12 must visit food places to taste Hong Kong's amazing past and present

Dai Pai Dongs are traditional food stalls by the street.
Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Towers of steamed bamboo baskets stacked up to the ceiling, as waiters shout orders across the packed room, over tables of strangers seated strangely close.

This is a typical image of the food scene in Hong Kong - where anything from silky congee to savoury roast goose line the locals' gastronomic dictionary.

But having a meal at a Hong Kong eatery goes beyond whetting a ravenous appetite; it means digging into a slice of history which frames the island's chequered past.

A TASTE OF HONG KONG'S PAST

Dai Pai Dongs

Photo: AFP

Like Singapore, Hong Kong was formally a British Crown Colony, which suffered massive losses during the Japanese Occupation. Even after Japan's surrender, the colonial government was faced with the mammoth task of cleaning up the island.

In 1945, they began dishing out ad hoc licenses to families of fallen civil servants. The idea was to create a sustainable internal economy and mitigate poverty.

Known as Dai Pai Dongs, or "big license stalls", these are small, open-air shops which typically serve cheap Cantonese fare like wok-fried noodles, rice and steaming bowls of congee.

They are essentially al frescoes of a Hong Kong flavour.

But in 1970s, Hong Kong started to clean up its streets - and with it, ended the era of flourishing street stalls.

Many of these establishments either moved into air-conditioned food centres or were re-acquired by the government.

Today only around 20 of these stalls remain. Here are two you must visit when in Hong Kong:

1. Sing Kee

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Sing Kee is a household name, and the face of old Hong Kong. It is tucked away in a narrow alley of Stanley Street, but obvious enough with a bustling crowd up to 20 tables.

Put away your Google Maps and follow the wok-heavy fragrance of stir fried tofu, hot pepper clams and salt and pepper pork - three of the eatery's signature dishes.

Address: 9-10 Stanley Street, Central, Hong Kong Island

2. Keung Kee

Keung Kee has a cosy space off Apliu Market which can accommodate around six tables. The je je chicken pot is a bestseller here at HK$88 (S$16) - its name, derived from the sizzling sound of broiled meat cooking in the clay pot.

Keung Kee also has a wide selection of fresh seafood, among which the fried oyster and crispy cuttlefish cake stand out.

Address: 219 Ki Lung Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

Walled-Village Food

Come Chinese New Year, restaurants in Singapore try to outdo each other in creating a unique pen cai or poon choi.

Known as big bowl feast, the dish comprises premium ingredients including abalone, sea cucumber and fish maw, layered and broiled in a clay pot.

But for all its richness, the dish originated from humble beginnings.

Towards the tail end of the Song Dynasty, Mongols invaded China, driving the emperor and his army down south to Hong Kong. Villagers then collected the best ingredients they could find, cooked them and sent the whole lot in large basins to the emperor and his troops.

The dish soon caught on with China's war refugees who settled the walled cities of New Territories. It is traditionally cooked, served and eaten communally during important village events and festivals.

Today the dish has evolved to include more expensive items, but the symbolic gesture of community ties still remain.

1. Man Lee Yuen Poon Choi

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Man Lee Yuen Poon Choi serves up a hearty pot of Chinese delicacies. Chunky cuts of roast duck, pork and chicken are layered with lighter meats like prawns and squids. The bowl also comes with deep fried taro and the popular Chinese radish which are buried beneath the meat pile to soak up the flavourful broth.

Address: G/F, 11 On Ning Road, Yuen Long, New Territories

2. Tai Wing Wah

While poon choi is commonly reserved for special occasions, villagers enjoy a simpler daily fare of park lard and rice on regular days. Tai Wing Wah is one restaurant which promotes fuss-free village cuisine. Started by celebrity chef Leung Man To, the establishment offers low cost but delicious items like dry fried shrimps with salted egg yolk, stir fried lotus root and steamed Ma Lai cake.

Reservations at the first store in the historic town of Yuen Long must be made at least two weeks in advance. To cope with the crowd, the management opened a second branch in Wan Chai.

Address: 2/F, Koon Wong Mansion, 2-6 On Ning Road, Yuen Long, New Territories

Other traditional options:

Lin Heung Tea House

Tea houses or 'cha chaan tengs' are an iconic feature of the Hong Kong food scene. Opened in 1926, Lin Heung Tea House is one of the oldest establishments of its kind in Hong Kong.

As with most traditional dim sum restaurants, customers place their orders when staff wheel their carts of dim sum around the diner. It's an intense experience, and customers often have to jostle with others just to get the dish they want.

Hot favourites include the steamed chicken wrapped with bean curd and steamed chicken and fish maw wrapped with Chinese yam.

Address: 162 Wellington Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Shun Kee Typhoon Shelter

Shun Kee is in a league of its own.

