The Confessions of a Traveling Foodie: Between Hong Kong & Montreal

I’m in love.

Yes, the kind of love that you always hear people falling head-over-heels to, but instead of falling for a person, I’m in love with two cities. And here’s the problem: I don’t know which one I love more, Hong Kong or Montreal. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Yours Truly has started studying abroad since the age of 15 and hasn’t really stopped traveling ever since. I studied in England and traveled to a lot of places, and there’s no city that captivates me as much as Montreal does. However, having lived in Hong Kong for almost all my life, I still feel homesick every once in a while when I’m back to Montreal. That’s exactly how I’m feeling right now, a bit homesick and yearning for the comfort from my hometown. Maybe it’s because I spent my whole summer in Asia for the past four months and it was all too comfortable and exciting for me. As a traveling foodie who’s on a student budget, eating out in Asia is a bliss, as dining is much more affordable compared than that in Montreal. It’s not that I don’t like Montreal, trust me, what’s not to love about Montreal? The entrancing sight of swirls of maple taffy on a trough of snow during Sugar Shack season, mesmerizing music scene and vibrant festive mood throughout the summer, are only the few reasons why I love this city. Montreal became my second home after I started my studies in McGill, and I came to realize that I’ll be always be torn between my love for Hong Kong and Montreal. For when I’m staying in Montreal, I’ll be craving for the immense amount of choices of cheap, comfort food in Hong Kong. When I take a break off from Montreal and go back to my hometown for long vacations, I’ll be missing poutine, e’rable tarts and Boustan. These cities shine in very different ways and I just can’t make up my mind on which city I love better.

If someone asks me what kind of city Hong Kong is like, I’ll definitely tell him or her that it’s the home to many food-obsessed people (there’s a reason why they call us the Gourmet Paradise. There’s even a website dedicated to Asians who are ALWAYS taking pictures of food). Hong Kong is also known as one of the busiest and most crowded cities in the world. We walk fast, eat fast and talk loud (according to a lot of my non-Chinese friends, they all find Cantonese as a very loud and rough language). Being such a small city that only appears as a dot on the world map, we’re proud to offer all kinds of national cuisines.  As a vibrant food capital, Hong Kong produces a vast array of choices, from wholehearted, traditional to creative fusion food. When you walk down on any street in Hong Kong, temptation is everywhere, in every imaginable form. For beginners, street food in Hong Kong will be a good start. If you’re a newbie traveling in Hong Kong for the first time, you’ll probably wonder why there are so many people standing outside the food stalls or walking around, eating something that are served with sticks. The most crowded areas are usually the most dedicated places for offering these impaled edibles: a class of food that is ideal for gobbling while walking among a sea of people. It’s in our blood that we eat whenever and wherever we are. Some representatives are curry fishballs, pork and shrimp dumplings that are known as Siu Mai; other munchies include deep-fried stuffed egg plants, green peppers, red sausages (a Cantonese specialty) with fish paste, salty and pepper squids, beef balls, jumble size sausages, and even exotic members such as stinky tofu, chicken kidneys, beef briskets and pig intestines.

People say you can tell there’s a stall selling stinky tofu even when they’re from a street away. The tofu tastes the best with sweet sauce.

Even though the idea of eating some maligned parts of animals sounds foreign, obscure and unappealing to many Westerners, there must be something in store for your palette. The safest choices are always the fishballs and siu mai, spritzed with soy sauce and spicy oil upon request. As a skilled foodie who is addicted to Hong Kong street food, I can tell you that it can be pretty messy holding a skewer in the middle of the street and dripping soy sauce everywhere. So be careful of getting stains on your shirt! Besides the hot steamy skewers, there are food stalls that sell Takoyaki (Japanese octopus balls with yakisoba sauce drizzled on top), bubble tea, frozen yogurt, Taiwanese fried chickens and Korean rice cakes. Hong Kong always loves to spice up the street food scenery by introducing new, creative street food every now and then. I always have fun exploring around to try out different things and that’s the beauty of this special culinary experience: you get to choose from a wide varieties of food items, satisfy your craving for snacks and stuff yourself enough skewers to call it a lunch or dinner. That’s how we do it in Hong Kong!

