Kuala Lumpur became a sort of base camp during my Asian travels with this being my third trip. The first time was only for a few days between Vietnam and Bali (it was actually cheaper to book two separate tickets and stay overnight in KL than to have a layover). My friend Jun, who I know from Japan, lives in a suburb of KL, and while he had to go out of town the weekend I was there, he picked me up from the airport and delivered me to my hotel. I was standing in line for the ATM when I spotted him. It had been 13 years and he looked very much the same. We kept looking at each other, not believing so much time had passed. It was strange, but also totally comfortable.
My impression of the city was that of a big, air-conditioned mall with lots of American chain restaurants. McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, TGI Fridays, Fatburger, Chili’s and Tony Romas anchored shopping mall corners. I never saw Olive Garden, but I suspect one was hiding.
During my week between Bali and Singapore, I returned to Kuala Lumpur and stayed at Jun’s apartment, about an hour from the city center. He lives in an expat community comprised mostly of Japanese. The complex is comfortable with a pool, small market and even restaurants. My biggest assignment during this trip was to get my Chinese visa, which required three trips downtown. If I knew at the time how much trouble it would be to get my Indian visa, I wouldn’t have complained so much about China. Jun had a kitchen and I was dying to cook after nine months of deprivation, so I made steak fajitas one night with a corn and black bean salad and pico de gallo. It was so satisfying, especially since I was missing Mexican food like crazy.
We also took a day-trip to Malacca, a UNESCO world heritage city just under 100 miles from KL. It happened to be the King’s birthday so this weekend destination was even more packed than usual. The town is beautiful, though, with a main square and restaurants along the river, giving it a very European feel. And they have the most ridiculously adorned rickshaws I’ve ever seen! It was fun to get out of the city to see a different part of Malaysia.
On my final visit between India and Hong Kong, I decided to have a steroid epidural injection in my back. The nerve pain had been slowly acting up again to the point where I couldn’t walk for more than five minutes without wanting to sit again. That is not very conducive to traveling and I figured it would be cheaper to do it abroad than back home. I figured right: about 1/3 the cost. Jun was an angel, driving me to and from the hospital for my consultation and again for my procedure even though he had to work. And being able to recover at his apartment instead of a hotel was priceless. Unfortunately I didn’t do much besides rest during my time there, but that’s exactly what I needed to do, and I’m grateful to Jun for sharing his home. After just over a week, it was time to head off again.
Hotel rooms in Hong Kong are not cheap… and they are shoeboxes. The size part didn’t bother me, but the price did so I spent a lot of time searching. I finally found a room on Airbnb in Mong Kok that was “reasonable” at $55/night. It was neither an apartment nor a hotel. It was simply a collection of five rooms inside a tall building (which is redundant in Hong Kong because ALL the buildings are tall).
The airport is located about an hour outside the city on a man-made island- an engineering feat of genius, actually. So this is where I get to the “I hate buses” part. I’ve never had a successful bus trip within a foreign city and I avoid them to every extent possible. Long distance buses are a little better because they usually go from point A to point B with not many stops in between. Why do I hate them so? They are unclear. There is usually no indication which stop you’re approaching, and sometimes you have to push a button to signal you want to get off , otherwise they just blow right past. You really need to know the area, which newbie travelers do not. They are also subject to traffic so schedules are unreliable. Plus there’s the payment aspect. Is there a flat fee? Do you pay by distance? Do you pay when you get on the bus, or will some guy come find you? These all vary and there are no signs to guide you.
In contrast, I love trains to the bottom of my soul. They are everything buses are not: efficient, well-signed, and they ALWAYS stop at the designated locations. Ticket-buying is straightforward as well. Machines guide you through the process, and if you have any trouble, there’s usually a window with a person to help. There are very few variables that exist between metros in different cities, so if you can navigate one, you can quickly navigate them all. Even in Beijing where I thought there would be a problem with the Chinese writing, I had no difficulties (I probably have the Olympics to thank for that). Drop me in a train station anywhere in the world and I can find my way around. With a bus, if I board in Kolkata there’s a good chance I’ll end up in Kathmandu.
But what’s worse than riding a bus? Paying 10 times more for a cab. A cab ride to the city from the airport was about $50 whereas the bus was $5. I paused to consider. Hong Kong is a very modern city, I reasoned, so this was probably as good of a bus situation as I’d get. Plus there were directions from my room host about which bus to take and where to get off. Ok, I was going to brave it. Bus, I’m coming for you.
