Mantis prawn in the Temple Street Night Market
FOURTH COURSE: DIM-SUM OVERLOAD, SNAKE WINE
The next day, we make our way to one of Jamie's most-anticipated stops: Tim Ho Wan, the most inexpensive Michelin-starred spot in the world. Chef Mak Kwai Pui opened the place in 2009 and earned his first star after only one year. It's renowned for many things — the pork buns, the service, the quality — and it's about to be the place where some Boston chef and a journalist blissfully died from dim-sum overload.
We land at lucky table 88 in the back corner. The whole dining room rings with loud chatter and the clinking of teapots. After the first few bites, we look up, and Chef Mak — the man who has just rocked our world with the best pork bun ever — joins us at the table. With Fred translating, the two chefs have a stilted conversation, and I watch Mak's expressions. This year marks his 34th year of cooking, and Jamie shakes his hand like he's just met the Dalai Lama.
In the interest of efficiency, here are some of my notes that I messily scribbled and spilled chili sauce all over:
Baked bun w/ BBQ pork — soft and buttery crust, pork is sweet and falls apart in your mouth
Glutinous rice steamed in lotus leaf w/ duck kidney sausage, chicken, and mushrooms has the best texture ever
Steamed spare rib in black-bean sauce — fun to chew on the bones
Turnip cake: Jamie says it's the best he's ever had
Steamed dumpling in Chiuchow style, greens, peanuts, pork, shrimp: best thing ever
Chicken feet with black beans — Jamie's favorite snack that he brings back from Chinatown for line cooks
Pan-fried pepper with mixed pork and fish cake: the best stuffed pepper I've ever had
Bird's nest soup steamed egg, milk, and ginger juice — faaaancy
After we roll ourselves out of Tim Ho Wan, 14 courses later, Fred asks us if we're game for snake wine and snake soup, which is just down the street. Enter Jamie's "always say yes" rule, even in the face of certain food coma.
The first thing we notice when we step into Ser Wong Fun on Cochrane Street is a stark reminder that the global chef community is a small world — five signed headshots of Andrew Zimmern are laminated and hung in different corners of the walls. He's drawn a little curlicue snake on each photo with Sharpie. "Hey!" Jamie nudges Fred. "That's a really good friend of mine."
The chef brings us two bowls of king-cobra soup — which really does taste like chicken, or, if you're Jamie, squirrel — and waves at two containers of condiments on the table: strips of kaffir lime leaf the width of sturdy floss and crispy fried wonton chips. As we dig in, he sets down two shot glasses with yellowy-amber liquid: the storied snake hooch. One is a classic five-snake wine — five venomous snakes steeped in rice wine for months — the other a snake-bile wine made from the contents of the snake's gallbladder. We learn that the wine is drunk as a restorative elixir, usually for a sore throat.
Not a fan of snake fare himself, Fred watches our faces as we taste our drinks. According to Jamie, the five-snake wine tastes like Cynar, an Italian bitter liqueur made from 13 different herbs and plants, and the bile wine like an Amaro Averna. I nod along with him, even though all I've got in my mouth is the bitter, puckering taste of the rice wine, mixed with a high note of acid reflux.
At a wet market
Jamie buys a little packet of dried gallbladders to experiment with back home, and it's just one of a hundred moments on this trip when it's apparent that when it comes to food, he is afraid of nothing. Eating with him, you agree to try something you never would have before as a less adventurous eater — marrow, heart, pig-ear terrine — because you trust him. The fearlessness of his appetite, and of his cooking, has helped make Boston a more adventurous food town.
His attention to the constant fluctuations of his community's general palate — its ever-changing whims and comforts — seems as big a part of his job as working the line. "If I had said I was putting kimchi in a pasta dish 10 years ago, half the people wouldn't know what it was," he once told me. "Now, somebody says 'kimchi,' and everybody loves it. That evolution, and people's access to information and flavors, pushes us as chefs to have newer ingredients."
A trip to Hong Kong, then, and a chance to play with flavors that can only be sought out deep in Chinatown by those who really want to find them, is invaluable to someone who has the power to directly influence the tastes of an entire city.
Tonight we're going clubbing in the Lan Kwai Fong neighborhood, so Jamie texts his longtime friend from No. 9 Park, Janet Kim, who just moved to Hong Kong for work. "This night could get crazy," he warns me. Lan Kwai Fong is a classic nightlife tourist trap; Hard Rock Café on one side, Irish pub on the other, a bar touting 10 shots for 10 bucks one street over. We wind up at Graffiti, a darkly lit place with live music. (Fred gleefully points out all the polished-looking mainland-China groups from our cocktail table. "So obvious," he says. "So uptight!")
The live music in question turns out to be H2O — not the New York punk band but instead a group of Filipino dudes in their mid-20s doing Hall & Oates covers. Somewhere between our fourth and fifth Tsingtao beers, Janet is here, and H2O jacks up the energy a notch and busts out Top 40 hits; by this point we're all just yelling "THIS IS AWESOME I LOVE THEM SO MUCH OHMYGOD" at one another over the drums.
We bar-hop for a bit, stifling laughs when a hammered tourist starts trying to fight passersby, screeching "I'm Japanese, bitch!! WHAT??!" and struggling to shrug off the friends trying to haul him into a cab. One poor soul is draped on a cross-section of bamboo scaffolding, head down, blacked out. Janet tries in vain to convince us to go for the 10-shot deal. I order another Guinness.