By Chef Dylan Benoit
Hong Kong is the culinary epicenter of Asia -- it’s full of sights, sounds and smells, unfamiliar and exhilarating to someone raised in the west. This was my second trip to Hong Kong. In 2012, I had the pleasure of traveling here with my business partners, Chad and Steve, on a research and development trip just before we opened our restaurant Mizu Asian Bistro + Bar in Grand Cayman. Chad had lived in Hong Kong for a few years prior to returning to Cayman and knew all the best whole-in-the-wall restaurants. So when my brother Lucas and I got off the plane this time around, I knew exactly where we were headed… Tsim Chai Kee.
Tsim Chai Kee is a small noodle house in central Hong Kong that only sells noodle soup, but the mentality here is do one thing, and do it so well people will travel from the other side of the world for a bowl of soup. Of course that’s a rough translation, my Cantonese is far from perfect.
We arrive around 3 pm on a Thursday and the small 30-seat restaurant is packed with locals, not another westerner in sight, which is a sure sign it’s going to be good! To say the menu is limited would be a gross understatement. The only thing they offer is soup, that’s it. In your bowl of broth is a choice of won ton dumplings stuffed to the point of explosion with hand-chopped king prawn; minced beef meatballs with herbs and garlic; or thinly shaved raw beef that cooks almost instantly in the broth (CI $2.40/US $2.93 per bowl). If you’re the kind of person with commitment issues, you can have any two toppings or all three topping. Once you have decided your protein future, the most important choice awaits; which noodle to choose. There’s yellow noodle, flat white noodle, or vermicelli noodle. The pressure is quickly mounting and the elderly Chinese lady waiting for our order is running out of patience. The expression on her face lets me know we are wasting her time. She has a full restaurant and many hungry mouths to feed, but I’ve done this before so I’m quick with my decision:
“Prawn won ton with yellow noodle and a side of veg with saucy saucy… times 2!”
With that, she's off. The only other item on the menu is listed as a vegetable with oyster sauce. What this mysterious vegetable is has eluded me since my previous trip, so this time I'm determined to discover its name. (See bottom of article)
Our soup arrives in what seems like 15 seconds flat as I watch the single cook, ten feet in front of our table, pumping out bowl after bowl of piping hot tong (Cantonese for soup). He’s slinging noodles from one side of the kitchen to the other, dumping crates of mystery vegetables into steaming pots of water, portioning prawn-packed won tons into small blue and white bowls and finally crowning these plates of perfection with the most delicious broth I have ever tasted.
We spend almost five minutes basking in the aroma, the broth smells of roasted shrimp with a hint of sweetness. We wait for the soup to cool slightly, becuase when it hits the table the broth has a temperature similar to molten lava (as I found out on my last visit). This gives us time to assess the garnish situation. On the table are three accompaniments: soy sauce, chili oil and roasted chili paste. Paying no attention to the first two, I go straight for the latter, adding a teaspoon or two to my soup. Lucas adds two or three tablespoons to his bowl.
We cheers our beers in a toast to arriving in Hong Kong and dig into our lunch. It truly is a masterpiece, its beauty in its simplicity (a bowl of noodles with broth), but delicious in its complexity. It’s the perfect texture of fresh, never dried or frozen noodles, a hint of sesame mixed with the bursting flavor of prawn, exploding from the won tons, and the salty sweetness of the oyster sauce mixed with the mystery vegetable.
We don’t speak for several minutes, completely focused on the task at hand, slurping noodle after noodle, adjusting the spice and scooping in spoonful after spoonful of vegetable from the side plate. We eventually look up at each other, as we both wipe the sweat off our brow, and burst into laughter. We were completely lost in time. Nothing else mattered except this bowl of noodles, in this restaurant, at this moment. A truly great meal has the power to excite, overtake and even transform you and transport you back to a place or time from the past. I thought of Chad and Steve, my dining partners the last time I visited. Then I thought of Lucas and how I knew this simple bowl of soup had captured him the same way it grabbed me when I was first brought here two years before.
We take a break momentarily as the burning sensation in our mouths subsides and I have another sip of beer. Little did we know this was to be the first of many epic dining experiences in Southeast Asia on a trip that would span four weeks, five countries, and countless meals. We finish our bowls, pay our tab, grab our bags and hit the streets. It’s now 3:30 and dinner is only three hours away. We have a lot of walking to do if we are going to make room for a dim sum feast tonight.
TSIM CHAI KEE NOODLE
98 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong
T: +852 2850 6471
THE MYSTERY VEGETABLE
On our walk after lunch we came across a street market, a very common thing in Hong Kong, and managed to find the mystery vegetable for sale at a nearby stand. After several minutes of exaggerated hand gestures, we managed to decipher that this elusive vegetable, this ghost of greenery, was known in Cantonese as “ong choy” or more commonly in English as morning glory or water spinach. It’s delicious when blanched in heavily salted water and covered in oyster sauce.
Cover Photo of Hong Kong by Dylan Benoit
Part Two | Our trip to Macau - Coming Soon
Chef Dylan Benoit
Benoit is the chef overseeing the restaurants for the Market Street Group in Grand Cayman, which includes Craft Food & Beverage, Mizu Asian Bistro, Waterfront Urban Diner, Duke's Seafood and Rib Shack, Fidel Murphy's Public House and Lone Star Bar and Grill. Originally from Toronto, he trained with some of the top chefs in Canada, like Mark McEwan, before moving to Halifax for a few years. He took a short hiatus and travelled to Central & South America and eventually made his way the Cayman Islands.
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