The Sheung Wan Cooked Food Centre is a truly menacing and shadowy looking thang towering over the entire Sheung Wan neighborhood and one which I have passed every single day on my way home from work, yet have never entered. I honestly don’t know why, especially because I loved the North Point dai pai dong I visited in May so much. So when my dad, who visited me this past weekend, mentioned that he wanted a local dinner, I thought it would be the perfect place to go – an adventure for both of us. We had both been in cooked food centres before and kind of understood how they work, but never to this particular one. As in others, an escalator leads up to the first floor which is occupied by a raw (?) food market (everything from fish to pig to mangosteen) and then to the second floor which holds the humongous dai pai dong. Cafeteria-style dining room with round tables as far as the eye can see, entire families eating together out of 10-12 different plates of food. My dad is an adventurous guy when it comes to food so he was more than okay with indulging my craving for the strange proteins. No chicken, beef or pork would be ordered this time around…
One thing I’ve always wanted to try but never quite got around to ordering is something that seems to be very popular in Hong Kong (or at least pretty prevalent on menus and in market fish stands), the fish head. As soon as I saw it on the menu, I knew it was the right choice. This particular dish was a bit like a stew, containing a couple of fried and then stewed fish heads, some tofu, some black gummy mushrooms, scallions, some wilted cabbage on the bottom of the bowl and, surprisingly, a bit of fatty pork as well. The ingredients peaked out of a very thin, soy-sauce-salty broth which took on the flavors of the fish and the pork fat and thus provided a deliciously complex base and a kind of sauce for the chewy-outside, buttery-soft-inside tofu to soak in. The pork itself was also very good, tender and supple, with a nice and thick layer of tasty fat. The fish head, which took up some of the piggy flavors of this fat and blended it with its own fried fish character, was complex in flavor but a bit too fatty for me, probably because I was attempting to eat anything that wasn’t cartilage or bone, and this left mostly the fat. I later learned from watching a local guy deal with his own fish head that the fat was probably only there to flavor the soup and, most importantly, to flavor the tiny bit of actual meat, the brilliantly white cheek meat, which lies inside of the jaw and which is actually quite tasty. I was brave enough to eat one of the fisheyes which flopped out of one of the heads into the bowl. I stopped after one… Cartilage-y chew on the outside, a bit of a jelly texture on the inside and a little white ball in the middle which has the texture of chalk (falling apart similarly to chalk when bit into) and no particular flavor of its own. Not for me but worth a try.
Our second dish was something we actually kind of knew we liked and wanted, stewed frog with day lily and cloud ear fungus. Frog is not particular weird for me or for him as it is served with the legs breaded and fried in Hungary and even some parts of the States take it as a normal protein. Tastes like chicken right?
This particular dish was absolutely delicious. The frogs were taken whole and chopped into odd, asymmetrical pieces – a few elbows and knees, a few ribs and backs all tossed in together – and mixed with soft, wilted day lily shoots, crunchy fungus and refreshing snippets of scallion. The tiny little muscles of the frog were very tender and had a mild poultry flavor (as expected), a flavor which was not overpowered by the light soy-based sauce it was served in. The lily and the fungus were there mostly to add texture, a smooth one from the former and a bite from the latter. Overall the dish was pretty simple in flavor and complex yet still very light in texture, making it a perfect balance with the intensely flavored and super-heavy fish head stew. We definitely picked well and were very satisfied at the end of this meal.