Friday afternoon

First and foremost: credit where credit is due.  This excursion owes itself entirely to the exploits of the HK-China-South Korea food blogs TomEatsJenCooks and e*ting the world, whose respective authors – who, as I understand it, have paid their own homage to other HK food blogs, in particular Life as a Bon Vivant - took a trip to Sham Shui Po (深水埗) nine months ago in search of…well, food.  Good, honest, local food.

As such, this isn’t going to be as original a post as others have been, nor will it claim to be as informative – let alone authoritative – as, or maybe even different from, the others.  (You’ll even notice addresses here that have been conspicuously absent from previous posts, so savor this opportunity!) The most obvious reason is that the other journeys – even my own, in a way – have been well-documented (OpenRice in particular will attest to that), and their writers are very, very experienced when it comes to HK food – something for which I applaud them wholeheartedly.  But another reason (and one that I’m less proud of) is that…well, I haven’t eaten enough food lately.  Enough good food, that is.

All of that was enough for me to take the trip myself, to try and understand what makes something good…good.

And good lord, I think I found that out today.

1.  Lau Sum Kee (劉森記麵家) – 48 Kwelin Street (桂林街)

This is exactly the sort of place that I would’ve missed altogether on any other day, under any other set of circumstances.  Tucked away on Kwelin Street (桂林街), under looming awnings and (usually) a procession of parked cars, Lau Sum Kee Noodle (劉森記麵家) has just a single horizontal sign (no English) dangling above the street from a nondescript apartment building as its primary signifier.  And naturally, since it chooses to hang a sign, so too does virtually every other restaurant and business on the same street.

So when I get off the MTR at Sham Shui Po and find myself standing in front of the noodle shop less than five minutes later, I find myself double-checking the crude, hand-drawn street map I made for myself several hours earlier.  It was almost too easy getting here.

Lau Sum Kee can be said to have two claims to fame.  The more tangible one is its noodles with shrimp roe (蝦子撈麵) – and presumably, this is the one (or at least, one of a very select few) that does it right.  The second claim to fame is that it is one of the few remaining places in Hong Kong that makes and kneads its own dough (for said noodles) using a long bamboo pole.  If you’ve watched Anthony Bourdain’s HK episode of No Reservations, then you’ll know how elegant – but certainly also painstaking – such a process can be; if you haven’t, you can find a clip via the e*ting link above.

Before I go any further, though, I have a confession to make: I am not a fan of shrimp roe noodles.  (Or at least, I wasn’t – but more on that to follow.)  At home, this is something of an emergency dish – what the family eats when there’s only the packaged versions lying around, and when no one is particularly willing to cook or shop or order from elsewhere.  It’s perfectly obvious now, of course, that these noodles I’ve had at home are nothing – nothing – compared to freshly made ones (in HK, of all places), but the blandness that I’ve swallowed for twenty years’ time (ok, not that long) hadn’t done much to swing me in favor of trying the dish again.

Setting all that aside, though, I step inside.  It’s a little past 2 p.m. – the beginning of afternoon tea (下午茶) – but Lau Sum Kee’s already-cramped space and tables are nearly full.  I manage to take a seat and order shrimp roe noodles with beef brisket and tendon (蝦子牛腩牛筋撈麵).

Soon enough, it arrives – though I didn’t expect the noodles to arrive in soup.  Maybe I should’ve asked for just the dry version.  But no matter: I’m hungry and excited all the same.

And then I start digging in and – good lord!  This is unbelievable!  The noodles are tender – tender – tender – soft – delicate – smooth – and the roe – well, look, it’s everywhere! – on top of the noodles, on top of the brisket, on top of the tendon – but the brisket and the tendon!  So rich – tender – tender – salty (just a little too salty, which is better than salty and better than no salt at all) – and it’s all swimming in broth – but the broth too!  Rich, meaty but not meaty, a pseudo-golden brown that’s perfectly complemented by the vegetables – god, even the vegetables are just right too, spring onions and lettuces and Chinese broccoli and wow, wow, wow – this is good.  This is good.

If the excitement wasn’t enough to tell you, then I’ll just admit here that I’m clearly not a noodle expert, let alone a regular food writer.  But if there’s anything I’d like to pay tribute to, it’s that wonderful blend of simplicity and complexity, of the basic and the rich, of elegance and mastery.  This is, at its core, a simple dish – noodles, broth, beef and tendons, vegetables – but it’s the preparation, the knowledge that the cook standing behind the fire has invested time, effort, honesty, and perseverance to master something so simple and familiar and yet, exactly that – so simple; so familiar.

Somehow, at some point, I finish the bowl.  I’m getting giddy: in the past-present, in the present-present.  But I have other places to see, other things to try; so I pay and set off.

