The official symbol of Hong Kong is the five-petal orchid bauhinia blakeana, but there's a persuasive case it should be changed to a basket of sui mai, the roe-topped pork and shrimp dumplings. Alternatively, you could argue in favour of the 800-metre covered escalator that not only holds the Guinness World Record title as world's longest, but is the saviour of anyone planning to slog through Central and hip Sheung Wan's sticky humidity in search of its best eats.
Ernest Hemingway was 9700 kilometres too far west when he proclaimed Paris a moveable feast. A week's dedicated eating and drinking in Hong Kong will barely put a chopstick dent in the surface of a staggeringly diverse food scene that brings to mind the fable of the blind men and the elephant, each of whom declared the animal to be something completely different.
Hong Kong's food scene is equal parts high-end Cantonese, where the carved carrot reigns supreme as king of all the garnishes, and cheap and cheerful dim sum in places designed to be hosed out at night's end. It's an epicentre for globally renowned chefs trotting out diffusion restaurants with gobsmackingly expensive food, and the home of the lunchtime congee served with as much ceremony as feeding time at the zoo. It's a hotbed of Michelin action – stars are sprinkled over the territory with gay abandon – and it's also the place you can find a $5 plate of crisp-skinned roast goose that will have you groping for superlatives while paying an extra 30 cents for the luxury of anorexically thin paper napkins.
As British expat Sam Olsen writes in Seeking East: "Food was the bedrock, the lynchpin, and the defining ingredient of Hong Kong's culture." He ends with impressive understatement: "Food is important."
In a place boasting one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the world – it's said there is one restaurant for every 600 people – yes, food is important. For the stomach-driven traveller, Hong Kong makes a convincing case for the maximum number of eating options crammed into the minimum amount of space. This glitzy island plus its Kowloon/New Territories handmaidens is a dare in food form: an extreme holiday where the only sporting equipment you need is a fully functioning credit card and – spoiler alert – a wardrobe on friendly terms with the elasticised waistband.
To avoid the culinary version of the bends, it's best to begin the Hong Kong gustatory immersion process gently. This means one thing: dumplings. Many roads lead to Tim Ho Wan (timhowan.com), which is no longer the underground darling of those in the know (as it was for about a nanosecond when it opened in 2009) but an international franchise with more than 20 outlets, including three in Australia. If you've been to the local versions there's little reason to subject yourself to two hours in the queue for exactly the same menu (like McDonalds, bleat the naysayers) but if you happen to wander past during a lull (generally between 3.16pm and 3.20pm every second Tuesday), and if you happen to have a pounding hangover from hitting the bars of Lan Kwai Fong the previous night – well, there are worse things you could do than get down with a round of barbecue pork buns and those delightful translucent garlic and spinach dumplings. Just saying.
Alternatively, the search for the dim sum holy grail could lead to One Dim Sum on the other side of Victoria Harbour in Mong Kok. Consider it a two birds, one stone proposition: the Star Ferry across to Kowloon is a bona fide tourist attraction in its own right, and the view back to the island's skyscrapers is unforgettable (head across at around 8pm to catch the light show). Like THW, One Dim Sum boasts a Michelin star, with the added cachet of a design that feels more like authentic Hong Kong rather than an IKEA cafeteria on holiday. The menu is similar, minus the sugar-dusted BBQ pork buns, and the dumplings themselves have fillings that are pleasingly more rough-hewn.
Hong Kong isn't a place that does things by halves, so you could always take the $30 a head you'd spend on busting a gut at either THW or ODS, and multiply it by a minimum of tenfold for a table at Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel (fourseasons.com/hongkong). This is gold-plated dim sum, in which a visitation of unicorns and rainbows might appear when the first round of lobster and scallop dumplings, topped with a fat king prawn, appear on the white linen-clad table, followed by the buttery genius of the baked abalone puff with diced chicken under a caramel-coloured, deeply savoury glaze that could inspire poetry. (Disclaimer: to enjoy these paroxysms it's necessary to book around three months in advance.)
One does not enjoy the dim sum dubbed the world's best while in an economising frame of mind. You're already in it up to your neck, so just say yes to the cheery sommelier when he appears with a trolley bristling with a dozen brands of Champagne on ice, like a smiling assassin. You won't remember the cost (well, not unless your mortgage is foreclosed), but you will certainly remember the experience.
