Friday, August 13, 2010
As a child, I hated the bland, tasteless rice gruel that Mum made whenever I was sick. Gloopy, and always too hot, the thought of having congee alone made me determined to stay away from bugs as much as possible.
There is one type of congee I will never say no to, though. Sang Kee.
As a kid growing up, it was always a treat when we went out to Sang Kee for congee. Back then there was one tiny storefront, in the back streets of Sheung Wan in Hong Kong. This place was a favourite of my father, back when he was working in the vicinity in his early career in business. I'm not sure how often he went, but considering the current owner/proprietress still remembers him, I'd say it was pretty often.
A couple of years ago, they started expanding. First they merged with another nearby shop selling beef brisket in clear soup, and became Sang Kee Congee and Beef brisket noodle experts. Business was so good that they soon took over 2 more store fronts. Then it was the opening of the Kowloon branch near Yau Ma Tei station, and then a third store at North Point. I make an effort to go to Sang Kee at least once for the congee each time I go back to HK; a trip to HK is not complete without having a taste of my favourite congee.
For such humble beginnings, though, I can say they are world renowned. Regularly featured in guidebooks to Hong Kong (very prominently in Japanese one; and I recall seeing an entry in Lonely Planet also), Pat Nourse named it as one of the must-visit eateries of Hong Kong in the Gourmet Traveller. Chua Lam (avid Iron Chef viewers may recall that he is featured occasionally as a taster on the judging panel) is a regular visitor, and often writes about it in his magazine and newspaper columns. Speak to 10 Hong Kong gourmets, at least 9 of them will recommend it as a favourite, I reckon.
While they are famous for the fish bone, pork fry and fish ball congee, I've grown up with the beef congee, partly because I lack the patience and skill in eating segments of fish with large pieces of bone attached, and only just recently acquired a taste for fish balls in general. The beef is tender, packed with umami, and the congee scaldingly hot with the subtle sweetness of the pork bone, conpoy, bean curd and gingko seed soup base used to boil the aged jasmine rice coming through. The rice is cooked until it has almost completely disintegrated, forming a thick, soupy goodness that settles any stomach, and calms the mind.
The experience is not complete without a side order of fried dough sticks (you tiu). Soak a few pieces in the congee, the gaps become filled with the hot gruel, and becomes a fantastic vehicle of experiencing the ricey goodness, especially when sprinkled with a few drops of their special soy sauce.
Having been to both the Sheung Wan and Yau Ma Tei shopfronts, I still think it is best at its original location, the hole in the wall where it all started. The atmosphere is completely different: but that may be the memories talking. Taste wise, they are all the same. The head chef spends his day travelling to the three stores, to maintain their famed quality, so there should be no difference.
Sang Kee Congee and Noodles
Ground Floor, 9 Tung Fong Street (Opposite YMCA)
Yau Ma Tei
Yau Ma Tei MTR Station D exit