I got to talking to a guy in the lineup for the Star Ferry on Kowloon peninsula, on a pleasantly warm winter day in Hong Kong. Turned out the guy was from Toronto. We chatted about the pros and cons of Hong Kong, and he said the most interesting thing: "Seeing Hong Kong, I finally understand Spadina."
He meant, of course, the food markets, and how they compare with those on Spadina Avenue, in Toronto's biggest Chinatown. These markets are my favourite aspect of Hong Kong, not simply for their crazy-quilt panoply of foods, but for what they explain about real Cantonese cooking. With due respect to the Chinese Canadians who are doing their level best to cook the food of their homeland in Canada, it can't ever be the same. Maybe not even close.
The fault doesn't lie in the quality of the cooks in Chinese kitchens in Canada, where the all-Chinese teams of cooks have both the background and the will to cook proper Chinese food.
The problem is the ingredients; and one need only visit Hong Kong to know it. I love the Chinese food stores of Toronto and Vancouver's several Chinatowns, but even a brief tour of a food market in Hong Kong reveals the sad truth: Ours are but a pale imitation.
In Hong Kong – the inspiration for Canada's Chinatowns – entire streets dedicate themselves to the sale of dried seafood and its concentrated flavours. There are stores that sell only live crabs. Butchers cut up whole pigs in open stalls. On vegetable stands peppers shine, spinach and cress are so fresh their spines stand tall, bok choy and a multiplicity of Chinese greens boast moisture beads on their leaves. Big fat knobs of ginger are so young their skin is pale yellow, their scent new. There are newborn fennel bulbs the size of a golf ball, and great glistening piles of star fruit, dragon fruit, longans and mangosteen – all fresh and in season in midwinter.
And there's the rub: A Canadian cook doesn't have such fresh ingredients. The cooked food looks pretty much the same as in Hong Kong, but at first bite you taste the difference.
It is most obvious at the fish stands in the markets. In the wet markets on Peel Street, row upon row of open foam boxes hold live (live!) fish and shellfish. Geoducks, razor clams, shrimp and clams, snails, spiny lobsters, flounder, grouper, pompano, scallops and more. A fishmonger hacks up a big grouper for a customer,and the fish's heart is still beating when the money changes hands.
The sea creatures on Peel Street arrive at the market in the morning from less than an hour away, are sold by midafternoon and eaten that night. In the restaurants, we recognize the familiar on the menu. The dishes sound the same, mostly look the same – but taste profoundly different. We dine one evening at Lung King Heen, the Cantonese restaurant in the Four Seasons Hong Kong. It is the first Chinese restaurant in the world to cop the coveted three Michelin stars. Here, as elsewhere, it's about fresh ingredients, fresher than imaginable back home. Fish and shellfish sparkle with flavour. They keep a small cage of live frogs in the kitchen, and the frogs come in daily. My crispy frog legs are spicy smoky, crispy crunchy and ineffably moist. There is even a difference in something as deceptively simple as sautéed pea greens with garlic, which we happily eat all the time at home. When we order the pea greens, our waiter smiles and says: "Good choice, the season is almost over and they won't be available." These pea greens, a seasonal ephemera, offer a fresher and more delicate taste than our sturdy available-all-year pea greens.Beef chunks go down like butter beside silken duck liver with spring onion and shards of bright-tasting young ginger. Garoupa (the Chinese spelling of grouper) is plain, steamed, fresh.
We found the same flavour tweaks at Yung Kee Restaurant, where three floors of dining rooms serve standard Cantonese fare. The deep-fried prawn with crab roe is fresh, and tastes sweeter and more complex than the frozen version often found in Canada. Sticky rice is tastier here too, but has bigger, juicier chunks of cured meat. Crispy chicken has a yellow layer of fat visible under the skin, making it unimaginably crisp and moist.
Dim sum at Maxim's Palace recalls a big dim sum parlour in Vancouver or Toronto. The dumplings look like they do at home. But here too the freshness of the ingredients changes everything. Chili eggplant is better because it uses fresh chilies, and the eggplant has more taste. Beef balls wrapped in bean curd taste better thanks to fabulously fresh young bamboo shoots and coriander. It's as if I'd only eaten these dishes in shades of grey – and suddenly they turned on the colour.
It's tempting to imagine such delights as only for the rich, but no. A stroll through Sheung Wan Market reveals three huge floors of the freshest possible fish, meat and vegetables. At midday, the place is mobbed with shoppers – by their plain clothing, anything but wealthy – pushing through crowded aisles to buy their daily groceries. On the fish floor, there is every imaginable fish and shellfish. On the meat floor, there are huge tongues, jawbones, goats' and pigs' heads and haunches.
The third floor is a cooked-food area the size of a football field with stands selling everything from whole live fish with chilies and ginger to long-stewed tender beef. Plastic stools line the cramped plastic tables, and there's not a Caucasian in the place. And the food? It's better than anything I've had in our snazziest white-tablecloth exemplars of Chinese cooking.
Ought we mourn that the realities of transport and time make our Chinese food less wonderful than theirs? Let's skip that step and instead go east. Hong Kong is a non-stop temple to Chinese gastronomy. Go worship.
Special to The Globe and Mail