“What were you most excited about when you got to Hong Kong?” Most people who hear about my spring break are curious about my answer to this question. In the midst of midterms week, the second question that everyone asked each other after the obligatory “How are you and how are your midterms going?” was “What are you doing for spring break?” Rather than discussing problem sets, exams, or papers, thinking about the prospect of vacation was a wonderful respite.
What excited me most about Hong Kong and kept me going during a hectic midterms week was the food. After weeks of eating in the dining halls or grabbing snacks from late meal, I was looking forward to eating real Asian food for the first time since January. One of Hong Kong’s most famous attractions is its variety of eateries and snacks. Dim sum, bubble waffles, boba tea... the offerings are endless.
Through Whitman College’s Morningside Residential College Exchange, four other Whitman students and I spent a week experiencing and learning about the culture and sights of Hong Kong. Five students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who were living in Morningside College, took turns showing us around the city for the entire week.
Each day, we were exposed to different foods. On our first full day in Hong Kong, we treated ourselves to strawberry shaved ice in Mongkok, one of Hong Kong’s major shopping areas Mongkok itself was a treat; the streets were lined with small shops and stalls selling cheap bags, branded sneakers, and electronics.
The strawberry shaved ice was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. The consistency was far creamier than Rita’s Italian Ice, and the whole treat felt like eating a cloud. According to one of the Morningside students, this is a popular dessert that had been imported from South Korea, a major cultural exporter in East Asia.
On the morning of the second day, we ate dim sum for breakfast at a restaurant in New Town Plaza. Coincidentally, every single restaurant recommendation that students and locals had pointed us to was located in New Town Plaza. I was a little bemused by this until we actually got there.
New Town Plaza was enormous. Covering 200,000 square meters (49.4 acres), the Plaza is the largest shopping mall in the New Territories of Hong Kong. The scale is practically unparalleled in the United States, where the concept of taking a bus to different sites within a mall is unheard of.
Since one of the Morningside students was an avid food reviewer, he ordered enough food to have each plate on the table pressed up against another. We tried pineapple buns, octopus rice, fried wontons, egg and spinach dumplings, shumai, and so much more. After breakfast, we somehow mustered up enough money and appetite left to buy cream puffs and other desserts as we walked through the mall.
As we reached Lantau Island in the afternoon, we somehow ended up in a restaurant again. Tired from the walking and the long bus ride, we sat in a small local shop where the owners only spoke Cantonese, and ordered some afternoon tea (dianxin).
An obsession with sai do si began there. Sai do si, which directly translates to “Western toast,” is basically a peanut butter toast sandwich with butter and syrup poured over it. Since I’m allergic to peanuts, I steered clear of this particular snack, but everyone else from Whitman who tried it was enchanted after a bite.
In Central on the third day, after nearly freezing in the rain and missing out on breakfast, we finally ended up at a small shop for lunch. After a cheap meal of chicken and dried ramen, we ended up at Emack & Bolio’s, a small ice cream parlor with the most Instagrammable ice cream cones I had ever seen. Each of the sugar cones was crusted with a selection of Rice Krispies, Froot Loops, and Cocoa Puffs cereal.
To make up for the lack of food in the morning, we ended up feasting by Causeway Bay at night. Since Causeway Bay is a popular shopping area, its rent for retail stores was ranked as the world’s most expensive for the second year in a row, after overtaking New York’s Fifth Avenue in 2012. One of the Morningside students took us around the area that evening and generously paid for dinner and snacks.
After weeks of seeing news on Facebook about Ichiran Ramen opening in New York, I finally got a chance to try Ichiran in Hong Kong. Ichiran is a renowned Japanese ramen store which specializes in tonkotsu (pork-based broth) ramen and requires no interaction with waiters. We each sat down at a booth and ordered our ramen on a small piece of paper. Within ten minutes, we were eating what we agreed was probably the best ramen that any of us had ever had.
After wandering around Causeway Bay, looking through stationery shops and luxury shopping malls, we ended up drinking some bubble tea and trying some street food.
On the morning of the fourth day, continuing the trend of feasting, we ate a breakfast that turned into a brunch of traditional Hong Kong breakfast dishes. We tried fried dough (you tiao), sesame buns, congee, and fried noodles. The congee, which is rice porridge with meat and vegetables mixed in for taste, paired well with heavy fried foods like the noodles.
Unfortunately, all of the meals we had after that morning didn’t go quite as well. In between our brunch and dinner on Thursday, a few of us succumbed to food poisoning. As it turned out, almost everyone who had the cheap chicken and ramen in Central got sick on Thursday night. I ended up at the hospital for a few hours, getting more up close and personal with health care in Hong Kong than I had expected.
Thankfully, after a few brief hours getting hospital treatment for dehydration and a few hours of sleep, I felt totally fine on the last day to enjoy the city. Even the uncomfortable experience of food poisoning added to the unforgettable nature of the trip, which was probably one of the best trips that I’ve had in my life. Even as we departed and left our new friends from Morningside to return to the United States, we were excited to see them again in the fall, when they would be visiting us to get a tour of Princeton and New York City.
All in all, Hong Kong’s food offerings blended Western and Asian influences more than I had expected. In five short days, I had the chance to experience tidbits of Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese cuisine, while also having a hamburger and Hong Kong-style breakfast in between. American ice cream and hamburgers were always around the corner, but right next door, there probably was a small locally run shop offering shumai or sai do si.
Must eats: dim sum (shumai, pineapple buns), congee paired with fried dough, Korean-style strawberry shaved ice.
Avoid: chicken and dried ramen that might give you food poisoning.