Spending our time untethering the mind, getting the fidgets out, exploring the in-between ideas, and learning kintsugi.

Breakfast congee in Hong Kong

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A bowl of pork congee

A bowl of pork congee

I am a coffee and cereal gal but a breakfast in Hong Kong can’t be any other than congee. Although the idea of a savoury porridge in the morning has always been an odd one to me, I had decided to step into Hong Kong for a 36 hour stopover with a firm resolve to try congee. Essence of congee is a tasty broth in which rice is cooked into a light slurry to which bits and pieces of fish, eggs and meat are added.

As I sat reading about distinguised congee shops in Hong Kong, I came to the conclusion that many of these were essentially hole in wall places where the proprietor starts the day at 3:00 a.m. in order to serve up hungry commoners at 7:00.  There are several of these in Hong Kong – but the key is to find a few within walking distance of your hotel – which in my case was the Lan Kwai Fong in Sheung Wan – so that you can walk to your breakfast at dawn.

Sang Kee congee shop

Sang Kee congee shop

While most congee shops serve until late in the day, an early morning bowl on a winter morning – ahem, 19C at 5:00 a.m. – is what is supposed to warm you up on the inside like a flash of memory from childhood when mother sent one off to school with a  warm  hug. Normally, I won’t be getting up at 7:00 am let alone be eating breakfast but when you are jetlagged in a city there is nothing better than to walk the streets during the in between hours of sleepiness and wakefullness.

Central district of Hong Kong is a mix of the old and the new – tall financial buildings and ultra high end shopping complexes coexist with open air fish markets and trinket shops. At dawn, the tall buildings stay engulfed in the winter fog. Hand pulled carts ferry produce down narrow alleys. Even before the congee and noodle breakfast shops are open to customers, you can see the steam escaping from the tiny kitchens – with big vats of simmering broth and boiling water. You can spot the chef sitting down with a bowl of congee – taking a breather between the acts of cooking and serving. And, air is aromatic with smell of pig fat and sewage.

Kitchen of Sang Kee Congee shop

Kitchen of Sang Kee Congee shop

Day 1: We almost missed Sang Kee Congee Shop. Address said 7-9 Burd street. But these small narrow streets are not named as often as you would like and the shops are hardly ever numbered. And in this case, ther was no english sign. Thankfully, the travel booklet I had used to find this shop (a booklet I had picked up from the airport on an earlier visit) the had the Chinese characters so we matched the characters and walked in.  This shop was famous for tender grass carp (w/ pork liver, intestine, tripe) and one with pork balls, beef, air bladder, snakehead fillets – that is what we were expecting to order. We were handed a minimalist menu – the Chinese characters held the details and the English translation underneath was minimal – “congee with pig parts”. Well yes, I did expect pig parts in this part of the world but which ones, it could be anything – tongue, skin, or tail. So, I showed the booklet to the hostess with its pretty pictures. She conferred with a couple members of the kitchen team, translating each item in Chinese – carp, intestine, liver, air bladder – shaking her head in negation on a few items – which ones? I think we had ordered a special. We were lucky that the hostness knew some English. She was pleasant and was amused with us tourists from faraway land trying to take photographs of everything in sight.

What arrived were two scalding hot glistening congee bowls with bits of goodies poking the surface – a tiny bowl of soy sauce and scallions came on the side. We had expected the congee base to be identical but we were pleasantly surprised. One was indeed a fish broth and other pork – but I am not sure of exact contents. Although the rice was well cooked, it retained a kernel of chewiness. Pork balls in the two congees had tasted distinctly different. Blowing into the spoonful of the scalding hot congee, we slurped and chewed on intestines, liver and some other organ meats with the light livery taste and cooked to a pleasant softness. The intestine was a first for both of us. The total bill came to $72 HKG (~$9 USD).

Law Fu Kee Noodle shop described in the booklet

Law Fu Kee Noodle shop described in the booklet

Day 2: Our information said 7 a.m. for Law Fu Kee Noodle Shop and we had turned up promptly at 7:00. The propreitor held up eight fingers and pointed us to a congee shop next door. My booklet didn’t have the next door congee shop on its list with recommended items from the menu and I wasn’t going to order from a menu that would have read “congee with pig parts” so we deicided to find ourselves a coffee shop to kill time. Hong Kong’s preferred coffee chain is Pacific Coffee Company and they do brew a good cup of espresso. We  walked  up and down several streets in the vicinity but the only place to buy coffee was a McDonalds – maybe Hong Kong financiers aren’t in the habit of grabbing a cup of coffee and a muffin on their way to work. When we finally walked back into the congee shop at  8:00, we were the first customers. We both ordered a bowl of congee with preserved eggs and lean meat. Here the broth base was simpler but the salty additives perfectly balanced out the simpler base. Preserved eggs (“or thousand year old eggs”) were a first too with its gelatinous translucent whites and soft cooked yolks.  The total bill came to $42 HKG (~$6 USD).

Congee with pork and century eggs

Congee with pork and century eggs

When I get back to the comfort of my own kitchen, I doubt I will be making congee for breakfast, but I think I will give it a try for dinner. And no, not Mark Bittman’s congee – I like to mess about in the kitchen. I will start from a fish broth – my local farmer’s market sells offcuts of fish for $3/lb – perfect for making stocks. They will also have shrimp which I will buy with the shell on. I will then roast the shells to reddish gold and add to the stock for the extra flavor. Then, I will cook a few spoonful of broken thai rice in the stock to make my congee. I am not sure I will ever learn to make pork intestines but I will give century eggs a try. Maybe some pickled vegetables and maybe duck leg confit …

PS: If like me, you are embarking on your first congee journey in Hong Kong, I recommend that you find the chinese characters for common congee additives such as liver, intestines, kidneys, tongue, grouper, carp and eggs before you go.

Written by Som

December 31, 2009 at 7:45 am

Posted in China, Hong Kong

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. […] to bring some Cantonese cuisine home. Many years ago, we were in Hong Kong and the memories of a breakfast congee is one we fondly recall often. We made plans to make turnip cakes (Lo Bak Go) and sticky rice lotus […]

  2. […] a.m.: Get breakfast congee at Sang Kee Congee Shop. Located on Burd street between Hilier and Mercer street in Sheung Wan, […]

  3. […] of food – I was expecting greatness at every meal but it ended up being a mixed one. The congee breakfasts were exceptional. Fried rice at the traditional Luk Yu Tea House was good. Lunch at the casual […]

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