rice. Here I’m not talking about the white rice that was served in constantly-replaced heaping bowls of steaming starch. I’m not talking about the fried rice, or even the sticky rice that glued several dishes together. The one rice dish that I failed to prefer was congee. A staple in most Asian countries, congee is basically porridge. To me, there is a reason another name for porridge is “gruel.” Sticky rice is boiled in water for ages to ensure the rice completely breaks down into a gummy slurry. This overpreparation produces a texture that I find altogether unappealing. I’ll eat it when needed (it was served as breakfast on my 35-hour trip from the states to Vietnam) but if I have other choices I will joyfully take them.
The meal seemed to go on forever. I know we arrived around 6 pm and didn’t leave until after 11 pm, the food and beer flowing as if this was our last day on Earth. Apparently my “eat everything they throw at me” strategy was successful because everyone was all smiles and bows by the time we finished our chrysanthemum tea. The next day was mostly spent recovering, though after watching a never-ending game that took all day, I still don’t understand the basic rules of mahjong.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.