“Which did you prefer?” our guide asked us as our dishes were noisily cleared away, “the snake meat soup, or the snake bone broth?”. Not a question I ever expected to be asked.
Welcome boys and girls, to Hong Kong Foodie Tours.
We’re not strangers to food tours in Asia, nor to unconventional dishes. So much so that the aforementioned snake represents, I believe, merely the third species of reptile to appear on my dinner plate this year. Nonetheless, we are eternally in the market for something new and on this occasion, the Tai Po Market tour piqued our interest with a unique view of Hong Kong’s traditional food.
Hong Kong is famed worldwide for it’s incredible diversity in cuisine, from street-side noodle shacks offering hot and tasty nourishment for the cost of a bus ticket, all the way up to Michelin starred palaces serving up Asian and Western dishes at prices so eye-watering that the Sultan of Brunei would be likely to cast a worried glance at his wallet before consulting the dessert menu.
The Tai Po Market Tour is neither of these things. The focus here is on the traditional. Not the glamorous, not the deliberately obscure, and certainly not the heavily Western-influenced meals that rule the roost in the city centre. This is the ordinary every-day Hong Kong traditional food, as eaten by the ordinary every-day working class Hong Kong people.
But please don’t misinterpret what is meant here by the word ‘ordinary’. Many things encountered on the tour would be considered ‘ordinary meals’ by the locals, but in fact will be thoroughly exotic to anyone raised outside of the city limits. And here the advantages of an organised tour make themselves known, the operators have worked hard to find not only which establishment makes each dish the best, but also to ensure support for independent and family-run businesses over chains and recognised brands.
And this down-to-earth theme carries over in to the area of the city in which the tour takes place. This isn’t the Hong Kong you’ll see in the tourist brochures, this is Tai Po, a market and residential district 40 minutes by metro from the city centre and very rarely frequented by tourists. So no, you won’t have a view of the harbour as you tuck in, but then, when you’ve a steaming bowl of roast goose with plum sauce laid out before you, who cares what’s on the other side of the window?
On to the matter at hand then. The food.
The first stop on our tour brought us to a rice and noodle restaurant, an eatery where, we are told their speciality Clay Pot Rice often causes queues around the block at serving time. But we were here for their other speciality; Rice Rolls. These rice rolls resemble the sort of Chinese spring rolls that we’re used to in the west, but rather than crispy, are actually encased in a soft rice pancake, and a variety fillings were available to choose from. Miss Marie-Carmen opted for the pork liver, and I the barbecued pork. Largely because I suffer from a rare psychological disorder which renders me unable to read or hear additional menu options once the word ‘barbecued’ has been encountered.
Tangy, moist, and all-round an excellent starter to kick off the evenings adventure in gluttony. Marie later pronounced the pork liver rice rolls one of the best things she tasted that night. And judging by the haste with which she consumed them, therefore preventing me from sampling for myself, I’d agree. They were probably delicious.
The restaurant also has an open kitchen, and as each item is made to order (rather than being pre-prepared) you’ll get plenty of chance to watch as your chosen rolls take shape.
Onward to site number two. A barbecue restaurant. (Mwahahahaha!!!)
God I love goose. Back home it’s a rare treat that usually only makes it to the table at Christmas time, but it’s this restaurant’s stock in trade. Slow-cooked, barbecued goose. Some of my favourite words right there.
The restaurant is a family run affair that has been a local institution for decades. From the outside it has the appearance of a butchers shop, the window display consisting entirely of hanging meat. So it was a little unexpected to stroll inside and find an elaborate marine aquarium (normally the preserve of more up-market places) occupying one wall.
The barbecued goose is served on-the-bone in a soup or broth, with a small dish of plum sauce on the side. It’s cooked to perfection. I normally prefer meat boneless, especially poultry, but I’m very much in the minority here in China. On this occasion though, I perhaps started to see the error of my ways. Meat cooked on the bone has a deeper flavour, and I’ll concede that sometimes that’s worth the messier eating (-no knife and fork, obviously).
Hotspot number three was in the heart of the titular ‘market’ itself. Not a restaurant this time but a Macau-style biscuit and sweet stall. The most impressive thing about this little place is the variety of treats on offer. Well over a hundred types of cookie and sweets jostle for position on the small surface area, all handcrafted by the husband and wife duo who also operate the shop. Cooking by night and selling by day, god knows when they get time for sleep.