Hong Kong excels in the kind of eats that can be classified as affordable luxuries. Look no further than congee, the boiled rice porridge that doubles as the Chinese answer to a broad-spectrum antibiotic. For a worthy example of the kind of proudly utilitarian outlet serving the most outstandingly textured congee (it ought to be cumulonimbus-light yet hale and hearty, like a food paradox), head to Sang Kee Congee in the lower part of Sheung Wan. Perched on tiny stools around communal tables in a cramped room that doubles as the kitchen. Congee is ladled from the steel vats bubbling within arms' reach; add anything from fish slices to fish intestine, with a whole heap of pork choices in between.
Yat Lok on Central's Stanley Street is the go-to joint for sublime roast goose (Michelin recently struck with its one-star rating, meaning this place that charges extra for napkins and water will be harder than ever to get into). Service doesn't come with a smile at this family-run joint but a plate of the goose with crisp salty skin and sweet plum sauce doesn't require any kind of window-dressing – and it's cheap.
Across the water again in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hing Kee (180 Nathan Road) is the go-to place for parochial seafood dishes such as the typhoon shelter crab (spicy stir-fried crab with enough garlic to ward off a vampire army) and steamed razor clams (ditto on the garlic). A splinter faction argues the typhoon crab at Under Bridge Spicy Crab in Causeway Bay is the best in the territory, but this nondescript place up a flight of stairs has plenty more going for it, including a roast duck noodle soup blessed with the kind of flavour that seems to wrap itself around time.
The hippest 'hood in all of Hong Kong is SoHo (that's south of Hollywood Road) in steep Sheung Wan, on the main island abutting Central. This is where you'll find the latest and greatest, including Ho Lee Fook (holeefook.com.hk), a funked-up basement where chef Jowett Yu (former Sydney's MsG's and Mr Wong) serves up the bastard child of prawn toast and Japanese pancake, as well as a mighty slow-cooked wagyu beef rib with jalapeno sauce that can only be tackled in tandem.
The same owners are behind the convivial Vietnamese-inspired Chom Chom (chomchom.hk) just up the street, with a welcoming bucket of iced beer at the door and a sprightly, herb-driven mod-Viet menu. Also worth checking out: Yardbird (yardbirdrestaurant.com), a jumping Japanese grill where things on sticks rise above their prosaic station.
Drinks? Hidden coyly along Staunton Street (number 9, to be exact) is Club Feather Boa. Behind thick drapes this former antiques shop boasts a fit-out that resembles Miss Haversham's living room, and serves what's reputed to be the best strawberry daiquiri in town. Also worthy on the drinks front is the Cafe Gray Bar on the 49th floor of Upper House Hotel (upperhouse.com), where the margaritas are top notch and the views down to Victoria Harbour are vertiginously wonderful.
When your stomach has had enough, head to the Graham Street wet markets, just off the mid-level escalator in Central, for a glimpse of old Hong Kong (a fleeting glimpse: word is they'll be relocated in the not too distant future). And when you're done browsing through the edible exotica of fungi, dried squid and shellfish squirming in shallow water, hit the legendary, family-run Kowloon Soy Co at 9 Graham Street (kowloonsoy.com) to stock up on fish sauce – either sheng chau (light) or lao chou (dark and sticky with added sugar), plus shrimp paste and black vinegar.
Aussie chef Neil Perry endorses it as a mile above the ersatz product found on Australian grocery shelves. For anyone who's a slave to the stomach, it's the best kind of holiday memento – and affable sales rep Manny Yan is happy to take down email addresses to forward recipes. But that's for later. For now, try to book a hotel with a gym, if only to feel more and more guilty as each day passes without putting on the trainers. Try to get a hotel without an all-inclusive breakfast buffet – why waste all that good stomach space on the bland Esperanto of food? And above all, take plenty of antacids. You'll be needing them.
The upscale Intercontinental Hotel (18 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui) is on the Kowloon waterfront, close to the Star Ferry terminal, and boasts incredible views across Victoria Harbour to the main island's bristling skyline. Rooms start from $HK1640 a night. See hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com
SEE + DO
The Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival brings more than 300 food and drink stalls and live entertainment nightly to the central harbourfront on October 27-30. See discoverhongkong.com. The Temple Street Night Market in Kowloon offers a vibrant mix of Chinese food stalls, fortune tellers and collectibles in a living testament to old Hong Kong. See temple-street-night-market.hk
Consider combining two time-honoured Hong Kong traditions – ferries and food – with a half-hour ride across the water to Lamma Island from either Central or Kowloon. A cluster of seafood restaurants including Lamma Rainbow, Tai Yuen Seafood and Lamma Hilton Shum Kee are directly on the beach at the fishing village of Sok Kwu Wan, only a minute's walk from the ferry pier. See the likes of lammarainbow.com
Larissa Dubecki travelled to Hong Kong at her own expense.