Other than street food, I also throw my arms at the sight of any Cha Chaan Tang, which literally means tea restaurants. These restaurants fuel Hong Kong and they are the very staples of indigenous, comfort food. The culture of Cha Chaan Tang started when Hong Kong was under the British colonial power and the accidental result is a mélange of Western and Chinese food. Cha Chaan Tang food defines who we are. I always have a soft spot for the velvety smooth milk tea, which is the perfect symbol of British traditions fused with the Chinese. The best ones are made with a special blend of Ceylon tea that is filtered through silk stockings and mixed with evaporated milk. The menu is always bottomless: from fried instant noodles with meat (some people may think: “I can totally make it at home” but trust me, these are so much better), beef and egg sandwiches, tomato soup noodles, won ton noodles, egg tarts to pineapples buns. Egg tart has always been a classic and the rapture of savoring a sizzling, freshly baked one is to bite firmly and let the crust shatter beautifully. You can taste the sublime contrast from each bite: the toasty, lush crust and the soft, smooth custard.


Hong Kong style milk tea are even more velvety when it’s served hot

The pleasure of living in Hong Kong is that the city is bursting of dim sum places. I know it sounds a bit exaggerating, but having dim sum for brunch is almost a daily ritual for me when I’m back to the motherland. After I started pursuing my university life in Montreal, I realized nothing comes easy (in terms of having authentic Chinese food). That’s why I always see having dim sum as a treat, despite the fact that I’ve probably had it for hundreds time. My ritual usually begins with breaking open a soft white steamed bun, filled with glistening golden egg yolk with extra custard spilling out. Then it’s followed by having gleaming shrimp dumplings with thin, translucent yet sturdy skins, pan-fried taro cakes with crispy strands of taro and scrumptious, soft chicken feet stewed in black bean sauce. In between savoring the bite-sized munchies, I like to wash down the greasiness with some soothing Pu’erh tea (a Chinese tea that helps to lower cholesterol). And I love how the bustling environment of dim sum restaurant brings people together: families spend quality time together as they bond over a table of food, and the elderly spend their morning reading newspapers and catching up with their friends. This is where we belong, in a place full of kindness and joy.

On the other hand, Montreal is a completely different scene. Growing up in a populated and air-polluted city like Hong Kong, Montreal is literally a breath of fresh air for me. It’s a lot more laid back and I’m entranced by its kindness and its sophisticated nature. Montreal has a blend of Bohemian and multicultural identity. It’s the home of the soaring indie music scene, coffee shops, trendsetting street fashion and unique culinary traditions. Foodies are spoiled with bursting numbers of ethnic restaurants: French, American, Ethiopian, European and different kinds of Asian cuisines. For example, the casual restaurant Dinette Triple Crown near the Mile Ends offers southern cooking in a picnic-format. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than having some fried chicken, tacos, fried okra and barbecue shrimps while sitting on the grass with a big tablecloth. Living in a strong French influenced city, I embrace its intrinsic French character like every other Montrealers. I adore the pastries and bread from Pâtisserie de Gascogne at Laurier and any branches of Première Moisson. I can devour a tarte aux framboises within a minute. Gulp.

With a vast appreciation of food in Montreal, I admire how dedicated Montreal is in terms of food sustainability. Jean Talon market is renowned for its wide range of local produce and it’s one of those “You can never miss that” places. I remember during my first time at Jean Talon, I was fascinated by the genuine, multicultural atmosphere of the market. The vendors create an exhilarating and inspiring shopping experience, as shoppers can try out different food samples and ask the shopkeepers for cooking advice. By getting your groceries in Jean Talon Market, you get to support local farmers and know more about where your food comes from. There is nothing extravagant here. There’s only a seemingly endless labyrinth of fruit, vegetable, butcher stalls, bakeries and cheese stores. It’s all about the food and the rustic side of the market is what makes it beautiful. If you ever see an Asian girl nibbling from a bag of strawberries, looking like an idiot with a goofy smile on her face while walking among the crowds, that’s most likely going to be me.

