Swallowing Clouds


When I was a kid, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, running around with my cousins and fueling our video game binges with street food. With them, I would go to curry fishball carts, to the 7-Eleven for the newest Slurpee flavors. But most importantly, we would go out for wonton mein, bowls of dumplings whose name translates as "swallowing clouds," along with thin wheat noodles in a broth of shrimp and dried fish that tastes like neither exactly, but just a clean, deep savoriness.

swallowing clouds
Wonton mein is an important food in Hong Kong, a snack that matters. I have seen otherwise composed adults get into raucous arguments over who has the best bowl in the city. I have seen them look authentically hurt, shaking their heads talking about such-and-such a place and its faded glory. I have seen waiters, as old as the hills, deliver probably their hundred-thousandth bowl, still as insistent on its quality as their first.

I remember going to my cousins' favorite neighborhood place, remember getting the bowl, beige and gold topped with a few Chinese chives. I remember the steam rising off the top, how "sweet" the broth was, a term we used not, in this case, to describe the taste of sugar, but the soup's ringing clarity of flavor. I remember the plump floating wontons, bulbs of pork and shrimp, their wrappers undulating veils. I remember the noodles, thin and squiggly, their perfect toothsomeness we called "song," a word in the Cantonese for a crisp, bouncy snappiness that, for some reason, we have no analogue for in English.

That place, like many of its ilk in Hong Kong, was a dump of a higher order. We're talking about eating on mahjong tables covered with trash bags to protect the playing surface. Folding stools, cherrybomb pink plastic colanders, staff in flipflops, decades before it was acceptable to wear flipflops outside of the bathroom, let alone the house. (The idea that you would be cooking or serving big bowls of boiling hot broth in flipflops still astonishes me.) I don't know exactly where my predilection for dumps comes from, but I suspect those summers in Hong Kong have a lot to do with it.

I just arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in more than a dozen years. Even before I touched down, the difference between this place and the place of my memory was apparent. Back then, the airport was smack in the middle of the city; landing a plane meant flying through the skyline, buzzing so close over apartment buildings you could literally see people in their living rooms. It was an exhilarating sight, one that announced your arrival presently and directly. The new airport—bigger, safer, and more efficient—is also untitillatingly located away from the city. My arrival was dark, over water and unlit mountains. It made me a little nervous about what kind of an experience I was going to have here. Have things changed? Or maybe, have I? Has my memory made things seem much sweeter than they were, and will I be disabused of my illusions unceremoniously?

One of my cousins lives in New Jersey now. His brother just moved back here, but is busy working, raising his kid with another on the way. I don't know who's going to guide me through the wonton mein circuit, but I intend on making the rounds.

Subscribe to Gourmet