The floating restaurant is a relic of the 1970s, where Hong Kong's community of boat dwellers in Causeway bay Typhoon Shelter turned to the food and beverage industry to survive.

By the 1980s, most of these stalls moved ashore; only Shun Kee returned after the boom to ply the waters alone.

The restaurant is stretched over several wooden boats, fitted with dining tables and chairs. Limited capacity restricts eating time to 90 minutes - so there's little time for lengthy table conservations.

Headed by chef Leung Hoi, who spent his childhood learning the trade in his own family's boat restaurant, this quintessential diner is as authentic as it gets.

Unsurprisingly, seafood is the highlight here; with ingredients hauled fresh from the sea every morning. Bamboo clams with chopped scallions, garlic and vermicelli is a must-try here. Those missing Singaporean cuisine can tuck into Shun Kee's version of the chili crab.

Dim lights, an odd jumble of cheap furniture and an old-timer staff make Shun Kee a nostalgic getaway. It helps to tag along with a local if you don't speak Cantonese, as English is rarely spoken here.

Address: G/F, 104 Hing Fat Street, Tin Hau, Hong Kong Island

A TASTE OF HONG KONG'S PRESENT

Delectable food lives at the core of Hong Kong culture. From humble cha chan tengs to upmarket establishments, you'd be hard-pressed to find an eatery with terrible food.

So it was hardly surprising when the 2017 Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau placed Cantonese fare in the limelight; a third of those selected are restaurants serving local cuisine.

Michelin stars are hard to come by. And when they do, restaurants thrust into the spotlight are pressured to maintain standards lest they lose out on ratings in subsequent years.

Some of the must-visit Michelin establishments in Hong Kong are:

1. Lung King Heen

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Enter Lung King Heen, the first Chinese restaurant to make and retain to this day, a three-star Michelin rating since the guide was introduced in 2009.

Putting Hong Kong on the world map is no easy feat, and Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak, who helms the restaurant constantly holds his crew to high standards.

Epicureans are treated to a sumptuous spread on the menu, which includes 13 different versions of Bird's Nest - a Chinese delicacy. The Cantonese restaurant also offers interesting creations like steamed Foie Gras with Abalone Sauce for the more adventurous.

Address: 4/F, Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong Island

2. Yan Toh Heen

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Dim sum aside, Peking Duck has been at the forefront of Cantonese cuisine; even though the dish was originally conceived in the Imperial Kitchens of Beijing.

Yan Toh Heen, a two-starred Michelin restaurant does it best with its house style version served with unusual condiments like pear, yuzu and even pineapple.

The dessert menu is also highly regarded with their signature basil dragon pearl with ginger ice cream, a light finish to a heavy meal.

Address: InterContinental Hong Kong, 18 Salisbury Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong

3. Kam's Roast Goose

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

The young eatery first burst into the food scene in 2015 and was promptly awarded a 1-star Michelin rating within six months of its opening.

Unpretentious, cosy and affordable - Kam's Roast is a modern spin off from the famed Yung Kee Restaurant. Headed by the third generation of the family behind Yung Kee, Kam's Roast Goose delivers perfectly roasted goose and sucking pig.

Address: 226 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island

A TASTE OF HONG KONG FROM ABOVE

Victoria Peak and Dragon's Back are not the only places with stunning views of Hong Kong's city skyline. The cosmopolitan island is an urban jungle packed with towering skyscrapers - and with it, roof-top bars that open to breathtaking sights.

1. Sevva

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Executives, business bigwigs and the occasional celebrity can be found lounging here.

25 stories off the ground, Sevva combines European and Asian cuisines with a selection of bespoke cocktails.

The bar opens to a wide open-air terrace dotted with warm cosy night lights, perfect for those who want some respite from the city.

Address: 25/F, Prince's Bldg, 10 Chater Rd, Central, Hong Kong Island

2. ToTT's

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Come for the surf and turf grill menu in ToTT's, and stay for its balcony.

ToTT's is on the 34th floor of the Excelsior Hotel, and high enough for an unobstructed views of the city. Epicureans would also be pleased to know that 2-star Michelin restaurant Yee Tung Heen also resides in the same building.

The bar is famous for its Latin-inspired drinks like Sweet Pappy and Grapefruit Julep.

Address: 34/F, Excelsior Hotel, 281 Gloucester Rd, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island

3. Ozone

Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Billed as the world's highest bar, Ozone literally takes the glitzy and the glamorous to the next level.

Aside from a panoramic view of Kowloon and Hong Kong, the luxurious rooftop ball also serves up a range of desserts like creamy mango pudding and warm chocolate tartlet.

It also offers liquid poison with appropriate names like The Peak, 118 Gin Tonic and HK Skyline. If you didn't get the clue yet, Ozone is 118 stories off the ground.

Address: 118/F, The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, ICC, 1 Austin Rd W, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

For more information, please visit discoverhongkong.com

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