Big appetite in little China


Zachary was a little boy Candace taught when she first taught kindergarten in Hong Kong. He was an odd one, he says. Seemingly borderline autistic, he had an amazing knowledge of the makes and models of any vehicle he saw. On the other hand, he didn’t know how to eat soup. Put a spoonful in his mouth, and it would just dribble down his chin and onto his shirt.

Finally, after painstaking efforts to teach him on Candace’s part, he finally learned how to slurp his soup. She rewarded him with a sticker, asking, “Do you know why Miss Candace gave this to you?”

“Because I suck!” Zachary yelled happily.

You know what doesn’t suck in Hong Kong? The food. I’ve had no problem at all getting it into my mouth. I had some great, cheap Thai and Malay food in a place called Rat Alley the other day. Despite the name, I didn’t see a single rat, although while having a pre-dinner drink in Candace’s favorite bar, a rat did run in off the street and under our table.

It took me a few days to get around to eating actual Chinese food, but when I got some dim sum, I wasn’t disappointed. I was a little astonished at some of what we got, though. There wasn’t an English menu in sight, so we ordered with the aid of a helpful though less than fluent manager and managed to be served deep-fried bacon, complete with a side of mayonnaise for dipping. Until now, I’d only imagined the possibility of deep-fried bacon, though I’d done it often. This was probably a less healthy meal than the chip of lead paint I peeled from a fence and pretended to eat as we walked to the restaurant, but it was delicious.

It’s usually best not to think about how some of your food gets to your table. That’s as true at home as it is in Asia, of course. The difference is that in Asia, if you do take an interest in seeing your food slaughtered, it’s easily indulged. Candace’s local supermarket has big tanks with live prawns and fish swimming around, and she says they usually have live toads too, which sell well around exam time. (Are toads brain food? Candace shrugs. “The Chinese will believe anything.”) At the little market across from her apartment, I saw a woman pull a wriggling fish from a tank, whack it hard twice with a blunt object, and then immediately start scaling it. That’s definitely not what I’m used to not seeing back home. I’m told there are usually live chickens there who receive similar treatment, but these were absent that day, perhaps owing to fears of avian flu.

Only a few doors away from the fish-murder shop is a 7-Eleven. 7-Elevens are everywhere here, the main difference being that clerks actively try to push impulse items at the point of purchase. I’ve been jumping at every opportunity to buy Asian snack foods. I couldn’t pass up the chance to buy a bottle of a sports drink I’d heard of called Pocari Sweat. Considering that sports drinks usually contain sodium, it’s actually a reasonable translation from a certain perspective, though it really just tastes like a very weak Five Alive. I’ve also bought okonomiyaki-flavoured potato chips (which I bought because I had no idea what okonomiyaki was, though I now recall my friend Rich describing it as a kind of Japanese pizza), as well as salmon sushi and wasabi chips.

The latter provides perhaps the best example I’ve seen of the local penchant for wasteful overpackaging, China not being the greenest of nations. Considering the amount of energy expended to open a bag containing a relatively small amount of food, it’s no wonder Asians can stay so thin. Once you tear open the bag, you then see a smaller bag sitting aside, like a matryoshka doll. Then you open the smaller bag, pour the chips into the bigger bag, shake a small packet of wasabi over them, and then seal and shake the bag. Considering they could just sprinkle the flavouring on the chips at the factory, it’s a lot of effort.

Granted, that does allow you to regulate the amount of wasabi you get, but they do this with everything. I opened a green-tea flavoured Kit Kat, for example, only to find two individually wrapped sticks of chocolate inside. My other complaint: the green-tea Kit Kat really just tasted like a regular Kit Kat, except a little more synthetic. I’ve been making a point of sampling odd flavours of familiar brands, such as tiger prawn and crushed garlic Pringles (unremarkable) and mint and cherry M&Ms (good).

Similarly, I’m intrigued to see what’s the same and what’s different about familiar fast-food chains. The only thing that really seems different about Starbucks is that they don’t have any washrooms. Apparently customer turnover is thus encouraged here, whereas back home, people freely set up laptops and camp out all day, treating their local Starbucks as a home office.

KFC, however, is another story. “In Asia, you can get anything on the black market. You can get any service performed, as long as you have the money. If a restaurant doesn’t have it on the menu, they’ll make it for you,” Candace says. “But you absolutely cannot make substitutions at KFC. Mashed potatoes instead of your fries? Screw you, gweilo!” After dinner tonight, she headed out to a concert, so I slipped over to KFC for dessert (and she’s not going to be impressed when she reads this). After studying the menu while the counter girls giggled at me, I got two pieces of chicken, a Coke, and a bowl of mushroom rice that I’d advocate be added to the menus back home. (In return, I give them poutine.) The chicken was served in an actual basket, the rice in a real bowl, and the Coke in a plastic tumbler, and not only did I see an employee provide table service to a nearby table, but there was a sink provided for washing up.

