I am struggling with the food here. I don’t mean the restaurant food. In a city with 12,000 restaurants (according to the HK Tourism website), there is no shortage of interesting food of every imaginable kind. But neither my pocketbook nor my waistline will allow me to eat out all the time. I’m talking about the kind of food that the locals buy and the common groceries that you stock in your kitchen and cook for your family.
Let’s start with the fact that I don’t recognize a lot of the food. Is that a fruit or vegetable? What kind of greens are those? How do you peel those fruits and prepare those greens? And then there are countless little specialty shops where the packaging is all in Chinese, or where bins and bags are filled with things that are popular here but unrecognizable to me. There are lots of street shops selling dried fish, for example; I recognize shrimps and scallops but not much more, and I confess I wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway. The shop-keepers might speak a word or two of English but not much more. There are several small produce shops near where we live and I like those. I just point and gesture, and they show me the price on their calculators. They are always friendly, helpful and trustworthy on price and giving change. On most shopping trips, I try to pick up something new and experiment with it; so far I have lived to tell the tale.
And then there’s the meat and fish. Wet markets, which are a big part of Hong Kong life, sell fresh fish and meat, and the more alive the better. Live chickens, frogs, all types of sea life, chicken feet, pig’s knuckles and heads, intestines of all kinds … these are common here. The pork and beef in these markets hang out, literally, in streets filled with people and cars, in indoor markets or outside in the sun. I realize that this is totally normal in this part of the world. I, like most Canadians, am ignorant (wilfully so) when it comes to how my meat gets from farm to supermarket, so I admit that my Canadian sensitivities are getting a bit of a jolt in this regard.
Thankfully, the local grocery stores are not as intimidating. There of many of these, one on every block in our area, and they vary from large cornerstore-ish to regular grocery store size. Here I can find most everything: produce, dairy, packaged meat, frozen foods, ice cream (yay!) household goods, etc. Obviously, the main difference from Canada is the country of origin of produce, meat and fish. I admit that I am scouring labels to see what meat comes from China given recent news stories about some of the processing plants, but generally it’s pretty hard to avoid “made in China”. Reading packaging is a challenge because it is frequently all in Chinese. There might be an English word or two thrown in, and in some stores, shelf labels might give the product name in English. Actually, it can take me quite a long time to pick up a couple of bags of groceries.
Then there are the promotions that the local grocery stores offer. At one store, I’m given little stamps with each purchase; it’s not clear to me how that scheme is to progress. Another store gives me a coupon for a percentage off my next purchase. The qualifier on the coupon says “This coupon is not applicable to … bird’s nest and essence of chicken.” Good to know.
One of the many great things about Hong Kong is that everything we would normally buy in Canada can be found here amongst the many shops that cater to Western tastes. This comes at a price though. The price of Australian, Canadian and American meats, all nicely displayed with their flags of country of origin, is roughly 50% more than we would pay in Canada. The other day I shopped like an expat. I bought pasta, pasta sauce, olives, pesto, smoked French ham …. mmm, it was lovely. I estimate that my homemade pasta meal (without the ham) cost me about CAD$12. The next day I shopped like a local – chicken, greens and rice – and it cost me about CAD$4.
In addition to the shopping, there is also the challenge of cooking in the tiny kitchen of our serviced apartment, which is equipped with one 9-inch skillet and two pots. I am not buying more cooking utensils because I have lots coming from Canada. There is a good gas stovetop and a microwave but no oven. (Ovens are not common here but steaming is; I have little experience cooking that way.) I have about 12 square inches of counter space. Suffice it to say that cooking meals is currently quite a challenge.
Obviously, I need to take a cooking course, which I think will address some of the specific foods and their preparation. I’m also looking into guided food tours. In the meantime, thank goodness for all those restaurants!