But of course the bus failed me even though I dared it to prove me wrong. The drop off point for my room didn’t actually exist. It was simply an “area”, not an actual stop, but I didn’t realize that until we were past where I needed to get off. I asked the driver about my stop and he pointed behind him. All was not lost, though, because I could get a cab from there and it would still be a lot cheaper. Unfortunately the address was not easy to find. The cab driver dropped me where he thought it should be and I spent the next 30 minutes walking around the same intersection trying to find the building. I asked no fewer than 10 shop workers where it was, showing them the address on my phone (in English and Chinese). “Across the street”, “down the road”, “on the right”, “on the left”, “over there”. I was going mad. I knew I was close, but no one could point me in the right direction. I eventually found it on a DIFFERENT street from the actual address. Yes, that would’ve been important information to have. I was starting to think it wasn’t the bus’s fault, but rather the Airbnb host who didn’t give clear directions.
At any rate, I arrived at my shoebox at 8pm and didn’t leave until the next morning when I walked across the street to McDonald’s. In a city known for its incredible food this was heresy, but you would’ve done the same thing after all that getting lost business. I needed to recalculate and start slowly… with a map. Unfortunately the travel gods aren’t very lenient, so I was suitably punished for my fast food choice. Instead of getting an Egg McMuffin, which is what I thought I ordered, I received an Egg Cheeseburger which is a hamburger bun, egg, cheese, ketchup and mayonnaise. Utterly disgusting.
The irony about getting so lost upon arrival is that Hong Kong is one of the easiest cities in the world to navigate. Their metro (MTR) train system is fantastic, taking you everywhere you need to go. And with an area smaller than Manhattan, you’re never far from a station. Are there great cultural sites in Hong Kong? Probably, but all I did for four days was eat. My days were spent researching restaurants, getting to restaurants and eating in restaurants. Oh wait, I also shopped. I managed to visit four different Uniqlo stores in four days- two intentionally and two by accident. Hong Kong also has a lot of malls and it’s easy to stumble inside without meaning to. Uniqlo is a clothing store I fell in love with in Japan, and is actually opening in LA this fall- woohoo! The clothes are basic and cheap; it’s like a Japanese Gap. En route to one of the malls, I got caught in a political march. Democracy for Hong Kong is a hot button issue, and this was a pro-Chinese rally in response to an anti-government rally a few months prior.
I also took the ferry from Hong Kong island to Kowloon at night to see the skyline, which I read was a must for all visitors. I felt like a tiny little ant, but it really was beautiful and worth seeing.
Ok, so let’s talk FOOD! Hong Kong is one of the great culinary cities of the world and I only had five days to sample everything I could. Dim sum is one of my top food loves, and here I was in its birthplace. My goal was to eat as many dumplings as possible while also trying other local specialties. With fewer than 15 meals to work with (and one sacrificed to Micky D’s), this was going to take some serious strategizing. I zig-zagged my way around TripAdvisor and Openrice.com, Hong Kong’s local restaurant guide, then skipped over to food blogs. Below were my eating highlights:
I ate at several dim sum restaurants, but the best was Tim Ho Wan, a small chain that holds the distinction of being the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Cheap and good- sold! Their barbecue pork buns were magical. They’re baked with a sprinkling of sugar on top, producing a sweet, crackling topping. Then you dig into the soft bread to reveal a richly sweet pork center. I’m a big fan of both steamed and baked bbq pork buns, but these were the best I’d ever had. I also ordered a steamed dumpling in chiu chow style which I wasn’t in love with, but thought I’d give it a try (even though I had no idea what “chiu chow style” meant).The steamed beef balls, however, were beyond expectation- moist, juicy and almost dissolved upon impact. The loosely ground meat was flecked with green onion and seasoned with… I don’t know what, but the flavor was perfectly balanced. I didn’t need three dishes but I wanted a sampling and the price couldn’t be beat: just over $6 to stuff my belly with gorgeous dim sum. In Hong Kong that’s a steal as it takes effort to find a meal for less than $10.
Roast goose is a specialty in Hong Kong, and I love me some dark meat with crispy skin! I opted for Sham Tseng Chan Kee based on reviews and location, an unassuming restaurant where the food trumps the atmosphere (usually a good indication of food value). I ordered their house special which was a combination of roast goose and pork belly. It wasn’t piping hot as evidenced by animals hanging in the window, but it did satisfy my sweet, salt, fat craving. The skin on the pork belly was actually too hard, which was disappointing, but the goose was perfectly cooked (no pun intended). The meat oozed with juice and the skin was crispy. On the side they served plum sauce to give an extra boost of sweetness. Delish. I would’ve liked to try another roasted goose restaurant to compare, but it just didn’t fit into my food schedule.
