Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Article : Exploring Shum Shui Po, Hong Kong

Inspecting the rear end of a chicken is not the way I usually decide on what to have for dinner, but this is routine for a Chinese shopper.   They want to make sure that the chicken hasn’t laid any eggs.   Apparently these young pullets are tastier!   After making your selection, the chicken is killed, plucked and whatever else is required, which also includes submerging in hot water, then handed over to the waiting customer.   I was interested in all the processes, except the actual killing which I couldn’t bear to watch.

I was at Shum Shui Po, an area located in the northwestern part of Kowloon.   It is easily accessible by MTR and yet here you can experience the life of an average Hong Kong resident, rather than an ‘expat’.   

The Japanese ran a concentration camp at Shum Shui Po during the Second World War and the camp was used at a later date as a refugee camp for Vietnamese refugees.   It remains a mixing pot for many different races and refugees, with many of its residents living on or below the poverty line.   Whole families live in very limited accommodation, with perhaps only one member of the family bringing home the minimum wage.   The area is a hodge-podge of run-down buildings, many of them dating back to the 1920’s, street markets and a couple of shopping malls.

You can buy almost anything here, often second-hand.   The shops have adapted to cater for the needs of the residents.  It is possible to buy many items individually, rather than in packs.  Not only the usual culprit, cigarettes, but also food items, spices, etc.     Kerosene can be bought in plastic drink bottles.  Families often cook on small kerosene burners, as there is insufficient space in their apartment for a proper kitchen.   Rice or noodles  provide the bulk of the meal, but flavor and nutrition is added by chicken feet, duck’s heads, so very little is wasted. 

The butcher shops are divided into either beef or pork shops.  One shop doesn’t sell both.  Customers don’t ask for a specific cut of meat as happens in a Western butcher.  They tell the butcher what they are making, and he cuts the meat up for that recipe.   I wonder if that makes him a good cook?   These shops don’t normally have refrigeration, so they visit the abattoir twice a day, for freshly killed meat.   The animal is strangled;  this ensures continuing good blood flow throughout the carcass which slows down putrefaction.   The Hong Kong government doesn’t want a food scare of the sort that China has experienced so inspection and regulation is strict.   Just make sure the meat has the blue government stamp.

The fish in the fish shop doesn’t come from waters around Hong Kong.   Those waters have been fished out a long time ago.   Now fishermen have to travel many, many kilometers for their catch.  Chinese people like their food fresh, so most of the fish is still alive, or has been very recently killed.    They sell a lot of minced fish, which is the equivalent of our minced meat.   It goes a long way and is economical.

The fruit and vegetables are also Government regulated.   Officials check for various chemicals, but don’t test for DDT.   I was given some good advice: if you are concerned about chemicals, look for vegetables that have little holes on them.   If insects have been eating the vegetables, it will most probably be safe for you to eat!  But the person giving this advice went on to say that I should be more worried about the level of pollution I was inhaling in Hong Kong, rather than the level of DDT in the vegetables!

The stalls with cooked, ready to take home food looked appetizing and very reasonably priced.   These stalls get busy around lunch time, and going home time.  This is the best time to buy as there is a better chance that the food is fresh if there is high turnover.  This is most probably good advice for buying any take home food.

I ended my trip with a visit to the dai pai dong located at the top floor of the government controlled market.    Typically these food stalls are located around the edge and the middle is jam packed with round tables and stools.   Customers share tables and fit in wherever they can find a space.  A bit like our food halls in shopping centers.   Westerners, and particularly female westerners, are not often seen here and as a result I’ve always been made to feel very welcome, and I’ve had some delicious bowls of food, although I’m not always sure what it is I’m eating!!

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