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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wet markets and street markets in Central, Hong Kong

Queens Road shops and traffic in the Central district, Hong Kong

I didn't expect Hong Kong to move me like it did. It wasn't my first visit -- I'd been three times before -- but arriving only a week after I'd left Dubai seemed to amplify the stark differences between the two. Dubai was new and burgeoning and developing at a rate faster than cartographers could handle; Hong Kong felt busy but steeped in history and hundreds of untold stories.

My mother grew up in Hong Kong, and for the first time I felt some sense of kinship with this city as I wandered the steep and narrow streets. I pictured my mum as a teenager, and tried to imagine how different the city must have been. When I alighted the MTR near her old high school, I excitedly told her that maybe I'd retraced a journey she had done in the past. She quashed my sentimentality with a bemused laugh and said the MTR wasn't even built back then. "We only had trams!" she snorted.

Residential buildings and balconies overlooking Gage Street in the Central district, Hong Kong
Residential buildings and balconies overlooking Gage Street

Hong Kong has more than its fair share of skyscrapers, but it was the older parts of the city that I loved best. The rickety buildings, the washing hanging on balconies and the barrage of air-conditioning units... each layer of grime on the old buildings made me think of every generation that had come to this city in pursuit of dreams. If those walls could talk, they would share stories of blood and sweat, of laughter and tears. I felt like I was in an Amy Tan novel come-to-life.

Hand-pushing a trolley of vegetables up Gage Street in the Central district, Hong Kong
Hand-pushing a trolley up Gage Street

The other detail that struck me most was how hard people worked here. Physical labour is a part of everyday life. Hand carts and trolleys are everywhere on the streets, heaved up hills by men and women, young and old. The men would often be bare-chested as sweat dripped down the smalls of their back and across their forehead. They'd be lean with muscular backs and shoulders, the kind of rippled muscles that hadn't been primed in an air-conditioned gym, but developed naturally from years of manual work.

Al fresco dining in alleyways and on staircases in the Central district, Hong Kong
Al fresco dining, Hong Kong-style!

Accompanying me on this trip were the two best traveller companions you could ask for: Hong Kong ex-pats and fellow food lovers, Mr and Mrs Pig Flyin'. We criss-crossed all over Hong Kong during the course of a week, but we ended up pottering around the Central district the most. And here I kept gravitating toward the street markets, clustered mostly along Gage and Graham Streets.


Wet markets and street markets in Central

Graham Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Hustle and bustle of Graham Street market

Food markets are my favourite thing to do in a new city. You get to see the local produce, see what's in season, mix with everyday people and quickly work out what's prized based purely on price.

The markets along Graham Street date back 160 years and are Hong Kong's oldest, continuously-running street market. They also make an appearance in Jackie Chan's 2001 film, Rush Hour 2.

Soy bean sprouts at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Fresh soy bean sprouts

Small fridges and a keenness for the freshest food mean that many locals shop everyday for supplies. Everywhere you looked, there was a bounty of choice. We saw glistening and plump soy bean sprouts, fat blocks of freshly cooked tofu and neatly arranged pyramids of bright green vegetables.

Morning shoppers at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Morning shoppers

Mung bean sprouts, fresh tofu and preserved tofu at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Mung bean sprouts, fresh tofu blocks and preserved tofu in jars

Striped salted duck eggs at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Salted duck eggs

These zebra-looking eggs caught our eye immediately. They're salted duck eggs that have had their black crusts carefully scraped off to create a striped pattern.

Stalls and shoppers at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Stalls and shoppers at the Graham Street markets

Live prawns at the Gage Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Live prawns

Live seafood is important to locals too, as a guarantee of freshness.

Butcher shop at the Gage Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Butcher shop

Fruit and vegetable stall at the Gage Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Fruit and vegetables

Young coconuts with ring pulls at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Young coconuts

We laughed when we saw these young coconuts with ring pulls and bought one immediately. It ended up being more of a design gimmick than anything else. The ring pull didn't work but the lines had been lasered so it only needed a little bit of knife work to prise open the "tab" where a straw would go.