munching strawberries while smiling like a 5-year old kid in the middle of the street – checked

It’s the summer comfort package that attracts me the most about Montreal. The brutal winter makes summer even more exciting and there is always something going on in the city during summertime. The Street Festival on St. Laurent is like a huge feast for a foodie like me. I love wandering around in the panoply of paella, fried noodles, fruits, iced lemonade, vintage accessories and clothes. Another brownie point of living in Montreal is the vibrant music scene here; I get to see bands and artists who will probably never hold their concerts in Hong Kong. I mean, where else can you go for a free Stars’ (a Montreal based indie band) concert? And hands down the brightest coffee shops in Montreal, always jam-packed with caffeine addicts and students. Grabbing a coffee before class already becomes my daily ritual and I always prefer studying in a cafe to the library. Moreover, the fact that every month there is a new star joining Montreal’s caffeinated revolution is very exciting. And of course there are the Montreal specialties that made me fell in love with this city: guacamole poutine in the world from the 24-hour La Banquise, honey-sweetened bagels from St. Viateur’s and Fairmont Bakery, lush homemade ice cream from Ripples and large chunks of smoked meat from Schwartz’s.

Homemade ice cream from Ripples on St Laurent – it’s even better than Ben & Jerry’s

One of my friends complained to me once “there’s nothing to do in Montreal”. Alright, if you are looking for really authentic Asian cuisine and cheap, nice clothing, Montreal is not the place for you. Yet there are countless things to do. The luxury of living in a French-meets-English community is you get to meet and mingle with people from different interesting backgrounds, try out new restaurants and cafes and have the perfect setting to learn French. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I still can’t communicate in French after studying in McGill for the past two years, but hey, as a foodie I managed to survive by knowing how to read the French menu pretty much at ease. Even though the winter can be deadly and walking around in the bulky Canada Goose/Moose Knuckles is not fun at all, Montreal dazzles me with its arty, down-to-earth character. On the other hand, thanks to living in a foodie paradise like Hong Kong and having my mum’s top-notch home cooking for many years, I’ve grown to be a foodie and have a palette to enjoy all kinds of food. With my family and friends back at home, Hong Kong is always going to be where I belong. Even though I’ve lived there for more than one and a half decade, there are still so many places to explore and my love for this city never stops growing. I’m fortunate to be able to travel from Hong Kong and Montreal at least once or twice a year, so it’s always refreshing to be back at each city. In a nutshell, these cities shape who I am: a foodie who is too in love with eating (sometimes I just never stop munching), always excited to try new things and can never sort out my ambivalent feelings towards these two cities, Hong Kong and Montreal.

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Categories: Hong Kong Restaurant Reviews, Montreal Restaurant Reviews

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2 Comments on “The Confessions of a Traveling Foodie: Between Hong Kong & Montreal”

  1. September 21, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    I agree Montreal is not the place for gourmet Asian food (unless there’s Vietnamese gems) and clothing, etc. Vancouver or Toronto are more the places and I’ve lived in both cities long enough.

    I haven’t been to HK (indeed, not even to Asia yet), but I can imagine what a foodie’s paradise it is. Montreal is a wonderful apt place for foodies on the European elegant side. For certain, it’s easier to get a nice, fine pastry in Montreal compared to..Calgary. You have to know where to go in Toronto and there are 2-3 artisanal bakers in downtown VAncouver. I’m talking classic French baking techniques, not just heavy apple dumplings.

    • September 21, 2012 at 12:13 am #

      Yea I definitely agree that Montreal is very European compared to the other cities in Canada. There’s a Vietnamese restaurant that makes really good pho, and it’s located near the Beaubien metro!

      I’ve been to Toronto twice and they definitely make better Chinese food there, which is not surprising since there are so many Asians living there. I’ve yet to visit Vancouver and I heard that there are so many good food there!

      If you ever come to China, Hong Kong/Beijing/Shanghai are must! :)
      And thanks for stopping by!

      – ashley

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