Part I of II
Grease slathered ducks hanging in windows, all crooked at the neck and burnt-out beaks, and the ‘stinky tofu’ – the local term for the pungent soy bean tofu sold by the bucket load from street stalls – the smell surrounds you, knocks the air from you, it is to me revolting… but now I know when I approach those stalls to hold my breath and quick step-past the queue.
What is obvious to me now that I have eaten with locals, in dingy little restaurants and their own houses, is that a dish, or style of food, can represent a blessing or a well wish, to sit and eat is to be in company, to be invited into a home to eat is an honour. Food is culture.
Dim Sum 點心
Traditionally from Guangdong (southernmost China) and Hong Kong, the quintessentially Chinese bamboo steamers are filled to the brim with steamed delights. Washed down with free flow Chinese tea, locally, going for dim sum is also known as yum cha: to eat and to drink. The characters have a literal meaning – when placed together grammatically – of “touching the heart.”
There are many other foods considered lucky, or a blessing, and hold a particular meaning. Especially in light of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, the ‘reunion meal’ –held on New Years Eve and is considered to be one of the most important occasions of the year, often bringing generations of family back together in their hometowns. Not dissimilar to the gargantuan Christmas dinner we’re used to.
Sweet Ginger Soup was given to me recently as the final course of a traditional Chinese dinner. Sweet syrup from brown sugar and ginger with glutinous dumplings filled with black sesame paste, the host said, “for you to leave my house with good blessing.”
Fish Ball 魚蛋
The Fish Ball is typical Hong Kong street food; the white rubbery balls of fish paste in every vendors stall, plain or with curry sauce, served skewered onto thin sticks or in bowls of noodle soup. (As you may see people chomping on a Gregg’s Sausage roll: a poor and only semi-fitting comparison…) But it is not for their taste they’re mentioned but for what they have come to represent. Though it may be a tangible link, the nooks and crannies these stalls inhabit are swarmed with customers nattering away, they represent the street hawker community: the lifeline of the cities street culture, which is at present in danger.
Not just an act of filling a hole, eating for hunger. A communal intention to be satisfied and enjoy food, something that is left behind with lunch to-go and TV dinners – of which many of us are guilty.
[On a slightly less thoughtful note: you’ve never quite experienced a pot noodle until you’ve had an Imperial Big Meal Beef Noodle Bowl…honest]
Next: The Fish Ball Riots & Hong Kong’s Street Hawkers.