Sunday, August 18, 2013

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Tai O Fishing Village Adventure

Once in a while, I have an experience so great that I simply *can't* write about it...there are no words that can possibly do it justice.  Or I keep waiting for inspiration to hit, and end up 'saving' it for another day, a better day. 

But several things that happened to friends / acquaintances recently really put things in perspective - don't put off to another day, what you could do while you have the time and ability. 

So here's my attempt at retelling one of my favorite travel experiences ever.

When describing Hong Kong to people who have never been, I usually find it easiest to compare it to NYC - in terms of being beyond-fast-paced, gorgeous skyline, incredible dining, packed so solid with people that you can easily develop pedestrian rage.  But with a lot more Asians.  And of course the meeting of two predominant and vastly different cultures - where relics of tradition can exist side-by-side with glossy icons of modernity and ostentatious capitalism.

But there was a hidden gem that I hadn't experienced until my most recent visit - a fishing village just under two hours outside the city center, often referred to as the "Venice of Hong Kong".

On a less frequented edge of Lantau island, accessible by a combination of MTR (Hong Kong's uber efficient subway system) and bus / taxi up a windy mountain road - Tai O sits as a vestige of nostalgic Hong Kong.  Back before the skyscrapers and hustle-and-bustle, before shopping malls and neon signs. Where houses on stilts still jut with proud romanticism out of the sleepy river that provided livelihoods to fishermen who have been there for generations.  There are not very many places in Hong Kong that still feel 'untouched' by mass commercial interests - and Tai O is that rarity that has, for better or worse, attracted many visitors over recent years.  Since it was kind of a spontaneous trip, we had arrived in the evening just before sundown - so the first thing we did was jump on the boat tour, since they stop running after dark.

If memory serves correctly it was like $10 HKD / ~$1.40 USD per person for the half hour ride, where you get to see the original stilt houses - where people still actually live - this was no theme park recreation - as well as some natural formations in rocks sloping down the mountainside into the water.
But it was strolling through the quaint, narrow alleyways that was my favorite part of the visit.  As a fishing village, it comes as no surprise that there was lots of seafood for sale - but prepared and presented the old school Chinese way - dried and hanging in plastic bins or hanging from open street vendor stalls.
It was a treasure trove of delicacies from the sea, from salted fish, geoduck, sea cucumbers, scallops, shrimp, and abalone to seahorses.
A signature product made from their marine bounty is a pungent shrimp paste, which is added to seafood dishes to kick up the flavor.  Also sold at some stalls were 'fish powder' and XO sauce (a Hong Kong invention - and one of my favorite condiments of all time - made with various dried seafood, chili and spices).
With the 'Travel Channel'-like experience thus far, we were already having a great time, when we turned down another alley that opened up to a small plaza and it got even better.  There were street vendors with hibachi style grills that almost looked homemade - and they served up all kinds of delicious seafood from skewers of giant scallops with or without beautiful orange gonads included...'s a close-up... the 'goldmine' stall that blew my mind with MULLET ROE BOTTARGA, such an expensive delicacy elsewhere in the world, grilled on the street over stone bowl charcoal hibachis!!!

They clamp the gorgeous orange slabs of roe in between open metal wire grates to allow it to heat evenly.

The delicious smoky char was intoxicating, and completely irresistible.  My parents are always worried about the cleanliness of street food, especially seafood, but I was absolutely not going to leave Tai O without trying the grilled bottarga.

They actually had several different kinds for people to choose from, at different grades of quality - that they will grill to order.  As with all the other amazing seafood here, very unceremoniously presented in plastic bins.  The cheapest grade was $20HKD/ >$3USD per pair, and went up to $40HKD/ ~$5.70USD on the 'high' end!!!!  I nearly died of happiness on the spot.  We ordered several rounds, which were grilled on the spot and placed in paper bags (!!!) for us to eat on the go while checking out the rest of the village.

The incredible find, and value, aside - what I also loved about Tai O was that the authenticity.  These vendors are not cast members hired to evoke an untouched, idyllic fishing village.  They actually live here - most upstairs from their food stall - and they are clearly proud of their village and their way of life.  They have tourists coming through, yes, but if that business is a necessary means to sustain their way of life - so be it. 
Next to the bottarga, a lady grills whole dried squid, carefully alternately holding it over flames and cooling it down as needed with a handheld electric fan.

We didn't end up trying the squid as we were so obsessed pre-occupied with the bottarga.  It was the first time my parents had tried it too, so it was a fun first for us to experience together.  I loved that they were game for it.

Further down the labyrinthine alleys, were other hot food vendors - one with some sort of dessert bun (lotus seed paste bao, I think)...

And my favorite street food snack growing up, the Hong Kong Egg Waffle!!!!  So crispy on the outside with warm, soft fluffy doughy interiors - perfectly formed for eating on the go since the individual egg-shaped 'capsules' help maintain the crispiness / doughiness balance.

There were also mom and pop restaurants with buckets and tanks of live seafood - where you can take your pick, and ask the server to prep it the way you like it.  This is not unique to Tai O though - there are several other famous spots in Hong Kong to get this type of experience, like Lama Island and Sai Kung - so we did not stop for a full seafood feast here.

Though, we couldn't leave without trying at least a bite of the local seafood prepared with their signature shrimp we stopped by the restaurant that looked like it had the most customers (always a sign that it's a good pick - an admittedly herd mentality that leads to long lines and waits at top restaurants in HK): Good View Seafood.  Despite its name, the place did NOT face the water and was a no frills hole in the wall.

We tried their stir-fried squid with vegetables in shrimp paste sauce.  I wanted to love it but to be honest it wasn't that memorable.  But we had our fill of grilled bottarga earlier, and that was what mattered, and made our day / trip.

Oh, almost forgot to mention, if you visit in the early evening, don't miss the chance to catch the sunset by the docks - it's pretty breathtaking.

Though the whole place shuts down - literally, with metal gates coming down over once lively storefronts - pretty soon after dark - nothing can beat the feeling of strolling through the 'night market'-like alleys just around dusk.  Be sure not to be swept up in the mass exodus of the crowds and miss out on that small window of opportunity. 

Definitely one of my favorite travel experiences of all time - and not sure if it will still be the same next time I'm back.  (I read recently that real estate developers are setting their sights there, and a government ban on commercial fishing has pushed villagers to seek other means of income which further erode their traditional, nature driven way of life.)  I hope so, and I hope that the bottarga, hibachi and the villagers' untainted ways will be there waiting for us for many years to come.


Hong Kong
Tai O fishing village
Lantau Island, Hong Kong
How to get there: MTR Tung Chung + cable car and/or bus or taxi


1 comment:

  1. Wow what a nice preparation! I am very much appreciated with this type of food. I will pin this images in my profile

    Hong Kong Travel



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