Food (and Food and Food)
Hong Kong Food is everywhere in Hong Kong, and that's a good thing because it is all so good that you will attempt to eat your own weight in dim sum each day. That's hard to do, but well worth the effort. After that, try your first Peking Duck in all its courses, followed perhaps by some seafood, maybe with a McDonalds chaser for the kids.
Eating is a social affair in China, and Hong Kong makes the most of it. Try and schedule some time to eat, perhaps with a light breakfast followed by two gut busting meals spaced out over the day. Alternately, do away with the old-fashioned “meals” concept altogether and just nibble and snack your way around the city.
So what, I'm stuck with a belt that won't fit and am committed to vertical stripes?
The most three most important things to remember are:
- Most Chinese people adore kids, and we were and you will be welcomed most anywhere you choose the graze;
- We ate at all levels of the food chain, from street stalls to hotel buffets to McDonalds and never got sick and
- Food has no absolute value in Hong Kong. The same bowl of noodles may cost you US$10 at a hotel, $5 at a mid-priced family restaurant and maybe $1.50 at a hole-in-the wall, but is the same bowl of noodles.
Where to Eat
Everywhere you go you will be surrounded by restaurants of all shapes and price ranges. You need not over-plan meals; if you don't like the place in front of you, another is around the corner. Kid-like panic demands of "I'm hungry and I want food now!" are easily satiated in Hong Kong.
At the top of the pile are hotel restaurants. They are expensive, clean and have English menus and staff that speak English. In addition to the price of the meal, you will most certainly also pay a 10% service charge (but there is no tipping otherwise). You can get a fork if you want one, and the chopsticks are either quality disposable wooden ones or fancy chopsticks that are indeed rinsed off more than once a decade (I was going to make a pun with "decay-ed" but decided not to). The food is typically good and these places can be like islands of regularness if the kiddies or you have had just enough of new experiences for one day. Feel no shame in eating here; we're parents too and we understand.
Next in line are what we'll call "family restaurants." These are, again, everywhere. They usually have a neon sign in one language or another, maybe a window so you can see in from the street and at mealtimes, often a menu posted by the door. You are free to walk in and ask to see a menu as well. Prices are usually moderate and the places are clean enough. You will be more likely to find an English menu then staff that speak English. Some have a service charge, which should be listed on the menu. No tipping needed either way.
Lastly, or at least as far down the chain as we got, are the very small restaurants or stalls, with space for maybe a dozen eaters. These places usually have ducks and pigeons hanging skinned in the windows and often serve a limited number of dishes, usually noodles of some sort and rice with the bird meat on top. Prices are so low as to not really matter (we ate one bowl of noodles in such a place for- honest- US$1.50). Cleanliness is theoretical, or at least not visible, and there are often neither English menus nor staff that speak English. It is acceptable manners to point at something someone else is eating to signify "feed me that one, please" if communications outstrips curiosity. There is no service charge and no tipping.
The Main Course
What to eat? You'll recognize appetizers like fried egg rolls, little bits of spinach and similar goodies. You may also see chicken feet as an appetizer (yes we tried them and they tasted and felt a lot like eating chicken wings, though not automatically served as spicy).
Soups are also a nice move, with the famous shark fin soup (the price will suggest if a real shark was ever near your bowl or not). Entrees are usually grouped by primary item, such as chicken, beef or pork. Duck is very popular in any number of forms and makes a nice introduction into new foods for a reluctant eater, as it tastes sort of like chicken and looks like chicken. Hong Kong sits on the ocean and sea food is everywhere.
The well-known Peking Duck in its pure form is not an item but rather a challenge, as it begins with duck parts rolled in thin pancakes, often includes a re-visit to the pancakes with fried skin, has a duck soap course in there somewhere and if you are really down home, the duck's head will appear. A full course like this usually must be ordered ahead of time and can be expensive. However, many restaurants sell a part of the whole, say some meat with some pancakes, without you having to dive right into the deep end with the darn dead duck.
Want the whole experience? Read Your First Peking Duck for more details, and some photos.
Finally, remember that the old saying states that Chinese folks will eat anything with legs but the table. You may not be adventurous enough for duck tongue, sea slugs, chicken feet and the like, but menu reading can be quite entertaining just to see what new things you can discover that at least some people must enjoy eating.
As is universal, desserts and alcohol are often the most overpriced items on most menus. We found some dessert bargains with sweetened almond jello-like things and a very sweet, tasty milk-product thing that was kind of halfway between yogurt and smooth ice cream.
However, there is likely a 7-11 or other convenience store a few steps away from the restaurant and they have single-serve ice cream cones and other desserts in the freezer cabinet. McDonald's is also all about, and also sells ice cream at reasonable prices. For what it is worth, we felt the McD chocolate shakes tasted more chocolate-like in Hong Kong.
Keep an Eye Out
With kids, keep an eye out for the following:
- If your child has allergies, be very cautious. Language problems can make it hard to communicate what is and is not acceptable, and many times servers do not know exactly what is in a sauce or glaze. Peanuts form part of a lot of Chinese foods, and MSG is likely sprinkled in even more. Peanut oil is commonly used.
- Few places outside of big eateries and hotels have adequate hand washing facilities, so bring along so goopy hand cleaner and/or wipers.
- If your child is not comfortable with chopsticks, bring along your own fork and spoon. Not only will they be clean and familiar, but having them in your bag means you have a greater choice of restaurants.
- Tea is almost always served as you sit down. The pot is often very hot to the touch.
- Certain meals, usually with beef, are served on a "sizzling platter", a slab of iron literally cooked in the oven until it is hot enough to sear flesh. When it hits the table it is spitting hot fat. You might see some Chinese families nearby holding up napkins like shields when this dish arrives. Be careful.
- Duck and sometimes chicken served at the table in any form may have small bones or bone chips. Check carefully.
- Few places outside of the hotels will definitely have boaster seats. Bring something for the kid to sit on, or ask for help with phone books or other improvised solutions.
- Napkins may not be on your table. Ask, or bring among some paper towels.
- Things that are supposed to be spicy are usually very spicy. Only a few brave people have eaten a servings of red peppers used to spice up kung po chicken and lived outside of captivity afterwards.
Dim Sum is reason enough to go to Hong Kong. It is a wonderful thing: you go to a restaurant, and soon after sitting down trolleys laden with small wooden baskets are rolled by. Each basket holds some little treat, such as dumplings, shrimp, chicken feet or the like. In other places you order off a menu.
The trolleys have Chinese language signs explaining what's inside. You can gesture for the trolley pusher to stop, and then look inside each basket. Prices are usually posted, or you check the menu, but unless you are in some posh, swanky place, usually the costs are reasonable.
Dim Sum is thus made for your kids. They can see what they will be eating in advance, the portions (and prices) are small enough that a bad choice need not ruin the day, and if they find something they like, additional portions are readily available. As a bonus, most dim sum places have a core group of foods that they all serve, so a successful choice on Monday will work again at a different place on Friday.
A couple of things are common to most places, and represent an easy way in for kids. You'll see pork buns, half-globes about four inches across, filled with BBQ-like pork. Little shrimp dumplings, see-through skins, are typically not spicy. Egg dishes can be found.