Brandon Carey is spending the semester exploring China’s culinary options
The most pressing realization I had when I landed in Hong Kong on Aug. 16 to begin my study abroad was that I was not versed in the local language- as indicated by the myriad of Chinese-only signage from the jetway to the immigration counter. I did take Mandarin my freshman year, but the dialect used in Hong Kong is Cantonese, and the city-state uses the traditional character system. The differences between Mandarin and Cantonese range from slight to stark; for example, the word for “water” (something sweaty and thirsty westerners need in 90-degree weather in the summer in Hong Kong) in Mandarin sounds like shway. In Cantonese, it sounds like soy, with a prominent lilt at the end. There are also five more tones in Cantonese, so despite my Mandarin instruction, navigating the language was tricky. Obtaining food especially became a challenge.
Outside of electronic ordering, or having an English menu and pointing, there’s not a whole lot of food westerners can order without sufficient knowledge of Cantonese. There are some restaurants that have a set menu and give seven or eight different dishes for a flat rate, but these aren’t very common. A lot of Hong Kongers have decent, functional English, but more often than not, travelers will encounter places that only use Cantonese. Of course, you could try to meet up with a local friend to go out to eat, but this isn’t always an option.
So aside from the logistics of actually getting food, what is there to eat? Rice, of course, is the staple. There are several days a week where I eat rice with all of my meals. Tea is common, both local- style “milk tea” and British- style black tea. Getting an American- style coffee is basically impossible. All but two cups of “American Coffee” I’ve had in Asia have actually been “Americanos,” which is espresso watered down with hot water. Same effect, but still, not exactly ideal.
Almost all food can be eaten solely with chopsticks. I was taught how to use chopsticks by a Vietnamese friend of mine when I was about six or seven, so I’m quite lucky. A lot of the other westerners had to be taught on-the-job.
Meals can be quite unbalanced if you don’t know what to order. A lot of fellow students buy vegetables and fruit at a local supermarket because the campus “canteen” (what we call the dining hall) provides more or less a “base” that you add vegetables, meat, etc. on to. One of the more popular fares in the campus canteen is called “siu mei with rice,” which is essentially any meat that has been roasted. A hot bed of steamed rice is spooned into a bowl, and the roasted meat is chopped and laid on top with vegetables and other accoutrements.
Unlike Ursinus, Lingnan University’s canteen is not covered by a meal plan. You need to pay for everything you eat directly, using a local “smartpass” fare card called an “octopus card.” The octopus card can be used well, almost anywhere, to pay for anything. It’s basically a gift card you can refill with up to 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($128 ) on. It’s primarily used on buses and the metro, and just about anywhere that sells anything. Ordering food on campus utilizes a 20-inch touchscreen, and you touch the octopus card to a reader and instantly, a receipt pops out. You then take that receipt to a corresponding counter, and they prepare your meal to order. And don’t worry about the language barrier. The machines have an English option, and the receipt comes out in both English and Cantonese.
Hong Kong- style food has been influenced by the rest of the world, but it’s not too removed from its roots in Guangdong province, the neighboring “state” in mainland China. Its cuisine is filled with the flavorful kind of spicy food. Although the food in the canteen may be repetitive, I’m always amazed at the medley of ginger, paprika, turmeric, soy, and pepper in everything I eat. Outside of the canteen, there is also an on-house campus restaurant open to the public, which serves primarily dim sum, the legendary dumplings of South China. I cannot begin to describe the relationship I have to dim sum. Once you know the feeling of biting into a freshly steamed pork soup dumpling, the crackle of the wonton wrapper oozing into a gummy, handmade ball of minced pork and vegetables, and your nose filling with the fragrance of the broth, you too will know its glory, and you will bow to it! I digress …
The other option for our campus is to have street food from our local market, or eat at one of the sit- down restaurants above. These restaurants range from hot pot to Taiwanese cuisine, to western food. Street food is a bit homelier, but always delicious. Noodle soup, dumplings, teppanyaki, all cooked to order.
Not having a meal plan these past four months has actually been a bit of a blessing … I’m venturing out more, and trying more foods, some that I never thought I would.