Beyond Borders

The South African stomach

2010-11-19 12:00
Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

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Simon Williamson

I knew when I began hatching plans to spend some time in Hong Kong that the diet would be different here.

I expected Chinese food, naturally, and wasn’t surprised at the mountainous selection of noodle and rice dishes, nor the constant presence of seafood on every menu. I knew I’d miss braaivleis and biltong, and even those awesome Doritos in the blue packet. But nothing prepared me for just how differently people eat here.

For starters, in many restaurants it is chopsticks or nothing. In some places you have the option of a knife and fork, but that is severe admission of defeat - much like WP tasted recently in the Currie Cup Final -  and will just not suffice in the company of Chinese people. As this city is relentlessly crowded you often share tables with strangers, so it is a real public acknowledgement of failure to revert to imperialist cutlery.

There is also a whole lot of food which just doesn’t sit well with (or in) a South African stomach. On one occasion we sampled fish balls. Now, I grew up eating polony which was highly palatable until I discovered how it was made. Fish balls – served in soup so that they go nice and mushy like the texture of baked beans – are marine polony, and should be completely and utterly unfit for human consumption.

Another complete shocker was at a Sichuan restaurant where the waitress recommended the chilli dumpling: there was enough chilli within those small parcels to kill off a whole clan of polar bears, should one sprinkle it upon their iceberg. So there are constant surprises when you’re in a new country which only has basic translations to menus written in Cantonese, interpreted by waiters in broken attempts at English and hand signals.

That all being said, there is a plethora of international food available here. Obviously Asian restaurants dominate with a bucket load of Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and sushi spots scattered around and they range from top-end pricey establishments to plastic chair, fold-up table diners (my personal preference).

Lost in translation

If there’s one thing they have in common it is incredibly extensive menus. If you want to know just what a Thai restaurant can offer, move closer to Thailand where half an hour and two beers should be set aside merely to read the menu. At one Malaysian spot we frequent, it would be less time-consuming to fly to Kuala Lumpur, ask a local chef what’s good and return to our table by bicycle rather than digging through the manuscript of options available.

Restaurants with local food may have extensive menus, but cook the same meal with every kind of variation you can think of: Chicken with noodles. Chicken and pepper with noodles. Chicken balls with noodles. Chicken with rice. Chicken and pepper with rice... and so on.

At Disneyland Hong Kong we ventured into an eatery somewhat oddly named “Clopins Festival of Food” where four chicken and starch options were flanked by three beef and starch options. And the starch wasn’t potato.

The real discovery we’ve made in Hong Kong is undoubtedly Cha Chaan Teng establishments, more affectionately known (pronounceable) to English-speakers as tea restaurants. These are pretty cheap, smallish nooks where one saves a few bob but eats good Chinese-styled food, once again mostly encircling the noodle, dumpling and soup varieties. I like it because we eat with local Hongkongers – most of the other places around Central and Soho are chockers with expats and tourists – but that doesn’t mean that this experience is without its own strife. Tea restaurants, as one would expect, serve tea as customers sit down.

On one occasion we realised we’d been given cups of mere hot water and started to drink them, assuming it to be some part of an odd Cantonese meal culture.

You can imagine the colour our faces turned when we saw the table next to us rinsing their chopsticks in their own cups of hot water.

If only the rest of the world could understand the simplicity and awesomeness of a good South African braai...

- Simon Williamson is a desperate freelancer who doesn't know where his next meal is coming from. 


- Are you a South African living abroad interested in sharing your views? What is it like for a South African living in a foreign country or how do you view South Africa from a distance? Send us your columns to feedback@news24.com and you might get published in our new Beyond Borders section.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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