I am the first to admit, quite happily, that I travel on my stomach, as I think Napoleon said about his army. I love to wander before I have eaten very much at all and then sample everything in sight.
I'm especially lucky because my friend Albert is Hong Kong's answer to Calvin Trilling. the sort of man who says "first we'll have a snack" and then feeds you so amply that hibernation is the only possible response. I met Albert one morning to roam through the oldest portion of Hong Kong island before having tea, and because I knew eating would be part of our expedition, I brought some sweetmeats from a Pakistani foodstall in Chungking Mansions, which I thought would be pleasant to nosh on when we stopped for coffee.
I had eaten a small scone when I had my wake-up jolt of caffeine and on my way to the subway, I ate one of the little Pakistani cakes, which-- as my friend Elizabeth Briel says about moon cakes--was "like eating a truck." It settled firmly into my stomach and when Albert asked me if I were hungry, I quite honestly said no.
Albert however had not yet had breakfast so off we went in search of sustenance, stopping at a bakery where I gasped with pleasure at the sight of the spiced flatbread I ate every morning in Beijing. "Yes, it's from the North," Albert said as he bought that for me and nothing for himself.
I thought it would be rude to eat when Albert was the one who was hungry but the flatbread was irresistible so I nibbled away at it as we looked at shops that sold bird's nests and shark fin and dragonfruit and oh my god the teashop...
It sold dried roses and violets and jasmine and unidentifiable blossoms, each in its own jar and each retaining its original appearance, waiting to be steeped. Labels in English told what each one would cure or ameliorate--one jar of leaves promised to banish irascibility and I knew I should probably buy some.
"Have you ever had coffee with tea?" Albert asked me, and took me to the "porkchop place" where he finally had breakfast and I had a creamy, aromatic glass of mingled tea and coffee and a little condensed milk with what was left of my flatbread. Feeling comfortably replete, I followed Albert up a hillside, down some stairs, and into an open place with a few chairs and tables, a glass case in front with lizards and snakes inside, and a long wall of drawers, each one, I knew from Blair Dunton's wonderful photographs in Lost & Found Hong Kong, holding at least one snake. Albert spoke to a lady of more than middle years, she disappeared and returned with a bowl that she placed in front of me. "Snake soup," Albert told me.
My appetite was lurking somewhere in the very back of my consciousness but the minute that I tasted the soup, the sheer comfort of it made me know I wasn't going to move before every spoonful was gone. It was a thick, clear broth, gently aromatic with ginger, and full of thin slivers of snake meat and what tasted like julienned woodear mushrooms. It had the same soothing quality as the traditional post-Thanksgiving turkey soup and serves the same function of keeping a body warm in the cold season. Unlike in Thailand, snake is not a gender-specific, guys-only dish--both men and women enjoy its warming properties in Hong Kong where it is a winter staple.
Then of course we had tea--but high tea with smoked salmon sandwiches and lemon curd tartlets and artisan chocolate that has spoiled me for any other kind forever. I returned to my room that night with the strong desire to have my stomach bronzed, because it would never receive that sort of nourishment again in one day--at least not until the next time that I had the chance to explore Hong Kong with Albert.
On my own I'm a bit more Spartan and the next day when I explored Kowloon's Nathan Road, I fed my eyes and not my stomach--until I passed a spot with a row of beautiful, golden, gleaming egg tarts, which Albert had addicted me to in my previous visit. I bought one and it was so warm and flaky and creamy and melting that the minute I finished the last crumb, I retraced my steps quickly and apprehensively because I had bought the next to the last tart. But a whole new row waited for me-- I bought one more and succumbed to the pure joy of eating my way through Hong Kong.