Saturday, June 20, 2015

Canada Special-Flavour Honey

So as I said before, getting out of Central has sort of been my mission for the past few days. For clarity, Central is the main downtown district on the north side of the of HK Island. Across from Central there’s a peninsula sticking out off the mainland that is considered part of HK called the Kowloon peninsula. From there, north of the peninsula are the New Territories that also ‘belong’ to HK, and the outlying islands (like Lantau) that are scattered around HK Island.

Basically, HK sprawls way more than I thought it did, and that meant I had loads of non-Central territory to cover.

The Kowloon peninsula holds some of my favourite neighbourhoods, and I actually ended up going back on a few occasions to sweep up the little odd ‘n ends of sights that I couldn’t pack into just one day. Our Kowloon morning started with a leisurely dim sum at our favourite spot near the hotel, a stroll through the wet markets on the way to the star ferry, and then the Chi Lin Nunnery. We also stopped by the old Maritime Police Station, and then took the star ferry home once the sun had set so that we could see the Central skyline all done up in lights.

A butcher's stall, complete with pig's feet, hearts of al varieties, and a very nice butcher who let me take his photo.
The wet markets here are really something. As a start, they don’t just mean ‘wet’ as in ‘there is stuff in the market that is not dry’. Nothing is really dry by my standards in HK. What they mean by ‘wet’ is ‘ohmygodthat’sstillaliveandnowit’sbleedingonme’.

Now, I am a person who loves food. Unabashedly. I will try new food often regardless of whether or not I know exactly what it is, and a big part of how I travel involves tasting new food. I’ve become pretty accustomed to some of the different ways food is stored and prepared in other places. In Uganda, it was completely normal to see half a cow hanging in the hot, open air in a butcher’s shop window. There would be flies on it, but no one seemed fussed because you were taking it home to be cooked. In Cuba, I definitely heard one of the chickens that I ate for dinner being slaughtered a few hours beforehand when we stayed on a farm. I will also never forget seeing hundreds and hundreds of eggs stored in their little cardboard flats on someone’s deck instead of in a fridge. Possibly we refrigerate things a little enthusiastically in Canada.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Where this is going is that I like fresh food, and I understand that in order to eat fresh food, someone has to kill the thing so I can eat it. On occasion, I’ve even killed my own food. (Primarily seafood though. Lobsters and shellfish totally count.) I am uncomfortable with the idea of inhuman slaughter though. So as I was wandering through the wet markets, it was pretty shocking to see fish laying out on the tables, or on ice, or in baskets, still blatantly gasping for breath. The fish crammed into buckets of water swimming on top of each other were more surprising than alarming, but I still jumped whenever I walked past and one smacked or splashed me.

Assorted, living, wiggling little shellfish at the wet market. They were a little bizarre to look at, but not shocking.
What finally got me was wandering through a wet market on the Kowloon peninsula and seeing how the fish were passed to customers before being taken home. Sometimes they were still alive through the de-scaling process, and that just looks like straight-up torture. More importantly, as I walked past a butchering counter I was initially quite satisfied to think ‘ah yes, big knife, lots of blood, it looks like this is the spot the poor thing finally dies’. I wasn’t really paying attention to the fish bits surrounding the knife and block, because I thought they were… well, fish bits.

HA! The girl is naïve.

One of the fish bits - which I swear was just a head and belly – was alive enough to startle as I walked by the table and made a swimming motion that jetted it forward and sent it flying off the edge of the table.

Seriously. This fish had no fins. No tail. It didn’t even look like it still had a spinal column that connected to its head, and it was still alive enough to ‘swim’ right off the edge of the table.

I probably yelped. The fishmonger laughed at my blatant shock, and I did that overly-polite-because-I’m-processing-what-just-happened Canadian thing and smiled back at him. Thumbs up! ‘Yes, very fresh!’ I left the wet market immediately after. I’ve been through other wet markets since. It’s not like I wouldn’t go back if I ever lived here and needed groceries. That disregard for a clean kill is something I’m uncomfortable with though, and it seems to be pretty common in the wet markets throughout the city.

Anyway, aside from alarming fish exploits, we also saw a truly amazing nunnery that has been the highlight of my trip so far. The Chi Lin Nunnery is on the Kowloon peninsula, set back into a hill next to a massive connecting point of three main roads. Part of what makes it amazing is that once you step into the gardens, the trees and the walls that surround the nunnery mostly muffle the noise from the vehicles and the highways.

The property is huge, the inner courtyard has several wonderful lily ponds, and the roofs are all curved and swooped. The construction of all the buildings is done without any nails, so everything slots together with beautifully elaborate joinery. The Chinese believed that putting together a building this way, without nails, symbolised a harmony between man and nature. Not only does it make each corner its own elaborate work of art, it really shows off the mastery of the architect and the builders.

The nunnery is connected by a white stone bridge to a garden, which is also pretty incredible. We didn’t see any nuns, but there are large sections of the place that are off-limits. I assume this is because those are the living and worship areas of the resident nuns and priests. If you’re ever in HK and you want to take some time out to go see a beautiful, traditional building and its accompanying gardens, I’d definitely recommend the Chi Lin nunnery.

Finally, Max and I stopped at the old Maritime Police building. Unfortunately, I was hangry by this point. We’d forgotten to have lunch in the heat, it was getting late, and the hanger hit me. Max travels like a stray dog, which is to say he sort of wanders and sniffs his way through each new area. It’s a great way to travel, and I am notorious for doing something similar in museums, but when you’re hangry, slowly meandering through town is definitely not a preferred method of travel. Max was super content to stay and look at what was admittedly a beautiful old building, but I needed food.

I went straight to the nearest side street, saw a noodle shop with geese hanging in the window, and I was sold. It was another spot without English, but most places here have a menu with English in tiny writing under the Cantonese, or with pictures. I ordered a side of rice, cool lemon green tea, and a goose by pointing at photos, and then settled in quite happily. Just in case you were wondering, I did in fact eat the whole goose. Like all of it. It was amazing. A really classic way to cook goose here is to crisp the skin until it’s gold and shattering-ly good when you bite into it. The meat beneath the skin isn’t oily, but it is deliciously moist and full of flavour.

They do really give you the whole goose though, which presents a bit of a problem because there isn’t really a polite (Western) way to pick bones out of your mouth. Here, you just sort of tear/suck the meat off the boney bits, and then stack the boney bits in a little pile next to your dish.

Heading out on the Star Ferry, looking back at Central.
Yes. Really. It’s kind of satisfying to compare the little pile of bone to the rest of the dish you have left to eat, because you feel a little bit of a sense of accomplishment. It’s like a progress bar loading a big file, only… made out of food bits?

It takes some getting used to.

The servers were pretty entertained by the whole process. One of them had some English, and asked where I was from. When I said Canada, she became pretty excited. “Oh! Like honey!” What? Honey?

She explained that there was ‘special Canada-flavour honey’ at the store. Are we known for exporting honey? Is that a thing we do? I mean, we do have a lot of honey, surely, being as we’re a big country and we have plenty of bees. Nope. I finally got it when she said it was special honey because it came from leaves. She 100% meant maple syrup. It was an awesome moment.

Central Hong Kong skyline from the Star Ferry
I guess we really are known worldwide for syrup and cold winters. I’ll take it :-)

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