Noodles were first created in China as far back as the Han Dynasty, and thanks to the Chinese, we now have pasta, ramen and bánh phở. In many ways, there’s a Chinese influence on the Vietnamese cuisine, though this view is sometimes controversial.
During my recent trip to Hong Kong, a fellow former colony that wonderfully blends its traditional Cantonese roots with its modern British influences, I got a closer look at how Hong Kong’s “East meets West” cuisine is both similar and different from that of Vietnam, from dim sum to suckling pig to wontons.
Discovering Dim Sum and Egg Tarts
My culinary experience in Hong Kong started off with none other than the acclaimed Cantonese dim sum at the Tim Ho Wan chain. In Vietnam there is only one Tim Ho Wan, a high-end restaurant located on the 36th floor of Lotte Hotel in Hanoi.
That’s why I was intrigued by the relatively small and simple Tim Ho Wan in the basement of Hong Kong’s central train station. The long queue outside and the crowd inside this seemingly modest dim sum house shocked me.
However, I was no longer surprised once I tasted the food. Being so close to Guangzhou, the home of dim sum, Hong Kong is the gateway of this sumptuous dining experience to the rest of the world.
First, my group had the braised chicken feet, which were very soft and fatty compared to Vietnam’s preference for chewy, crunchy chicken feet. We found it a bit unusual, but it made for a good starter since we were all hungry.
Next was the signature baked cha siu bao (BBQ pork-filled buns), a distant cousin of bánh bao, a steamed bun filled with minced pork, wood-ear mushroom and boiled egg.
After that, we were presented with a plethora of dumplings, such as ha gow(Vietnamese: há cảo) and shumai (Vietnamese: xíu mại). There were also rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings, similar to the Northern Vietnamese bánh cuốn, but with a thicker, oilier steamed rice noodle wrapper.
For dessert, we headed to the Star Ferry Pier in Kowloon, where a small shop of the famous Tai Cheong Bakery is located. The bakery is known for its egg tarts, with a smooth custard filling and a buttery, crumbly crust. Grabbing the last egg tarts of the day to enjoy on the boat back to Hong Kong Island was indeed a sweet memory.
The popularity of this Western-influenced dessert in Hong Kong reminded me of Vietnam’s ubiquitous bánh flan (known as caramen in Hanoi), an occasionally caffeinated variety of the French crème caramel.
Exploring Suckling Pig and Beef Brisket
On our second day on Hong Kong’s streets, we went to a locally known eatery for roasted duck and suckling pig. These are just as popular in Hong Kong and other regions of China as grilled pork in Vietnam.
The meat was served with rice on a dish; the rice was drier and less warm than you would expect from a Vietnamese restaurant, but the duck meat was soft, with crunchy skin.
The roasted suckling pig was the star of the show, with its special crackling skin, melting fat and soft meat, dipped in the sweet hoisin sauce for enhanced flavours. I also tried the lean BBQ pork, or char siu (Vietnamese: xá xíu), which was, in contrast, very thick in texture.
Our dinner on the second day was at Supreme Beef Brisket Soup, a famous store featuring many pictures of Hong Kong’s television stars as patrons, and serving everything from its signature beef brisket noodle soup to Vietnamese and Thai-inspired dishes.
The braised beef brisket, served with Chinese flat rice noodles in a clear, sweet broth, with the additional aroma from a fat chunk of well-cooked daikon radish and a dash of chili sauce, would fill any heart with warmth. This is one of Hong Kong’s favourite comfort foods.
However, being Vietnamese, we could not help but give our national pride, phở, the upper vote. The abundance of herbs and the thinness of beef cuts are what set phởapart from any other beef noodles.
Comparing Wonton Noodles
Our culinary expedition came to an end as we had lunch at Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop. Wonton noodle soup is another typical dish of Cantonese cuisine.
The simple bowl contained egg noodles, shrimp wontons, and spring onions in a clear broth. Vietnam also has its own version of wonton noodles, known as mì vằn thắn in Hanoi and mì hoành thánh in Saigon, with more ingredients such as pork liver, BBQ pork, boiled egg, and chives.
As I sampled Hong Kong’s best Cantonese cuisine, I also learned more about the influences it has on Vietnamese food. Vietnam is geographically close to China’s southern provinces, and home to almost a million ethnic Chinese, half of them with Cantonese origins. Looking at the similarities between some of the dishes I tried, it was clear that over centuries, some of their cooking methods were adapted with remarkable creativity to enrich our national cuisine.
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