Showing up to a lunch date 3o minutes late and short of cash is probably not the best way to make a good first impression.
Most Hong Kong ATMs seem to like my bank card just fine, but others decline any attempted transaction and then pause just long enough before spitting it out to bring on a small panic attack. “Please don’t eat my card. Please don’t eat my card. Please don’t eat my card,” I beg.
This happened at three banks on Monday when I was on my way to meet Janice Leung, a Hong Kong food blogger and freelance editor. (“Great to meet you! Sorry I’m so late, and oh, by the way, I’m not sure I have enough money for lunch…” Classy, Barbra.)
Janice, a calm and reasonable person, told me not to worry; we could eat and then look for another ATM. She then took me to Ball Kee, a dai pai dong tucked into skinny Staveley street, just off of Wellington.
Dai pai dongs are the outdoor food stalls that dot the city. They are licensed by the government, but no new licenses have been given since 1956. They can be passed on to spouses but not inherited, making this a tradition in rapid decline; according to a story on CNNGo, there are only 28 licensees left. Many dai pai dongs are now housed in cooked food centers, and some have been transformed into proper indoor restaurants, which have different licensing laws.
In the end there was no financial crisis, because the food at Ball Kee, like most dai pai dongs, is extraordinarily cheap. Generous plates of wok-fried rice and noodle dishes go for $25-27 HK, or $3.20-3.40 US.
Three dollars and twenty cents! For a big plate of rice topped with crispy pork, tofu, and greens! Heaven.
Janice ordered the “western” fried rice, so-called, she said, because of the inclusion of tomatoes.
Following local custom, Janice rinsed our chopsticks and spoons before we tucked in. The dai pai dongs are more hygienic than they once were, but still, the boiled tea water is reliably cleaner than what’s in the dish sink. Make of that what you will.
We were sitting right next to the kitchen, where a man was working the wok, lifting it to reveal a blast furnace of a burner and sending the contents flying. I don’t know how this man does his job in the height of the Hong Kong summer. Dear Man: How do your job in the height of the Hong Kong summer?
Later on, Janice said she smelled of fried food and that her hair was “starting to clump together”. “Wok hair,” I said. I had it too.
This was an accidental play on words: The style of cooking at Ball Kee is called “wok hei,” which literally translates to “wok’s air”.
Wok air, wok hair.
Ball Kee Staveley St., Central (off of Wellington), Hong Kong
Visit Janice’s blog E*Ting for lots of food tips from Hong Kong and elsewhere.
See all of my recent Hong Kong photos on Flickr.