The first time I joined a food tour, I was in Amsterdam. It was also my first time in Europe, and I wanted nothing more than to experience what food and specialties Amsterdam had to offer. At first I disliked the idea of going at it alone; I’m the type who loves to chat with someone when experiencing new things. I mean, isn’t that the point? To share? But I learned, of course, that if I want something (and no one else wants it more than I do), I should just go for it. So I did, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done alone. I socialized with new people, mostly Americans from Denver, ate local food like raw herring (cured in salt), stroopwafels, bitterballen, artisanal tea (in the prettiest café I’ve ever been to), double-fried french fries, and Dutch cheese. From then on, I vowed to sign up for another food tour whenever I get the chance (and blessing) to travel again.
Last June, I dragged my little sister Bea to join me in exploring Hong Kong. She was visiting from the US, and, to my surprise, she has become one of those stereotypes of a picky foreigner. She doesn’t care much for new food, doesn’t get excited at my pretentious efforts of a Bourdain-like meal, and does not know how to use chopsticks for crying out loud. In a way, it’s also pretty refreshing how ambivalent she is actually. But since I have become this pretentious little food person, I knew she would have a lot of time to practice her chopstick skills on this trip.
I booked our food tour via AirBnB. I love how prevalent it is now — way cheaper and more accessible than ever. I chose the most popular one called Gastro Hong Kong, a food tour by a young local couple who are, of course, passionate about food and travel. Reviews were raving.
On the day of the tour, Bea and I were the first ones to arrive at the waiting area right beside St. Edward station. Our tour guide was already there, too. I didn’t expect he would be this tall and cute. He towered over us (about 6 feet plus), like a lean and fit giant with a shy smile. His name was Ronald and, it turns out, he’s a famous Hong Kong football player. I knew I made the right choice.
After some pleasantries, Ronald told us we’d have two more companions but since they’d be a little late, we should start the tour now and wait for them at the first stop. With him leading the way, we found ourselves in what appears to be a very local dumpling shop. I’d say “very local” because the place was small, like a stall I would find in our very own Chinatown in Binondo, Manila. There were whiteboards on the walls with the menu all written in Chinese. Right before we could officially start, our tour companions — a German couple — finally joined us.
On our table was a spread of five dumpling varieties — a familiar, if not predictable, kickstart to our Hong Kong food tour. Three of them were fried and two were submerged in bowls of dumpling soup. Ronald gave us a brief description of these dumplings, how people from the north used pork meat as stuffing as it’s the most commonly available meat to them, and how this hot, savory meal kept the northern people warm during the cold season.
I wish I remembered all five varieties. For sure we had (1) minced pork with cabbage and dry fungus, (2) a vegetable dumpling, (3) shrimp dumpling, (4) another one filled with Chinese chives (if I’m not mistaken), and lastly (5) a dumpling with chili cheese (playfully referred to as the “American dumpling”).
Honestly, they all tasted the same to me. Delicious, yes! I can’t get enough of the silky, quivering texture of the dough cases and the savory meat fillings. I love dipping them in sweet and spicy sauce with fried garlic. These dumplings were thicker and meatier than the ones I’m used to back home. The lightly-salted broth of the soup dumpling was incredibly comforting in its simplicity.
For our second stop, we had to walk quite a bit. Like kindergarten students, Ronald was our teacher. Necks out, we were surveying the area as we walked past numerous shops selling pets, fish, and insects. Yes! My eyes were wide with discomfort as I see dark and writhing reptiles in big plastic pails and strange, ugly sea creatures inside clear aquariums. Bea was no better than me. I don’t think she enjoyed seeing pails of tadpoles right along the sidewalks. It could be weirder, I guess.
And there it was. I could already smell it. Right before we reached our second stop, I knew what we would be eating next. This unmistakable scent — ugh. It’s warm and obnoxious. There’s a reason it’s called “stinky” in the first place, like used socks after a whole day of trekking the mountains, freshly peeled from weary feet, and perhaps boiled and sprinkled with old vinegar and wet rat. It smelled like dirty wet clothes forced to dry faster. In Filipino, we call it — “kulob.”
And this “kulob” right here is called stinky tofu. I ate this once before in Taiwan. The narrow alleys of Jiufen were filled with the essence of stinky tofu coming stronger and stronger as you approach its nearest stall. The first time I had it, it was cooked in this big aluminum pot, deep and wide, like boiled corn back home. Cubes of tofu were swimming in this brown, murky sauce that smelled like death. It was so pungent you’d think it’s a deliberate joke to eat it with its broth, close encounters with the third kind, right in front of your face.