I first learned about these from Anthony Bourdain, my brother from another mother. Sadly it’s a dying art, so I figured I better get my hands on some before they’re gone forever. The noodles are handmade using a long, thick bamboo pole which the noodle maker straddles while bouncing up and down to gently yet firmly flatten the dough. From seeing it on “No Reservations”, it resembled one of those springy playground horses you ride, but apparently it’s not so fun for its male conductor and can cause some… er… physical problems. Perhaps this explains why the younger generation isn’t lining up to learn the craft.
Upon arrival at Wing Wah Bamboo Noodle Shop in Wan Chai, I was greeted by a man with perfect English. He proudly explained their noodle-making legacy as he pointed to yellowed newspaper clippings adorning the walls. Actually it was multiple copies of the same article. I asked him what I should order and he advised that the wanton noodle soup was the most popular. Done. I couldn’t wait to try these extra special noodles made by a man with, presumably, no offspring. Where most noodles are smooth and slippery, these had texture. They were more al dente and had a drier, chewier mouth feel; bouncy and springy almost. Hmmm, appropriate. I couldn’t decide if I liked them better than your standard noodle, and if it was worth the extra work, but it was definitely fun to try something different. The wantons were filled with shrimp and those were delicious- I think I liked those more than the noodles. And to top it off, each table offers a dish of sweet pickled daikon radish with small chilies to nosh on. I took a few, then a few more… then had to stop myself before I emptied it. It’s radish crack!
Noodles with Roasted Pork Neck and Cheese Sauce
Ok, maybe it’s not a Hong Kong delicacy, but I read about this dish on a food blog and I HAD to try it. I mean, how could that not be delicious? Cheese isn’t a big ingredient in Chinese cooking- or any Asian cuisine aside from paneer in Indian food- so I had to patronize a restaurant that was brave enough to go there. And of course cheese is one of my most favorite foods on the planet so it was a no-brainer. The restaurant was very small with a bunch of tables crammed inside, and it wasn’t as crowded as I’d expected (c’mon people, it’s CHEESE). The guy spoke English and asked if I was there for the pork and cheese noodles. “Of course,” I replied, and a few minutes later he produced what looked like a bowl of slop. Charred slices of barbecued pork rested on top of instant ramen noodles, then the whole thing was smothered in a white cheese sauce. A little parsley sprinkling could’ve helped this monochromatic dish, but then again, it wasn’t about pretty. Mixing the dish made it even less appealing to look at, but then I dug in. Omg. Yep, that’s amazing. It was salty, creamy, smoky, meaty, cheesy goodness. I felt my arteries clog as I emptied the bowl, but it was worth it for the party happening in my mouth. Such a simple idea, yet not something I would’ve thought of. It was actually quite different from macaroni and cheese with meat thrown on top. This was a whole different animal and therefore deserving of its own food category. Thank you, Sun Kee restaurant, for bastardizing a dish so much that the result was beautiful. I salute you. I worship you. I want to open a tribute shop.
To wrap up my food adventures, I have to share two amazing and delicious desserts. The first is the famous egg tart. These bite-sized treats can be found almost everywhere, from restaurants to corner bakeries. Get a warm one and it will be in your belly before you realize you just ate something. The crust is flaky and buttery while the warm custard is rich, yolky, sweet and just the right texture: firm, but not gelatinous. It’s perfect for a short break from strolling the streets.
Last, but certainly not least, is the most incredible mochi I’ve ever had. Mochi is traditionally a Japanese dessert made of pounded rice. After being bashed with a mallet the rice turns into a soft, sweet, sticky dough-like substance. I found a mochi stand inside a gourmet supermarket and decided to give it a try. Each soft rice cake was filled with something different: blueberry, mango, black sesame, strawberry, banana/chocolate, etc. The result? Absolute heaven. The flavors were distinct, but not overly sweet. Blueberry tasted like real blueberries and the pillowy mochi melted. I was so obsessed I went back and bought a box of six more.
Hong Kong was my final Asian destination before a pit stop in LA, en route to Latin America. It now rests comfortably as one of my favorite food cities in the world. But I can’t end things here. There are too many things to say about my time in Asia, so my next post will be a proper farewell to the continent I called home for 11 months. A love letter, if you will. I hope you’ll return for that one.