The stars weren't aligned when I searched for my dream congee in Hong Kong.
Cocktail or congee? While most tourists go bar-hopping when they’re in a foreign land, I decided to go congee-hopping. I can get a decent cocktail anywhere but this is Hong Kong, the land of the Holy Gruel. The humble rice porridge, called 'lugaw' in Filipino and 'congee' in Chinese, is an Asian staple. Congee shops are as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as karaoke bars are in the Philippines.
To help my search, I used three words: 'best congee HK' and went with the recommendations from ‘The Loop’ and a blog by 'The Hungry Egghead'.
With less than a week in the city, I didn't have much time. The search began.
Day 1 Breakfast: Fish congee from the Marriott Hotel, Courtyard Hong Kong, 167 Connaught Road, W
I was too tired to leave the hotel and decided to go with what’s available a few floors down from my room. Luckily, the buffet breakfast at Marriott included fish congee.
But without the fish. Turns out I was just eating porridge. You have to add the fish slices separately (I didn't get the memo). There was a small tub of fresh ginger shavings next to the pot though and small slices of Chinese doughnut if I wanted them (which I did).
Verdict: At HK$184 or AUD$37, it was by far the most expensive congee I’ve ever had. Ever. I inadvertently paid for the full buffet package and the price also included my coffee. The congee was good but on the count of price? Never again.
Day 2 Supper: Some God-awful place on Des Veoux Road, West
I was so traumatised by my congee experience here that I wanted to block it from my head. Which was easy to do since I can't read or write Chinese.
Basically, I asked one of the staff at Marriott to recommend a congee place nearby. I think the meaning of ‘recommended’ was lost in translation and he gave me directions to the closest congee place instead, hence this shop. At HK$22 (or AUD$4) for a bowl, it was dirt cheap.
Chicken congee, my favourite, wasn’t on the menu so I ordered the pork and century egg instead. But when it came, the gruel was so thick and there was a bit of it dripping on the side of the bowl – like saliva. I couldn’t handle it. I paid the bill and left it untouched. Now off to find a better spot.
Half an hour later: Sang Kee Congee Shop, 7-9 Burd Street Sheung Wan
I probably looked at more than five ‘best congee in HK’ reviews and Sang Kee was unanimously featured in all of them.
Sadly, just as I was about to enter this revered establishment, I caught one of the staff picking his nose.
It’s all over before it even began.
15 minutes later: Chan Kan Kee Chiu Chow Restaurant, 11 Queens Road West, Sheung Wan
Luckily, there was another congee shop several minutes away so I hot-footed it there. I ordered the fish and beef congee. Unlike normal congee, the rice didn’t disintegrate in the water so it just looked like fish and beef soup poured over a bowl of rice. Not what I wanted.
Verdict: Skippable. Next!
Day 3: Breakfast Cheuk Kee Congee Shop, 54 Belchers Street, Kennedy Town
I discovered that in Hong Kong, pork and century egg is the standard, unlike in Australia were the chicken congee option is always on the menu.
Nonetheless, I tried my luck and ordered it anyway. Bingo! They have it. It came from the invisible menu titled 'For Stubborn Tourists Who Keep Ordering Chicken Congee'. And they served it just like my childhood favourite, arroz caldo, with plenty of ginger and chicken with bones instead of diced chicken.
Verdict: The congee was great. High marks for the food itself but fine-dining it's not. I was slightly put off by the plastic bowl and spoon and the lack of privacy. I was sitting so close to the other diner I could hear him chew and slurp his way through his meal (okay, #firstworldproblems).
Day 4: Brunch Wai Kee Congee Shop, 8 Stanley Street Central
I’m determined to fulfil my mission even if it kills me. On the list was, conveniently, another shop in the middle of the city. It was a spacious basement restaurant and they had a pretty extensive menu. But once again, no chicken congee so I opted for the fish.
Verdict: Wow, this has to be the tastiest congee of them all. The fish wasn’t overcooked and the broth just had the right consistency. I’m so glad I gave it a shot. But wait. I asked for fried dough sticks and they said they don’t serve it here. How can you serve congee but not the dough sticks!?! That’s like serving sandwich without the bread!
The search continues.
Day 5: Last Day in Hong Kong. Tasty Congee & Wantun Noodle Soup, International Airport
Just when I’ve given up, I stumbled on a congee shop at the airport. I quickly looked at the menu and what do you know – they serve chicken congee! Victory was so close I could almost taste it. The price was a costly HK$72 (AUD$14.40) but I figured this was my last chance. With less than 40 minutes before boarding, I ask for it on Take-Away.
After the Qantas staff did the final boarding pass check, I walked down the long aisle connecting the airport to the plane, blissful at the thought of sitting down to eat my save-the-best-for-last congee.
But it was in that same tube, the limbo land between embarking and disembarking, that my hope disintegrated: ahead of me was the final bag check.
When my time came, the inspector took one look at my congee, classified it as 'hot liquid' instead of food from the Gods.
My pleading eyes and shaking lips didn't work on this cold, heartless monster. And so it happened - my could-have-been congee - lying next to discarded water bottles.
Defeated, I held my head up high and kept walking. I've been broken-hearted before. Time heals all wounds.
Hours later, as I settled into my seat, I re-assessed the situation.
Come to think of it, none of the congee I tasted while in HK came close to the one I've had at Golden Century Restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown.
After that gruelling exercise, I realised that home is where my dream congee is.
And yes, it's chicken.
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