Living in Hong Kong, I get exposed to a melting pot of culture. Many of them have their own noodles.
There are many things about a bowl of noodles I find philosophical. Each culture’s bowl is representative of their cultural identity. Screw ambassadors for culture like pandas or white dolphins. The way to the heart is through the stomach, and to the best of my knowledge, we don’t eat pandas. So I figure I’d start talking about noodles. Fear not, this is my life blog – not a food blog, but food is such an essential part of life in Hong Kong that I can’t really avoid talking about it.
So where to start? Locally.
I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to call my grandmother a defining influence in my life. As a small child in Hong Kong, she was the one who took care of me and made sure I stayed out of trouble. Living with two working parents and a firm belief that the Hong Kong parenting practice of hiring Filipino maids was a waste of time and money meant that I grew up next to my grandmother. And my grandmother’s territory was the kitchen.
I’ve mentioned my grandmother before – I can’t really talk about my view on food culture without mentioning the place she comes from. Her story is a harrowing one. Known for her beauty and cooking skills, she was betrothed to a rich man, someone who owned acres of land and had dominion over entire houses of servants. Then the Communist Revolution happened. Both she and her husband fled to Hong Kong, destitute and devoid of everything they had owned as the state consolidated its power and burned down the old order in its pursuit of equality. My grandfather, having come from money and having no practical skills or actual work experience, eventually settled into work as a coolie – a Asian term we don’t really use anymore because it’s essentially one step up from slave on the fun “related terms” word association ladder. He stepped up and remained cheerful despite this, riding around Hong Kong on a rusty bicycle all day and night and delivering stock to the flourishing restaurant trade for pennies.
He had only been doing this a short while when he was struck dead with acute pancreatitis, leaving my grandmother alone in Hong Kong with four kids to feed, the eldest of whom was only just turning twelve (my father) and one of whom was still in her belly. The only money she had left was $3000 HKD (about $400 in American legal tender) that my grandfather had saved through frugality and sweat.
My grandmother is a diminutive woman. She is maybe a little over five feet two inches. Given the situation at the time – a few months pregnant and with three wailing children in the house – she could have taken the easy way out and tried to remarry, even if it meant that her kids would forever be illegitimate bastards and the family line would be written out of existence. Fortunately, that’s not how my grandmother rolls.
She took every dollar of the $3000 she had, bought a noodle cart, and took to getting up at four in the morning every day to procure and stew ingredients for Hong Kong’s most well-known local foods. Noodles.
Of course, there’s some shit in there about how my dad essentially had to shoulder the responsibility for all his younger siblings and became the most responsible and stubborn person I have ever met in my entire life as a result, but that’s another story entirely.
It says a lot about the quality of my grandmother’s food that the noodle cart put all her kids through school. I can only imagine the scene. The noise of a city waking up, the rattle of the cart delivering steaming, fragrant chunks of beef brisket and buttery pieces of tripe over noodles. She’d start selling from the cart at six in the morning and be sold out of everything shortly before noon.
She got so successful that she was able to rent a store. She once related the story of a businessman who had become such a fan of her noodles that he offered to front a large amount of cash for her to franchise and set up chain stores across Hong Kong. But by then her kids were all through college and she saw no need to continue the business. Running a store really is backbreaking work, from the early mornings to the late nights. She worked some more as a line chef in one of the chain fast food restaurants (Maxim’s) that were springing up around Hong Kong to service both office and factory workers.
Suffice to say my grandmother makes amazing beef noodles, and I judge every bowl on her standard. Few measure up.
Most bowls of noodles sold locally in Hong Kong are of the潮州variety – Teochew in whitey. Originating from Guangdong/Canton, Teochew cuisine emphasizes fresh ingredients, and uncomplicated, simple cuisine made well. Their noodles demonstrate this to a T, and are my go-to option for a hot bowl of comfort.