At the time we visited, the shop was brimmed full of customers (that’s a good quality assurance right there) so there was little time or space to explore all that was on offer, but we were each handed a bag containing a small selection. Ginger candy, peanut candy and pumpkin seed cookies. All good in their own way but it was the pumpkin seed cookies that really take the biscuit (quality gag there, Bob). I’ve never thought of using pumpkin seeds as the main ingredient in confectioneries before, but after sampling these little nuggets of deliciousness, I’ll be attempting to duplicate them myself come Halloween time.
Stopover number four was the snake soup shop, where this article began. And I don’t doubt that a few of our readers have scrolled ahead to this point just for the verdict on this most unusual of meals but also Hong Kong’s traditional food.
And here it is: It’s not bad.
Okay, so you’re looking for more than that. We were presented with two bowls each, one of a soup or stew (they say soup, I say stew) made with snake meat, and the other a broth made from boiled snake bones.
First the stew. The meat has a texture similar to dark chicken meat, and a taste that’s certainly not unpleasant, but a little more fishy than I generally like anything but fish to be. The meal comes with a side dish of lemon leaves which can be added, according to preference, to neutralise the fishy taste. I added some to test this, and it clearly works, but then it was just like eating a stew made with chicken leg meat. Again I’ll say, it’s not unpleasant, it’s actually quite tasty, certainly warming on a cold winters day, and I did polish off the whole bowl after all. It was just somehow a little less exciting than I’d expected a bowl of snake to be.
The snake bone broth on the other hand, was excellent. A real cold weather fortifier. The Chinese claim all manner of health benefits for this concoction, I’m dubious of these claims but I’d definitely order it again. Rich and hot with a real meaty flavour (odd considering there’s no actual meat in it. How do vegetarians feel about bones?). The closest thing I can think of is Bovril, that very British snowy-day panacea. Yup, snake bone broth is like Bovril. Only better.
Also worth noting that if you show up when the owner is in, he’ll apparently happily take the live snakes (which are stored in boxes along the restaurant’s rear wall) out to show you. Heck of a photo opportunity. Alas, he’d just left when we arrived, and the other staff members are evidently too frightened to handle them.
Number five. A fish feast! This time, a large and popular seafood restaurant in the market complex. We were treated to fresh crab, deep-fried squid, and a steamed mullet in black bean sauce. Hong Kong really knows how to do seafood. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves on this one but yes, it’s just as good as it looks.
Food stop number six and ending, as we must, with dessert. Home territory this time for Miss Marie-Carmen. Today, even more so than usual, as the planned menu included Sesame Soup. Not that she’d ever tried it, but rather because the soup is frequently referenced in numerous films made by her favourite director (Wong Kar Wai if you’re interested – from Hong Kong) and is Hong Kong’s traditional food. Cue much excitement and discussion of whether the reality of sesame soup would live up to the romanticised image of it that she’s garnered from these films over the years.
Top tip – Don’t meet your heroes.
In the event, it wasn’t what she’d hoped for. No reflection on the restaurant by the way, which is excellent, and goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure the quality and freshness of the product, even going to the effort of making their own sesame, walnut and almond powder. No, the problem basically was, she expected sesame soup to be sweet, and it isn’t. It’s good, in fact, it’s very good, but it’s not sweet. Never mind, we were also served almond soup, which was indeed sweet and which more than compensated for any disappointment. I guess you don’t lose those Western taste buds after all!
Would we recommend this tour?
Yes. Though it does depend what you’re looking for. If you want to see Hong Kong in all it’s glory, and sample all of the delightful food that the city is best known for, this tour isn’t for you. Likewise, if the word ‘snake’ has led you to believe this is a tour of all of the weird and deeply unusual food that the far east has to offer then again, sorry to disappoint but this is not the tour for you either.
If, on the other hand you want to try ‘real’ Hong Kong food, as eaten by the denizens of the area since time immemorial, if you want to take a stroll around a bustling part of the city that rarely sees the spotlight of international tourism, and if, you’re not the type to turn your nose up at something a little unusual, then yes. This is the tour for you. This is the tour for anyone who really loves food.
Where is it located ?
All this awesome traditional food is located in Tai Po, Hong-Kong, easily accessible through the local MTR! Just get down at the station “Tai Po Market”
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We would like to thank Hong Kong Foodie Tours for providing us a compensated tour of the Tai Po market. Please note that, as always, all opinions expressed in this review are our own and have not been influenced in any way.