2.  Wai Kee Noodle Cafe (維記咖啡粉麵) – 62 & 66 Fuk Wing Street (福榮街)

It is, in its own way, the spitting image of Lau Sum Kee – another barely discernable, easy-to-miss noodle shop.  This one is a bit larger, though, and still packed.

Wai Kee’s main specialty is its pork liver noodle soup (豬潤麵), although (online) opinions and debates over the quality of this dish – or at least, how it’s done here, or even how it was done in the past – vacillate between amazing and terrible.  But having just downed a bowl of a different soup altogether, I decide on something different:

French toast.

Yes, that’s right – French toast.  A normal breakfast at home, though I have to say I’d prefer that for a week over seven dinners’ worth of store-packaged shrimp roe noodles.

But the nostalgia I’m stepping into actually isn’t quite mine alone – it’s also that of the locals.  Hong Kong-style French toast (which, by the way, is usually deep-fried) is something of a beloved breakfast and afternoon tea item, and I’m willing to bet it’s found its way into lunch and dinner as well.  A shared familiarity, and one I didn’t quite expect before I arrived here.  But if French toast is popular enough among HK residents, then why not give it a try myself?

That alone would be reason enough for me to eat it anywhere.  But here at Wai Kee, you have the option of ordering kaya French toast (咖央西多士) – a variation that incorporates kaya, a Malaysian/Singaporean spread made from coconut, egg yolk, and sugar (again, e*ting provides a better explanation), sandwiched between the slices of toast (if you can call it toast).  So I order that and a glass of cold milk tea.

The plate arrives.  It is, again, stunningly simple: deep-fried bread, egg, and this kaya spread that’s increasingly intriguing me.  Interestingly enough, they’ve given me a fork too – I can’t remember the last time I ate with a fork – so I start biting and sweet mother of what in the name is this wonderful thing an explosion of sugar and salt and grease and coconut and egg and bread and my goodness this is fantastic and painful but more fantastic less painful like well screw the similes and metaphors this is just bizarrely good and vaguely familiar but good and filling and I need to wash it down with something, anything – I choose the milk tea which actually isn’t too sweet but it’s useless against the toast this force of supernature - it doesn’t work.  But I am too immersed in the intensity of flavor to notice, too occupied with negotiating the sugar and the grease and the whatever you call this delightful monstrosity that really isn’t a monstrosity but who could expect that given its small compact square shape to anticipate the inevitable crash and burn that must follow every sugar rush.

It’s almost – almost – enough to make me order a bowl of the pig liver and noodle soup.  And yet that would certainly be too much for one sitting.  Besides, there’s still the small matter of dessert…

3.  Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong ( 公和荳品廠) – 118 Pei Ho Street (北河街)

I leave the description of Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (“Kung Wo Soybean Factory”) to e*ting, who writes it best:

[H]idden behind the semi-permanent street stalls, there’s no mistake that they sell all things soybean. At the front, on one side is a chaotic display of tofu in their wooden draining boards and baskets so full of beansprouts they look like they’re going to topple over and spill everywhere – but amazingly don’t. On the other side, a lady is squished into a corner to man (a ‘lady’ to ‘man’ something, sounds so weird) a large flat pan, where she’s frying little tiles of tofu filled with fish paste, or mini tofu puffs that have been deep-fried then hollowed out and also filled with fish paste.

And yet, I know for a fact that I’ve passed by here – that I actually contemplated stepping inside before deciding against it.  In fact, I realize that this was (or must have been) one of the places that my uncle and aunt recommended me to visit when they were here not too long ago.

But here I am again: to stay for a while, to sit in another cramped and not-so-sanitary-but-who-cares space, and to order something I know and like – tofu fa (豆腐花).

It’s hard to translate into appropriate terms (the literal meaning is “tofu flower” – hardly evocative and certainly off the mark), but the gist of this dish is that it’s coagulated tofu, with a very smooth texture and almost soup-like consistency.  Tofu fa is a popular Chinese dessert; syrup or sugar of some sort is always included, but locals also like to add yellow sugar to adjust the sweetness as necessary.

(Not that I’m looking for that extra sugar at this point in my day.)

I order a bowl of tofu fa (cold – you can also order a hot/warm bowl) and try it out.  It is as I expected, as I wanted it to be: a light, cool, refreshing bowl of delicately sweetened tofu.  I almost end up drinking the bowl – that’s how soft the tofu is, in its ambivalence between solid and liquid form (colloid it is not), how effortlessly the syrup mingles with the soybean water/milk to create a nice balance of flavor and texture.  And again, the simplicity of it all: a small bowl, a mixture of basic ingredients that these experts have no doubt churned out for years, for lifetimes, with nothing less than hard work and the desire to take a single thing – a soybean – and to embrace it, to perfect it, to make something of it, and to offer that something to everyone.

Simplicity.  When it comes to food, Sham Shui Po does it well.  Very well.