Fresh tofu blocks at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Fresh tofu blocks

Market staller holder trimming vegetables at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Market stall owner trimming vegetables

Fresh tofu and bean sprouts at the Graham Street market, Central district, Hong Kong
Tofu and bean sprouts

Fruit and vegetable stall on Graham Street in the Central district, Hong Kong
Fruit and vegetable stall on the hill

Fresh waterchestnuts at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Fresh water chestnuts

So that's what fresh water chestnuts look like!

Fresh straw mushrooms at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Fresh straw mushrooms

... and fresh straw mushrooms!

Butcher shop at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Butcher shop

Cakes of dried egg noodles at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Cakes of dried egg noodles

Selling fresh rice noodles at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Selling fresh rice noodles

Imported salad vegetable greens from Australia, the USA and Holland at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Imported salad greens from Australia, the USA and Holland

We thought the idea of importing salad greens from Australia, the USA and Holland to be odd, but apparently these are often sought out by ex-pats or locals who are keen to cook fancy Western-style dishes.

Weighing seafood using an old-fashioned balance scale with weights at the Gage Street market in the Central district, Hong Kong
Weighing seafood using an old-fashioned balance scale with weights

Old skool balance scales are way cool. In Hong Kong markets, they tend to sell things by the "catty", a traditional Chinese unit of mass that equals about 605 grams.

Pottinger Street granite steps in the Central district, Hong Kong
Pottinger Street, one of last remaining streets in Hong Kong with granite steps

Hong Kong taxi cabs on Des Voeux Road, Central district, Hong Kong
Cabs on Des Voeux Road, Central

Giant incense coils in Sheung Wan or the Upper District, Hong Kong
Giant incense coils in Sheung Wan or the Upper District

We wandered up to Sheung Wan or the Upper District - a calf-busting workout involving steep hills and hundreds of steps.

Hong Kong taxi cab on the steep slope of Aberdeen Street, Central district, Hong Kong
Steep slope of Aberdeen Street

Hills are everywhere in Hong Kong. I used this as an easy justification to eat more.

Street cart selling roasted pan-chestnuts and sweet potato in the Central district, Hong Kong
Street cart selling pan-roasted chestnuts and sweet potato

We stumbled upon this street cart selling pan roasted chestnuts and sweet potato roasted over coals one afternoon in nearby Wanchai.

Quail eggs on a street cart in the Central district, Hong Kong
Quail eggs

There was a basket of quail eggs in one corner, set over a simmering pot of water to keep warm.

Whole roasted sweet potatoes on a street cart in the Central district, Hong Kong
Whole roasted sweet potatoes

I only had eyes for the sweet potato though, roasted slowly in their jackets until the skin crinkled like old newspapers.

Charcoal roasted sweet potato from a street cart in the Central district, Hong Kong
Roasted sweet potato

Would you believe me if I said it was the best sweet potato I've ever eaten? Incredibly sweet, slightly nutty and a fluffiness that can only come from slow roasting in its own skin.

Stone wall tree in the Central District, Hong Kong
Stone wall tree 

I loved finding stone wall trees too, a common sight across Hong Kong. Predominantly banyan trees, the trees have adapted themselves to make use of the stone retaining walls that protect much of Hong Kong from landslides. They have a symbiotic relationship with the wall because by absorbing the water and moisture from the soil, they actually strengthen the wall and reduce the risk of the wall collapsing.

The spiderweb tangle of roots are a calming sight. It's believed there are more than 1200 of these stone wall trees across the city with most of them over 100 years old.

Father and son and bamboo scaffolding in Sheung Wan or the Upper district, Hong Kong
Father and son and bamboo scaffolding

Hong Kong: old and young, new and traditional.

<< Read the first Hong Kong post: Ronin modern Japanese seafood
>> Read the next Hong Kong post: Yum cha - Tim Ho Wan and Lin Heung

More Hong Kong posts to come!


Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Hong Kong - Ronin Japanese seafood restaurant

32 comments - Add some comment love

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 6/26/2014 01:17:00 am


32 Comments:

  • At 6/26/2014 1:57 am, Blogger Sherrie @ Crystal Noir said…

    Nothing beats those sweet potatoes roasted on coals. It's the best way to eat sweet potato! :D

     
  • At 6/26/2014 6:23 am, Blogger Ramen Raff said…

    awwww that last photo and "old and young, new and traditional! HK has a special place in my heart. I went there first time when I was 8 with my grandma and there wasn't any MRTs around lol mmm I want some warm fluffy sweet potatoes now!

     
  • At 6/26/2014 7:46 am, Blogger Sarah said…

    I must admit I'd never been interested in going to Hong Kong, but your post makes me want to book a ticket!! Lucky you having local foodie hosts to guide you around!

    PS I love Amy Tan. :)

     
  • At 6/26/2014 8:27 am, Blogger kogepanman said…

    Love visiting HK but hardly get to go back these days...

    You're post makes me want to go back ASAP!

    Look forward to your other HK posts!

     
  • At 6/26/2014 8:44 am, Anonymous Simplicity by sarah said…

    Wow Helen, you have some amazing shots here! Super jealous of your holiday in HK.

    Cheers,
    Sarah

     
  • At 6/26/2014 9:32 am, Blogger Yvonne Tee said…

    Oh man, your post makes me miss Hong Kong! I love almost everything there; the vibrancy, the FOOD, the shopping...

     
  • At 6/26/2014 10:33 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    heh i would've bought that coconut purely because of the ring pull too!

     
  • At 6/26/2014 10:35 am, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Well, personally, I HAVE always thought 605g is the perfect amount of fish.

     
  • At 6/26/2014 11:17 am, Anonymous Billy @ A table for two said…

    I like the bamboo scaffolding, where's Jacky Chan when you need him?

     
  • At 6/26/2014 12:10 pm, Blogger Cassie | Journey From Within said…

    How I have been thinking I miss hk and come and see you post about it!
    I look forward to more hk posts! :D

     
  • At 6/26/2014 12:37 pm, Blogger Jacq said…

    ah this post makes me want to go back to HK! Can't wait to see what else you ate

     
  • At 6/26/2014 12:58 pm, Anonymous Berny @ I Only Eat Desserts said…

    I can understand exactly what you said about your mum! My dad grew up in HK and when I was wandering around with my uncle and grandma, both of them got really excited and pointed out my dad's kindergarden school and high school. It wasn't a school anymore but some kind of apartment/business complex but it was funny how they were telling me the school routes and the funny business they all got up to :)

     
  • At 6/26/2014 2:15 pm, Anonymous Felicia @ Next Stop: Food said…

    aww your post makes me miss HK so much. Those sweet potato trolleys, wet market and bamboo scaffolding! Don't remember those coconut with "pull rings" though lol

     
  • At 6/26/2014 3:13 pm, Blogger Amy zhong said…

    hk is my happy place, i love the abundance of wet markets and fresh produces!so tempted to buy my ticket now~

     
  • At 6/26/2014 5:13 pm, Blogger Vivian - vxdollface said…

    Great write up :) I used to hate going to the wet markets whenever I went to HK as a child but now I see it in a totally different light, all the vibrant colours and the smell of food makes my toes tingle haha

     
  • At 6/26/2014 6:46 pm, Anonymous Padaek said…

    Great post Helen! What a wonderful city HK is - I never knew it was so hilly; can't wait to visit now. Love those lazer cut coconuts - cool! And how awesome do those saffron sweet hot pots look - wow! Really pretty photos. More HK posts please. :)

     
  • At 6/26/2014 9:49 pm, Anonymous My Kitchen Stories said…

    I'm looking forward to seeing more of Hong Kong. I am like you I am fascinated by asian cities. there really does seem to be generations of blood sweat and tears at every corner. Stunning, interesting photos

     
  • At 6/26/2014 9:50 pm, Blogger The Food Mentalist said…

    I did a double take at those coconuts. How funny! Wish they would laser them here too! Looks like my kinda place a foodie heaven. Deeeelicious!

