“Closed.” “No more orders.” “No, Sorry.”
By the fourth restaurant rejection, my stomach cramped as a serious case of hunger took over and I began to worry, sweat collecting on the bridge of my nose in the hot, humid air.
“It’s 11pm on a Saturday night, we’ll be fine,” my partner said in an attempt of reassurance.
They gray city streets were filled with people kicking off their weekend happenings. Growing up in an urban city, dingy, concrete slabs and high rise building were familiar to me, but I had never been anywhere as densely populated as Hong Kong. Diverse amounts of people, faces, stories, and history in such a small area; generations of locals and tourists, coming together to create this compacted community. Surely we’d be able to find some late night dining in a bustling city like this, right? We were craving local, authentic cuisine after falling for over-priced chili crab set at “market price” the day before.
Our search took us to Causeway Bay’s iconic Times Square building. Dumplings, roasted goose, and dim sum tempted us through closed restaurant windows, the reflection of neighboring neon lights illuminating our disappointed and hungry gazes. By the time we reached the 11th floor, we were finally in luck – the local hot pot joint was still open and there was a table for two.
Without the crutch of our native tongue, we left the culinary choices to our waitress, who until that point, we had been playing charades with. We managed to order two Tsing Tao beers, which we toasted to our first hot pot experience and the anticipation of what was to come.
To our delight, a split bowl of bubbling, savory broths was centered on the table followed by plates of uncooked, unknown, thinly sliced meats. We recognized the prawns as such, but the arrangement of discolored meatballs were up for debate. The broths formed a yin and yang combination of visual aesthetic and flavor – on one side, a light, broth with onion and garlic, and the other, a heat heavy, chili broth. A basket of fragrant green and red chilies, green onion, various spices, oils, and fresh garlic soon followed, which we eventually figured out was for making our own signature dipping sauce. Eagerly waiting for the food to turn the proper shade of cooked was as hard as deciding which combination of meat and sauce to try.
They say the way to a city's heart is through its food.
With a full belly and full feeling of content, I reflected on foods ability to bring communities together. The quote “food is our common ground, a universal experience” made sense as I looked around the restaurant at generations of locals sharing this traditional meal that dates back 800-900 years.
I wondered why I ever worried about finding authenticity when I knew serendipity, as it always has when traveling, would lead me to a place of local connection and introduce me to the heart of the city through food.