Twenty years ago, on my first visit to Hong Kong, my dad would go out every morning and buy each of us a soft, sweet bun for breakfast. Known as pineapple buns (bo lo baau in Cantonese) they contain no pineapple but are named for the way the sugary topping cracks on top. Two decades later, they, and the bakeries that sell them alongside egg tarts, pork floss pastries and wife cakes, are as ubiquitous as ever. That is why I love going back. Although the city looks as if it changes, its heart stays the same. I can wallow shamelessly in childhood nostalgia, and, at the same time, thrill at trying new things.
The nostalgia manifests itself firstly in the form of snacks. The freedom as an adult to buy as many of these as I like goes to my head a little. So salad flavour Pretz, chocolate Koalas, noodle crisps and Hi-C lemon tea (never Vita) are munched with gusto.
A trip to the football offers a chance to try fish balls and enjoy the luxury of being able to drink beer in the stand. Fish balls, a mixture of minced fish and flour, are highly processed, rather bouncy in texture and wholly delicious. They come smothered in curry sauce which puts them up there with a balti pie for football snacks.
One thing which always sounded disgusting to as a child and is actually delicious is red bean ice cream. I love red beans (sweetened azuki beans) in Japanese mochi and couldn’t see why they would be any the worse for freezing. And I was right. The woman behind the counter politely made sure I knew what flavour it was before I bought it but I quite happily demolished the lot (it doesn’t half leave bits between your teeth though).
Then there’s the American Peking. The name supposedly comes from an attempt in the fifties to tempt American sailors from the surrounding girlie bars. This old school, slightly westernised Chinese restaurant, tucked in the gaudiest bits of Wan Chai and staffed solely by men over eighty, is probably my favourite restaurant in the world for reasons that have more to do with sentiment than with food. The joys start in the form of appetisers, trying to pick up peanuts with your chopsticks, enjoying the spicy cucumber pickle and guzzling down hot tea (the kimchi is a new, but worthy, addition). Although we tried a few different things, enjoying a slightly too fatty duck and some very sizzling prawns, the highlight has to be the shredded chilli beef. Shards of sticky beef, studded with garlic and chilli slices are stuffed in sesame pastry pockets which you can never have enough of.
A slightly more authentic restaurant experience involved brunch at the Michelin starred Tim Ho Wan dim sum restaurant. Positioned at the end of a street in Sham Shui Po lined with shops selling Halloween decorations and scrap metal lock ups, this is not your typical Michelin starred joint. Wimping out of “Phoenix Talons”, we enjoyed their speciality cha siu baau (barbecue pork buns, baked instead of the more usual steamed) complete with sweet crunchy topping and glutinous rice dumpling, which was sticky rice steamed in a lotus leaf containing a deliciously savoury chicken filling and one dubious looking piece of sausage which turned out to be like Chinese black pudding and not too shoddy for it.
We also ordered siu mai (pork and prawn dumpling), chiu chow style dumplings stuffed with pork, chives and whole peanuts, prawn cheung fun and steamed beef balls with tofu skin. All this was washed down with strong pu-erh tea, a dark, fermented, tea, which is supposed to help with digestion and was strong enough to wake us all up. The whole lot came to a healthy $156 (about £12) for four of us.
A second treat took us to Lamma Island, starting at Yung Shue Wan and taking the non too strenuous family trail past power station beach and over the hill to Sok Kwu Wan, where in front of a fishing village complete with setting sun a seafood feast awaited us. Prawns fried in their shell with copious amounts of garlic covered fingers in their delicious juices and the sprinkles on top are rice crispies for grown ups. Clams with black bean and chilli were also incredibly moreish, and definitely a candidate for recreating at home. The finale was a snapper, simply steamed with spring onion and ginger. Happily swimming around moments before we ate him he was fresh, meaty and delicate. It’s bad luck to turn a fish over (it causes a boat to capsize) so eating requires removing the top fillet, then pulling out the bone to attack the bottom half. Perfection.
If you get sick of eating Cantonese food though, never fear. Other types of Chinese food are available. The night we got Sichuanese delivered from the Monogamous Restaurant (because you’ll never go anywhere else) was a case in point. Intensely garlicy green beans, shredded chicken deep fried with leeks and garlic so that it was dry and whispy, more sticky chilli beef and dan dan noodles straight to the door, this was a Chinese takeaway like no other. It even came in New York style boxes.
We also found some Shanghainese dumpling nestled in the depths of a shopping mall. Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings, contain a tasty pork meatball surrounded by hot soup. To eat you place the dumpling on a spoon with some black Chinese vinegar and slivers of ginger, pierce the dumpling with a chopstick to let the soup out and slurp it all up in a oner.
And then I went to McDonalds. And how. They’re rarely more than a ten minute walk away and provide hotcakes for breakfast, sundaes as a pick me up, coke floats and lunch for a treat at Ocean Park and chicken nuggets to absorb and offset expensive and very high up cocktails. And the only thing that could cheer me up on the way home was the fact I could buy a Sausage and Egg McMuffin at the airport at 9:30 at night.
Hong Kong seems to be sharing in my nostalgia. As new buildings appear and more land gets reclaimed, shops and adverts start to spring up, proclaiming the Old Hong Kong. The humble pineapple bun is being sold as a souvenir in soft toy and earring form. And all the better for it. As much as I love to eat things I’ve never eaten before, the first bite of fluffy bun and slurp of lemon tea is a comforting taste of the familiar that can’t be bettered.