I recently took a much needed break from Beijing and blogging and headed to Hong Kong. Oh, how I missed good Cantonese food.
Upon my arrival in the hot and muggy city my uncle gave me two suggestions for food.
“Do you want to go to a nice air-conditioned dim sum parlor, or an outdoor dai pai dong where we’ll sit on hard plastic stools and be insanely sweaty and uncomfortable?” Given that I had just been through an ordeal that involved missing my overnight train, buying an over-priced same-day plane ticket to Guangzhou, bussing to Zhongshan to see my parents for a night, then bussing 4 hours to Hong Kong, I decided to postpone roughing it to another day.
The next night, after two long showers and lots of sleep, I was ready for some cheap outdoor grub. The term dai pai dong in Hong Kong refers to open-air food stalls (though it’s easy nowadays to find indoor ones). Diners sit at folding tables on cheap plastic stools, eat from cheap plastic plates and bowls, and enjoy no break from the ever-present humidity in Hong Kong. That said, the food is often delicious, the atmosphere quite rowdy and social, and most importantly for my uncle, smoking is still allowed.
The number of official dai pai dongs have dwindled in recent years, because of government health concerns and original owners being unable to transfer licenses to offspring. But Hong Kongers are a nostalgic bunch, and so far have been able to keep the few remaining dai pai dongs in business with fervent patronage.
Sham Shui Po is a neighborhood in Kowloon far off the tourist path. On Shek Kip Mei Street there are still a couple original dai pai dongs whose kitchens are located on the street, en plein air. The food is a bit pricey, but that’s because the restaurant also has indoor, climate-controlled seating which we shunned in favor of “atmosphere.” And because of the mostly seafood choices, which I did not mind. We ordered a cold spicy stir-fried squid dish to start. And then a plate of hong sum choi (water spinach) with fermented tofu. And finished with a plate of the most sublime soft-shell crab I had ever tasted.
If I knew the secret to locking in such tender, juicy crab meat while creating an exterior that is still crispy after 40 minutes of languorous eating, I would open a crab shack on some popular seashore and make a killer profit. Alas, I don’t, so I must stick to blogging about this decadent dish rather than cooking it for others to enjoy firsthand. Did I mention the sprinkling of sea salt atop the crab? Divine.
It was so divine, in fact, that I hardly noticed the mugginess, until I retreated to the rest room and saw my beady forehead in the mirror. Culinary euphoria does a great job of disguising discomfort.