Fortunately in Hong Kong, stinky tofu comes dry. It’s already stuck in bamboo sticks, like Filipino fishball, and gone is the sauce. What I had in front of me was a sizable cube of marinated tofu, deep-fried, with sprinkles of hoisin sauce on top. You have no idea how thankful I was not to have the broth we had in Taiwan. This fried stinky tofu was more put together, more palatable it seemed. The more I ate it, the more it grew on me. It’s crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and funky all over. The strong fermented flavor was still there, all packed inside the fried tofu.
Bea and the German couple had a hard time keeping a straight face on. My eyes and my smile were unfolding a slow and forceful “I know” beneath them. As I have learned, stinky tofu is not a love-at-first-smell, nor taste, kind of food.
Our third stop featured a familiar and beloved street food — siomai and fishballs. These two are perhaps one of the most common snacks we have in the Philippines. In Manila, siomai and fishballs are mostly made of flour and artificial flavoring; in Hong Kong, I’d say the fish flavor is more pronounced, like there was actually fish in this fishball. Even the siomai felt tight and packed, not like the airy pre-packaged ones we have back home.
The barrage of savory dishes began to take its toll on me. My tastebuds were now craving for a sweet reprieve. Right on cue, Ronald took us to a small bakery. He disappeared for a bit and re-emerged with these huge pieces of fluffy bread called pineapple bun. These buns were voluminous, with a distinct rough and crusty exterior resembling that of a pineapple (apparently). No pineapples in this bun. But when I took a bite of it, I couldn’t care less if there were no pineapples or chocolates or heaven on this bread. It was so good. This bread was soft like marshmallow and creamy like sweet milk. With each bite, my teeth were making sculptures on the outskirts of the bread. It’s that soft.
For our fifth leg, Ronald ushered us into a traditional tea house. Finally, we were able to rest our legs, sit down, and enjoy cups of tea while we finished our buns. Now this tea house looked interesting. Red was its predominant color. In front of the store was a neon-lit sign board, in Cantonese I assumed, with two ladies preparing our tea inside this tiled kitchen island featuring two giant bulbs of what looked like bubbling tea. The place looked old and dated with round wooden tables and old-fashioned dragon prints tiled on its ceiling. It has a distinct character for sure, one that reminds me of an elderly aunt welcoming me to her warm and familiar home.
Bea and I both had the chrysanthemum tea with honey in cold and hot variants. I don’t know much about tea and I’m not a big drinker either. However, I was incredibly pleased to drink this tea out of small bowls with no handles. The lack of handle means I have to “cup” these tea with both hands. This act alone made me smile. It felt cozy. The chrysanthemum tea was dark brown in color; it looked and tasted strong. The floral notes were not lost on me too, as were the slight sweetness of the honey. Though I preferred the hot tea over the cold one, both paired well with the pineapple bun. I see old ladies around me silently enjoying their tea. It looked like a solitary ritual, one I wouldn’t mind having in my daily life to be honest.
Our next stops tackled a little bit of two taste spectrums — bland and adventurous. Fish skin siomai goes to the bland category while a concoction of cold meat cuts constituted the weird side. This fish skin version was forgettable, like they could have served it with regular flour or pork siomai, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Would I eat it again? Sure, especially as a filler for when I know I’m about to eat something good. We call it in Filipino — “laman tiyan.”
As for the cold cuts, it’s definitely a story. First of all, Ronald introduced this particular stop as one where the late Anthony Bourdain (my hero, our hero — of course, yes) ate while shooting one of his No Reservations episode. It’s in the midst of bustling Mongkok, a busy kiosk called Fei Jei, and they serve these cold cuts of octopus, sausage, and pork dipped in hoisin sauce and spicy mustard. I have never seen such a colorful plate of street food looking so unappetizing. When I took a timid bite of it, choosing the sausage first, I was surprised that it was cold. Like way to make this more challenging.
cold meat cuts
The dipping sauce of spicy mustard further irritated my senses. It tasted exactly like wasabi, only this time it’s yellow not green. The hoisin sauce was sweet, grainy, and boring. The combination was neither good nor bad. At the back of my mind, I thought about what Tony would say. He would probably like this — slimy and strange as it was. After a few obligatory bites, a whole lot was left on the plate. We were ready for our next stop.