I’m told Burger King is nearly absent; the only two places it’s to be found are at the airport and at the Peak, a local tourist hotspot, and apparently people go nuts for it. McDonald’s, however, is just as ubiquitous as 7-Eleven. The only time I’ve been in one was in the morning to get a cup of coffee. Interestingly, the breakfast menu offered pasta soup and bowls of corn. I’m also told that alongside the usual apple pie, McDonald’s sells red bean pies. Red bean is popular here; one way I’ve seen people consume it is at the bottom of glasses of milk.

Naturally, I’ve been desperate to get a red bean pie from McDonald’s, though I suspect I’ll have to slip out to get one on my own. “I should slap you for coming all the way to Hong Kong to go to McDonald’s,” Candace says. It’s a valid point. On the other hand, if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t done just that when he went to France, we wouldn’t have the “Royale with cheese” scene in Pulp Fiction, would we?

13 Responses to “Big appetite in little China”

  1. 1 Eric

    One of the guys who used to work with me brought a bottle of Pocari Sweat back here from his trip to Japan. Also, I think he brought back some wine flavoured Kit Kats, which were pretty good.

  2. 2 Joe Red

    With all the food you’re eating, you’re bound to turn into a real Peter Lynn pretty soon.

  3. 3 Kitty

    Pet I’m disappointed in you. I told you all about okonomiyaki ages ago.
    Cherry and mint M&Ms sound good. Bring some back for me!

  4. Don’t you have T&T Supermarkets in Toronto? They’re all over Metro Vancouver. You can satisfy all your Pocari Sweat, Ribena, Vitasoy tetrapak, Milkis, live seafood, and frog needs there.

    Owing to a particularly traumatic visit to T&T when I was a teenager, I still try to not look at the live fish tanks in case they have frogs.

  5. 5 Soapy

    You should also drink some Yakult while you’re there. After you finish a bottle, you’ll wonder why it tastes so good, yet comes in such a small package. Very suspicious!

  6. 6 Peter Lynn

    Eric: I’d heard about the green tea Kit Kats ages ago after reading an article about the various types of Kit Kats available around the world. There are also curry Kit Kats, which I want to try. I’ll keep on the lookout for wine Kit Kats though. My lush of a girlfriend wants to try them now.

    Joe Red: I knew you’d say that. Well, that someone would.

    Kitty: And here I’ve been giving credit to Rich for telling me about okonomiyaki. Actually, I’ve been getting it mixed up with tatsumaki senpuukyaku, which is what Ryu shouts when he does his Tornado Whirlwind Foot kick in Street Fighter II.

    Dickolas Wang: We do have T&T, in fact. That’s where I got the Hey-Song Honey White Gourd Drink, which still stands at number five on my list of the worst things to ever happen to me.

    Soapy: Actually, I have drank a little Yakult while I’ve been here, though it was for its probiotic qualities rather than its delicious ones. I assumed it came in a small package because it was a medicine. Candace says that Korean rioters also use Yakult bottles to make Molotov cocktails, but that seems dumb to me. It’s a plastic bottle, so it wouldn’t shatter on impact and spill the gasoline all over. I know this for a fact. I in fact once mistakenly made a Molotov cocktail with a plastic bottle in my youth. It just laid there and jetted flame out the top, and I felt like an idiot.

  7. 7 hookerbaby

    OH MAN pocari sweat is the WORST name for a drink ever. I haven’t been able to bring myself to drink it yet. What’s a pocari?

    The KFC here doesn’t do reusable dishes: when I get my KFC, they put the fries in a bag, and tape it shut, and then put that in a bigger brown paper bag, and tape that shut. The burger, or chicken or whatever, goes into it’s container, gets taped shut and it goes into a brown paper bag, and both paper bags are put into a plastic bag. The drink gets taped shut, also, and it gets its own separate bag.

    Also, when I buy cookies, each cookie in the box is individually wrapped.

  8. 8 Candace

    Lesson learned. That is the absolute last time I make you a nice dinner and neglect to serve you dessert afterwards. Hope you like red bean pie.

  9. 9 Soapy

    A Pocari is a small bear from the Qinghai province, which is ironic because the bear is Chinese, yet the drink is Japanese

  10. Re: the Green Tea Kit Kats – I’ll grant you the initial taste isn’t that different, but pay attention on the aftertaste, you really get the tea there.

  11. Holy shit, I take it back. Turns out, there’re two different kinds of green tea KitKats. I just found the ones I think you’re talking about (Chocolate outside, green tea inside, two individually-wrapped wafer treats), and yeah, o real difference. If you can find the ones with green tea outside, red bean inside, those ones have a noticeably different taste.
    My apologies.

  12. 12 Gloria

    Aw, come on. Chinese supermarkets in any Chinatown will mallet and scale a fish for you. The best part are the guys who have cigarettes hanging from their mouths as they blithely hammer and smack away.

  1. 1 Thermal Eye on America » Blog Archive » Ok, Nestle, enough with the KitKats already!

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