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Of Hong Kong and Food Basics

My flight left Toronto around 1:30 a.m. and despite the fact that I am a died-in-the-wool morning person I couldn’t contain my excitement.  I was headed to Hong Kong where a 12-hour layover would introduce me to a city I’ve longed to visit for decades. Victoria Mountain. Hong Kong Harbour. Chinese characters. Shopping!

This was my first introduction to Asia, and I could barely sleep as the plane bored its way through the night sky. Eventually, we enjoyed a perfect landing at Hong Kong International Airport and, tired as I was, I was in desperate need of breakfast. With visions of a couple of easy-overs and a strip or two of bacon, I joined the lineup at what I took to be a Burger King.

It wasn’t. But I made a brilliant effort to consume a cold egg served sunny side up in a bed of soy-sauced ramen noodles, some fried chicken, a wiener and a fat slice of ham. This was a lot to take in visually in my sleep-deprived state, and my appetite faded somewhat as I swallowed the unexpectedly sweet milky coffee I had accidentally commanded. I reminded myself that airport food is never a great introduction to a country’s cuisine. Lunch would be better.

I am a keen traveller and in the past decade or so I’ve come to see myself as being unusually open to new places and new experiences. There was a time in my life when I felt chained to the kitchen and the laundry room—five children can have that effect on a person—and, with a young family, there was rarely enough money for my husband and I to do much travelling. What made it even harder to get away was the fact that he hated flying. “What’s wrong with staying home?” he would ask.

I had earned my private pilot’s license when I was younger, thrilling to the thrumming of the airplane’s engine and the endless opportunity an open sky represented. As a young adult, I had enjoyed wonderful excursions throughout Europe and the British Isles. Motherhood had been a new turn of the wheel, however, and I had had to find a way to adapt to being an adventuress buckled into a devoted mother’s body. I was choosing this life, I often reminded myself.

And so, when the kids were young, I decided to encourage adventure at the dinner table by making new meals to stretch everyone’s culinary boundaries. For a while, if the food didn’t resemble chicken nuggets or spaghetti, my efforts would be met by a chorus of complaints. How could people not want to try something new, I wondered? Were these kids ever going to be able to eat out in a proper restaurant? And what was with the complaining? They should be glad to have any food at all! Often, I would fume about their lack of flexibility, and scrape the filet of sole or couscous salad into the composter. What a waste of food! What picky eaters!  “For Heaven’s sake can’t you guys just try something NEW for a change?!”  I would screech.

Those days were long gone now, and here I was rattling around inside the Hong Kong Airport. My husband had passed away, my kids had matured, and I had been thrust into the undefined reality of a widowed mom. It was time to get on with life and life, for me, meant travelling. I could visit new places, try new food, unlimit my limitations. After years of grief, I could embrace the idea that life could be thrilling! I checked my luggage, grabbed a cab and headed to Victoria Peak.

For a North American used to western ways, Hong Kong was a mesmerizing immersion in sensory overload. Everything was different – the language, the street signs, the architecture the smells…I didn’t want to miss a single dollop of the experience. At Victoria Peak I drank in the stupendous view of the Harbour and points beyond, revelling in the chance to recover in the bright sunshine after my 15-hour flight.

I stopped in at a little restaurant and checked the lunch menu, delighted to see that wonton soup was listed. Breakfast had been a little unusual and I had picked at it a bit, hiding my disappointment by pretending the flight had pushed me out of my comfort zone. Perhaps I just needed something familiar to settle my tummy and bring me back into full-on Adventure Mode.  Feeling like one of those icky tourists who wants everything to be just like it is at home, I resisted the urge to order something unusual just to prove I was actually quite worldly; the won ton soup was duly delivered.

I stared at the enormous bowl in front of me for a while before picking up my spoon. Halton Dragon must have a different recipe, I mused. I was pretty sure it didn’t usually come with pieces of unidentifiable organic matter floating in it, nor did it normally smell like over-ripe fish. I launched in and did my best, suddenly frightened at the prospect that I’d become what I had always dreaded: an unadventurous, picky eater! There was a time in my life when I would have eaten almost anything, anywhere. Now, here I was in Hong Kong, for pity’s sake, and I was whinging about the food.

“Snap out of it!” I muttered to myself.

My next stop was the Mong Kok area. With a population density of 130,000 people per km2 it’s known as the busiest district in the world. My interest lay in the massive number of markets in the area and I began to cheerfully troll for whatever delights might strike my fancy.

My fancy proved to be quite strikable, as it turned out.

After four hours of shopping I had collected three silk bathrobes, 10 sets of chop sticks, two brass statues, three small leather-bound notebooks, four t-shirts, a pair of jade earrings, a gorgeous jade necklace and a huge respect for people who do this more than once a year. The prices were incredible, and I was thrilled to get an early start on my Christmas shopping. But I was exhausted and starting to feel it was time to head back to the airport to clear security for my flight to Kathmandu.

I was also hungry, and it had not escaped my attention earlier in the day that the Regal Restaurant in the Hong Kong Airport appeared to offer a calm refuge from the bustle of the outside world.

Duly seated with a welcome glass of red wine in hand, I ventured a glance at the menu. While I was grateful for the English translations, my stomach shrank as I read what was on offer:

  • Boiled pig’s lung with almond cream
  • Braised fish’s head soup with barbecued pork and conpoy (what was conpoy?)
  • Fried sliced eel with osmanthus sauce (osmanthus?)
  • Shark’s bone broth with unnan ham and fish (unnan?)
  • Steamed chicken with lily fern and fungus in lotus leaves (fungus?)
  • Pan friend lotus root pancake with preserved fish (better)
  • Roasted crispy goose (I could do this)
  • Wok fried diced chicken with cashew nuts in chili sauce (yessssss!!!).

It had been a long couple of days and my meal arrived, looking reasonably well aligned with a North American version of what Chinese food “should” be. I reflected on how set I had become in my eating preferences. I think of myself as someone who loves new environments. I enjoy exploring and I take pleasure in surprises. I embrace cultural and ethnic differences and I welcome linguistic diversity. But sitting at that table in the Hong Kong International Airport, I realized my palate had become sedate.

It was a stunning thought and as I sat there and enjoyed my meal, it occurred to me that my complaints about my children all those years earlier might have been somewhat unfair. Maybe it’s OK to have food preferences. Maybe the comfort available on a plate is an important part of being able to charge out into the world and navigate the unfamiliar, the unexpected, the unexplained. Life in a foreign city could be overwhelming. Maybe kids feel the same way about the relatively new world they are forced to navigate every day. Everything in a neighbourhood is old hat to an adult. For kids, it’s all uncharted territory. There is no map to schoolyard happiness, no guidebook that will explain how to get to academic success. That must be exhausting work. How much had I forgotten, I wondered, over the long path from my public-school years to today? My kids had been doing their best, just as I was doing my best to find my way through Hong Kong.  Seen in that light, their preference for chicken nuggets was completely understandable. How could I have missed that?

The meal was delicious, and I enjoyed every morsel. It wasn’t exactly the meal I would have been served in downtown Toronto or even in London, England. But it approximated what I defined as a good dinner and I was grateful for a new understanding of the place of food in my life. Things were going to be OK. I wasn’t going to starve on this trip, and I might even return home having stretched my culinary bandwidth back to where it had once been, long ago.

With a brand-new insight and a belly full of wok fried chicken and cashew nuts, I was ready for more.

I paid my bill and headed for my next flight. “Bring it on, Asia!” I thought stoutly.

Bring it on.

Susan Crossman is a writer living in Oakville, Ontario.

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