Editor’s Note: For years, countless people have told me, “Gee, why don’t you call your column Hunger Pang haha.” I’ve been a food writer for a decade and I hear this no less than once a month. My response out loud: “That’s a good one haha!” The response in my head: “Shut up, what a stupid idea.” It’s self-serving.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says a single drop of water bounces off a stone, but a million drips wears it away. Folks, you’ve worn me down. I give up. This week, I’m in Hong Kong and I’m writing about my eating adventures. This is the debut edition of <deep exhale> Hunger Pang.
It is morning in Hong Kong and at this hour the city begins to bustle. I find myself in its gleaming and efficient MTR subway system, the trains already three-quarters full, and I’m heading east towards the last station on the Island line.
I was born in this city 30 some-odd years ago, yet I’ve never been to the neighborhood of Chai Wan. Tourists don’t frequent here. Like many places outside Hong Kong’s glitzy commercial districts, Chai Wan is crammed with tall housing projects sporting worn facades, markets and shops on the street level, jostled by a tangle of humanity. English is a second language in many places, but not here.
It’s 8 a.m. and I am in Chai Wan for pork. My aunt, the most discriminating food lover I know, directed me here. She told me of a Chinese barbecue shop few guidebooks have publicized. It is a shop known for its char siu, the roasted pork loin sticky and caramelize-crusted from a honey-like glaze. Let me pose a question: If someone offers the chance to experience the best possible version of a given food, would you bypass the opportunity? Especially if you didn’t know when you’d return next, wouldn’t you go out of your way and travel great distances, no matter the inconvenience?
Like I said, it’s 8 a.m. and I am in Chai Wan for pork.
The shop is called Sun Kwai Heung, and by the time I arrive the window is already filled with ducks, soy sauced-chicken and a side of pork hanging on meat hooks.
There’s a woman behind the meat counter, dicing stalks of garlic chives that will make its way into a dumpling filling. A man chops nubs of ginger into coins, which will be tossed into a blender to make minced ginger-scallion oil. I approach the man with the giant meat cleaver and ask if it’s too early for Chinese barbecue.
You can have what you want hanging on the window, but the good stuff won’t be out for an hour, he tells me. That’s when the char siu and suckling pig finishes roasting.
I flew 16 hours and 7,000 miles, I sure as hell am gonna wait another hour. But maybe he could tide me over with some roast duck and pork?
The roast pork has three distinct textures: a crunchy skin, a sub-dermal layer of pork fat, and the meat itself. It’s a mellow pork flavor, but the joy comes in the initial crackly crunch. It’s all molar chomp, meat, and fat. Then there’s the roast duck, with a brittle and shiny skin, made shinier with a dab of plum sauce. The last thing I ate before this was the chicken supreme dinner served on Cathay Pacific flight 807, so this is a helluva way to breakfast.
The man with the cleaver tells me to come back. There’s no point in coming all the way and not have its char siu. So for the next hour I’m walking in circles, checking my phone, breathing in the day. An hour passes by, and I return to find the counter now hung with a curtain of char siu, minutes fresh from the roaster.
Sun Kwai Heung has been around for 60 years, the cleaver man tells me, its longevity thanks in part to the reputation of its char siu. He hacks off a length of the pork, gathers it onto a plate, and ladles the roasting juices on top.
I pick up a piece. The pork wobbles on the chopsticks. It is charred and fatty in the right places. I’m most amazed by how tender the meat is, a texture of sous vide pork belly. I jot down the words “sweet” and “luscious” in my notepad. I don’t know if the creeping jet lag is pushing me into hyperbole, but even in this state I can confidently declare it’s one of the best foods I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. Twelve hours after touching down, and already it’s an awfully high bar to clear.