The soup is a delicate, clear yet meaty master stock made with pork bone, chicken, and occasionally dried squid for subtle depths of flavor. Some stores are known for their stock, and allegedly use the same base for years at a time. Customers can pick their own ingredients from a wide variety of what’s on offer, such as the deliciously springy beef, pork, or squid meatballs, slices of fried fish cake, stewed offal, fish-skin dumplings… the list goes on. A comparatively recent trend has been to stuff the meatballs with additional ingredients, so upon cooking in the soup they’re a delectable surprise for anyone biting down.
The noodles themselves are either yellow egg noodles – the same type of those commonly served in small wonton bowls – or thin rice noodles (vermicelli), although of course have diversified into the flat variety so favored in bowls of Vietnamese pho and the cylindrical, thicker Yunnan mixian “rice lines”. I tend to prefer vermicelli. As anyone knows, the more surface area the better when it comes to noodles in broth, although you can never go wrong with flat noodles that hold broth with surface tension.
To finish, the aromatics are added, sprinkled atop the bowl or more commonly served in a plastic soup spoon resting carefully above the surface of the broth. Not one of the following elements should be missing – garlic and shallots fried into golden crumbs, diced spring onion and fresh cilantro.
I usually order the beef brisket with my noodles. Beef brisket in Hong Kong, when served atop a bowl of the aforementioned noodles, is an absolute treasure. It’s usually stewed with the rest of the offal in a rich, meaty broth flavored with fermented bean paste, soy, ginger, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. It doesn’t taste of beef so much as it screams COW at you in giant neon letters, and when done properly, the brisket falls apart in your mouth with little effort. The brisket juices also add a little extra depth to the soup.
The other, rarer (and usually more expensive) variety is known as chintang – clear soup brisket. It consists of beef stewed for even longer periods of time in a clear broth with turnips. It’s worth it.
So the perfect local bowl is a combination of all these elements. When everything is brought together in harmony, it’s a feast for the senses. The aromatics are swirled into the soup; the garlic releases its flavor. A sip of the soup.
And then we break out the chili oil.
Teochew chili oil is a goddamn amazing concoction, and every noodle store in Hong Kong worth its salt has some to hand, usually in a little metal pot at tableside. Some have even taking to bottling their fiery product for customers to buy and use at home. Dark as sin and black as death, it consists of large quantities of garlic, shallots, and chillies fried in oil until almost black. The oil turns a rich, vibrant orange, and is served along with the flaming black residue. Being all kinds of smart, you know never to use too much of the stuff to spare your lips and tongue, even if it smells like the greatest thing ever made.
Despite the ready access to bowls of these noodles all over Hong Kong, it really is rare to find one that checks all the boxes. The broth has to be just right, they can’t be stingy with the cilantro, and the amount of noodles has to be at the proper ratio. The assorted ingredients must all be of the freshest and best quality, with the greatest picks usually coming from stores that make their own meatballs in-house. Still, I consider a good noodle joint to have gotten two out of three (broth, toppings, noodles) right. My standards continue to be quite high.
Although the one nobody can argue about is the price. The price of a bowl has stayed comparatively low even as the Hong Kong economy’s growth and subsequent inflation can be measured in weeks. Just a decade ago you could get a good bowl for around $18 HKD (a little under $3 American dingdongs), and include a drink. Now it regularly reaches twice that amount.
Hong Kong is a city of change. People and businesses come and go in a space of minutes, not hours, and the city hums along like one extremely efficient machine that purges itself every night to renew itself in the morning. As someone who was a semipermanent resident for much of my school life, I’ve felt like someone left behind in time every time I return to what I think of as “my” city. Roads are different. Buildings are different. Culture is different. The people are different. At least I can still go out on the street, find a place within about ten to fifteen minutes and get myself a fucking good bowl of noodles.
My grandmother (now ninety years old) still does on occasion make really damn good beef brisket from scratch. Then it’s party time at home, with the entire extended family of 19 showing up. There are never any leftovers.