We walked yet again on the busy alleys of Mongkok. As late afternoon set in, more and more people were swarming in the stores, on the crossroads, rubbing elbow to elbow as we pass more shops than I could keep up. Ronald stopped momentarily in what looked like our Greenhills and Divisoria back home, a huge shopping area where numerous bargain stalls stood side by side each other selling clothes, shoes, bags, souvenirs, trinkets, and stuff you’d never thought of having.
Apparently we were now in Ladies Market, that famous night market in Hong Kong where bargain hunters, both local and tourists alike, flock. Ronald let us in on a few secret tips (which we later witnessed in action, appalled at how uncanny Ronald described it). If you shop here, it’s an unspoken rule to always always bargain and walk away. That’s what he said, “bargain and walk away.” His eyes filled with mirth, he continued, “The farther you walk, the lower the price.” At that time, I thought he was full of shit. Turns out, I truly did not know what I was thinking. The farther I walked indeed, the lower — and I mean lowest — the price got down. With a few more steps I think my sister and I could have gotten these things for free.
All I can remember were throngs of people, street lights dancing color to color, the buzz of a city filled with so much life it made me feel small in a good way. Ronald disappeared yet again, this time he informed us that this was a surprise dish. I was game for anything though I was already wondering and guessing, with great anxiety, what kind of strange slimy stuff would be up his sleeves this time.
When he reappeared, he had with him these elongated, espasol-white pastries that looked they were dipped in chalk or flour. He each gave us a piece, and on the count of three, we would altogether eat this delicacy. I could feel it quivering in my hand, like a woman’s breast it looked fragile and mysterious.
On three, I broke its luscious exterior with my teeth, revealing a mango filling inside. The texture alone made me so happy — soft, jiggly, sticky like tikoy, the sweet mango filling slipped right into my tongue, while its powder coating left unattractive remnants on my lips. Between smiles, it looked like I’ve been feeding Johnson’s baby powder. When Bea saw my marred lips, she was laughing in between bites, confused whether to join me in our orgasmic discovery of these mango mochi balls or point out how stupid I looked. Of course she did the latter. Nonetheless, mochi and I had a great first meeting. This was my favorite dish by far.
As we walked to our final stop, our conversations have turned into curious queries on the current political climate. We passed by several stores that featured news on TV, somewhere in Hong Kong, thousands were protesting against the impending extradition bill. Ronald told us the country was divided, but most of them are wary of possible abuse of power once this extradition bill gets approved. We were oblivious this entire time as the protests were most likely happening in the country’s central business district. Here we were absentmindedly enjoying a food tour while half of the town was up in arms for what appeared to be pivotal changes within China’s independent states.
I remember Tony Bourdain’s thoughts when asked if food could solve the world’s problems. He bluntly said no, with a caveat that food, with its universal and communal appeal, could start conversations. Maybe that’s the start we need or maybe I was trying to ease my mind with my preoccupations vis-a-vis what’s happening with the rest of Hong Kong at that moment.
For our final stop, we found ourselves in front of a colorful egg waffle stand. What could be a more quintessential Hong Kong treat than good old egg waffle. Though this was not necessarily a first for me, I would never say no to a sweet treat. Ronald emphasized that this is, in fact, the best egg waffle in town. Regardless if this claim was true or not, all I had was this specimen in front of me. On the outside, this egg waffle looked just like any other — light brown, huge, with big egg-like ridges resembling that of a bubble wrap. True enough these big egg bubble wraps weren’t hollow by any means. Each bite I could taste sweet eggs and milk, oozing with so much warmth I feel like this could be the perfect cure for light to medium PMS.
Before Ronald walked us to our respective train stations, he gave us these cute thank-you cards filled with beautiful illustrations of all the food we ate. It was such a thoughtful gesture, as if we could easily forget this memorable food tour. We bid goodbye to the Germans and Ronald walked us to our train stop.
Finally Bea and I were alone again, ready to talk at length about our experience using our own dialect. Our instant reactions were warped in English attempts, very formal exhortations on my end. For Bea, that’s already her mother tongue now too, but for me I was ready to comment blow by blow in Bisaya. I was prepared to hear my sister’s usual lukewarm sentiments about food, so I was caught off guard when she said thank you, telling me in earnest that it was probably one of the most authentic eating experiences she’s ever had.