In all my trips to Hong Kong, Causeway Bay has consistently been my least favorite place to go. The reasons seem obvious: 1. I always get lost 2. I don’t know where to go 3. Did I mention it’s confusing and I invariably get lost there?
What I was missing was a neighborhood guide. Tadd, a Cantonese Singaporean who has lived in Causeway Bay for years, is the perfect person for the job. This is a woman who clearly loves this place, a study in contrasts that hosts not only the most expensive retail space in the world (in fact, Tadd says McDonald’s had to move a few blocks because it would have had to sell 16-17 hamburgers/second to make up for its rent), but is also home to a Hong Kong that, to its long-time residents, is becoming more of a distant memory: chaotic, Byzantine, busy, and yes, easy to get lost in.
Luckily, there are lots of delicious places to use as landmarks. A turn down every alleyway yields a wonderful place for rice porridge, a good stop for pineapple buns, delicious Macau-style egg tarts that are lightly charred on the outside and runny within, gently braised bits of cow lovingly layered over rice or noodles. Up yonder is the best store for fermented tofu; next to rice porridge is the store to go to for every variety of pickled plum imaginable. Tadd walks us to what she says is her daughter’s favorite wintertime restaurant, and it turns out to be snake soup (Se Wong Ke, 24 Percival Street, Causeway Bay), its different varieties meant to address different ailments such as coughs, a cold or I-don’t-kn0w-I-just-don’t-feel-like-it-anymore — what I would have ordered).
And culinary discoveries are not the only ones to make here — under the bridge, at the invisible border where Causeway Bay meets Wanchai and the “spicy crab under the bridge” restaurant, elderly Chinese ladies await customers who flock here especially to curse enemies or ward off those who would curse them, with the help of some candlelight, figurines and the sturdy sole of a shoe to batter someone’s written-down name with. On a busy night, the intersection rings with the sounds of shoe heels battering plastic, over and over again.
But we’re here for the food. As is always the case with Hong Kong, it’s almost impossible to fit everything inside your stomach that you want to stuff it with, because no one ever has enough time or room for that. But some standouts included Chiu Chow Garden, where we feasted on crazy-fresh fried fish, an assortment of perfectly stir-fried greens, the “famous” roast chicken, and stewed goose on a bed of fried tofu to soak up its juices “because in Hong Kong, you must eat goose”, says Tadd. Although the Chinese in Thailand are predominantly Chiu Chow (or Teochew) and the Chinese-Thai food in Bangkok is supposed to reflect that, nothing we had in Hong Kong reflects anything we’ve had in Thailand, including the introductory and closing servings of bitter tea, meant to aid digestion.
After dinner, to settle our stomachs, Tadd takes us for “dessert”, which should never be referred to as dessert ever forever, because that would hugely disappoint anyone with images of sugarplum anything in their heads. It’s called guillinggao, or turtle jelly, and it’s traditionally made from powdered turtle under-shell mixed with different Chinese herbs to correspond to your ailment. Yes, it’s medicine, just like snake soup, and HK people eat it for “dessert”, because they are that sort of good person that exercises on their holidays and appoints themselves designated driver even before anyone threatens to tell their mom.
Wikipedia says turtle pudding became a thing after an emperor almost cured his smallpox with it (before abandoning his treatment and dying). Today’s versions probably don’t really contain actual turtle shell (only herbal approximations), but tell that to all the people who stop by Kung Wo Tong on their way home from work, or after a run (!), or during a date (?) — not only for one of the different kinds of turtle jellies, but for a healing tea, or bracing “liver detox” that tastes like a mix of wood polish with raw turnip. I get the “cough” one, which ends up being less bitter than the others with a slight peppermint aftertaste, palatable enough to eat half a cup of on a full stomach. Emboldened by the fact it isn’t as awful as I had originally envisioned, I even joke that I will be there the next morning to try it again. I don’t, though. I have braised beef brisket on silky egg noodles, because duh.