Sai Kung: a second helping
The old man hovers over our table and grins, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. “Order the Singapore noodles,” he admonishes, “It’s the best.”
Long a staple of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous cha chaan teng – those small teahouses and diners serving generous portions of comfort food – Singapore noodles are in fact a Cantonese creation. It is something of a misnomer; gastronomes would be hard pressed to find this exact dish in the Southeast Asian city-state, so famous for its street food.
But the true origins of Singapore noodles remain clouded in uncertainty. Some believe it was returning Cantonese migrants who brought the recipe back from then-British Malaya and the Straits Settlements. Others say it is more likely the invention of an anonymous chef, who penned a vaguely exotic label to describe the gentle heat and yellow colouring so integral to this dish.
Either way, Bama and I are charmed by the sincerity of the old man’s proposal. More than two years earlier I had dined at the same beachside restaurant, whose shaded rows of plastic chairs and tables were a welcome respite for hungry hikers from the midday sun. It was here that I discovered the tastiest rendition of a childhood favourite: sweet and sour fish.
When I tell him, the old man is not even surprised. “The way it’s cooked is very typical of Tai Long Wan. We use huge woks and firewood.” I would later learn that this combination was responsible for that coveted, elusive quality known as wok hei – “breath of the wok”.
Ham Tin Wan, ‘salt field bay’, is a rather prosaic name for this vision of uncrowded sand on one of Hong Kong’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. From the south, it is the second of four beaches lining the greater expanse of Tai Long Wan, so named for its sizeable waves rolling in from the east.
“I’ve lived here more than thirty years,” the old man tells us. “I moved from the city. After working on the High Island Dam, I liked this area so much I decided to stay.” Much of his teeth are missing, but the man’s eyes glow with a rare sparkle – one I have never seen in the footbridges and subterranean tunnels of downtown Hong Kong. It speaks of contentment, pure happiness and a life lived outdoors. “I’m the one who brings supplies from Chek Keng.”
Do you come by boat? “No, by cart.” He uses tse, a universal word that can describe just about anything with wheels. In this case it’s a noisy cross between a handcart and a tractor, with treads for handling the switchbacks and steep climbs beyond the beach.
“I go diving to catch fish, but things here have changed a lot.”
The deliveryman sweeps his arm out towards the bay, over a makeshift plank bridge lashed together from recycled timbers and even a discarded metal sign. “The beach used to be even whiter before. Ever since they introduced plastic – PVC – it’s changed colour. But the sand is made from shell powder, it’s so fine.” At this, the old man rubs two fingers against his thumb. “You can’t find it anywhere else!”
Eventually the grinning deliveryman bids us goodbye, puttering up the trail on his handcart-tractor to his home above the beach. By contrast, Mr. Lai, at turns both the restaurateur and chef, strikes me as a man of few words. He seems dour – almost unfriendly – as he hands us the menu, a straightforward A4 sheet in black and white.
A young Mandarin-speaking visitor stands waiting when I go to place my order. “You ren ma?” Is there anyone there? Mr. Lai emerges from the darkness of the kitchen, casting a wary eye down the list before pointing and responding bluntly in Cantonese. “Mo ah, ni di yeh!” We don’t have these things! Confused, the patron smiles nervously and returns to her table, agonising over the menu for alternatives.
Meanwhile I try my best to be faultlessly polite, hoping that the badly-accented Cantonese would not raise his ire. “Mister, do you have squid and sweet and sour fish today?”
“Yau ah!” Yes, he says firmly, “but you’ll have to wait a while.”
No problem, I chime; we’re not in a hurry.
Bama and I wait in hungry anticipation, looking out towards the beach as a European couple fish out a pair of saran-wrapped stuffed baguettes from their backpack. It is perfect weather for ice cream and sandwiches, but I am craving more fuel for the two-hour hike back to the main road.
As it turns out, the Singapore noodles are a sheer revelation. It comes as an inviting heap of delicate rice vermicelli, neither too sticky nor too slippery; a telltale sign of being stir-fried in the perfect amount of oil. The curry powder – source of its colour and flavour – is unexpectedly potent, with tiny flakes of chilli tickling our palates.
And yet, its smaller components are no less delightful on the tongue. We relish the firm but juicy texture of the shrimp; the crunch of green and red bell peppers; the unfolded cabbage leaves and sweet slivers of onion, with their sides wonderfully charred. I’m surprised by the moistness of the egg, at first glance almost inseparable from the turmeric yellow of the noodles.
We scoop up mouthful after mouthful until only drops of golden oil remain, glistening like tiny constellations on an ocean blue sky. For a moment, I imagine the old deliveryman somewhere up the hillside, grinning away at the balmy weather, the magnificent scenery and the thought of Mr. Lai’s Singapore noodles. ◊