     
  • At 6/27/2014 2:14 am, Blogger CQUEK said…

    HongKong ! HongKong! still the same old HKG. never change. love all the shots you taken.

     
  • At 6/27/2014 8:18 am, Anonymous Martine @ Chompchomp said…

    What a great story you have told with your photos. Took me right back to the heart of the action. I remember eating sweet potato too, they look a bit scary and gross on the outside and my husband gave me a bit of a look as I ordered one implying I would fall sick but the flavour...soooo sweet and piping hot.

     
  • At 6/27/2014 3:27 pm, Anonymous justagirlfromaamchimumbai said…

    I love how the streets and sights of HK resemble India. This blog post was a visual treat.

     
  • At 6/27/2014 11:46 pm, Anonymous Lee Tran Lam said…

    Thanks for taking us on this trek through Hong Kong with you – and thanks for doing all the hard, calf-busting work for us! I've never been to HK, but I really enjoyed your trip through the markets, your mother's memories (or non-memories, seeing as the MTR didn't exist back then!) and the food on offer – that sweet potato sounds pretty simple and spectacular at the same time. Looking forward to your next posts!

     
  • At 6/28/2014 1:41 pm, Anonymous Tammi @ InsatiableMunchies said…

    I've never seen salted duck eggs scraped like that before. Looks really pretty. I guess that's just good business!

     
  • At 6/28/2014 9:39 pm, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    Great post. Every time I go there I fall in love with it even more than the last time. It's crazy, dynamic, frantic and fascinating. Love it!

     
  • At 6/29/2014 1:36 am, Anonymous Gourmet Getaways said…

    Always great to see action straight from the streets and markets of a certain place. It gives an idea of what's goin' on and where to find ingredients to cooking. Thanks for guiding us!

    Julie
    Gourmet Getaways

     
  • At 6/29/2014 7:15 pm, OpenID thehedonistlife said…

    Fucking love Hong Kong!

     
  • At 6/29/2014 8:12 pm, Anonymous Joseph said…

    I love HK it has a charm to it with its eastern/western mix & how much contrast there is between different areas that are really very close together.

     
  • At 7/03/2014 6:58 am, Blogger gaby @ lateraleating said…

    OMG now I know what I missed for spending all my time between the office and the hotel when I went on a work trip. Cheeky coconut "design", too bad it was a false alarm. The sweet potato looks to die for, reminds me to the ones we used to roast in clay pots until burnt outside and syrupy inside.

     
  • At 7/04/2014 1:00 pm, Anonymous Paula said…

    Thanks for this post Helen. The photos are great.

    Perfect timing as I am having a stop over in Hong Kong in a few months and have just started researching.

    We only have 2 days so trying to find a good centrally located hotel if you have any recommendations.

     
  • At 7/04/2014 3:12 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Sherrie - Agreed!

    Hi Sarah - I'm reading one of her books at the moment :)

    Hi Sarah - Thanks so much. HK had so many fab photo moments!

    Hi Billy - Haha I kept thinking of Jackie Chan too!

    Hi Berny - Aww it would have been so lovely to see your relatives reminisce.

    Hi Paula - I was lucky to stay with friends so I don't have any rec's. Am sure you'll have a fantastic time in HK though!

     
  • At 7/08/2014 1:07 am, Anonymous Sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    Pull top coconuts, very cute. Do you think we can trick the Americans into thinking they are grown that way?

     
  • At 7/10/2014 10:51 am, Anonymous Amanda @ Gourmanda said…

    I love Hong Kong, as my birthplace it really is a home away from home. I love the Central district, but you should definitely check out the New Territories next time you're there. Lots of markets as well.

     

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