Back in my dim dark past, my pre-viral salad days, I was a hired gun. A heartless mercenary offering my services to the highest bidder, performing often gruesome tasks without remorse; ruthlessly and efficiently making the hit then silently packing my equipment and disappearing back into the night. Over a period of eight years I made five trips to Hong Kong to carry out assignments that would make a lesser man tremble: playing occasional notes on the saxophone in a lavish cantonese pop show. It’s dehumanising experiences like these that led to the permanent cold dead look in my eyes. But on the brights side, I got to eat lots of lovely noodles.

These trips were grand: an easy workload, good people, nice hotels, and a few bucks at the end of it. And plenty of time to explore the city. In 2021, things are looking kinda rough down there, but when I was traveling, Hong Kong was a blast. China, but not China, you could explore as deep as you liked, down alleys with locals-only markets selling ducks in wooden crates and buckets of frogs and eels, stall owners yelling daily specials over the raucous hubbub; and know that a block or two away was a mirrored high-rise with a cocktail bar on the thirtieth floor where immaculately dressed waiters speaking flawless English mixed a superlative Manhattan. And of course, for a food nerd, it was paradise.

Before each trip I’d spend weeks researching, hunting down the latest dope on where to eat, marking each recommendation on my map. Then once we hit the ground, I’d spend every free moment getting hopelessly and brilliantly lost. After countless wrong turns and dead ends, I would eventually find my Roast goose fix at Kam’s or Joy Hing, soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, Beijing dumplings at that place with no English name… And at every turn, on every corner, in every cinematically apt alleyway and dispiriting food court, delicious wonton soup. I made my pilgrimage to Mak’s Noodles because they’re said to be the best, and they are delightful, but I had amazing versions all over.

I must admit, at first I was underwhelmed. Compared to noodle soups in other Asian countries, and indeed other Cantonese dishes, great wonton soup is subtle. It’s not a slap in the tastebuds like a Thai or Vietnamese soup, or a salty fatty rush like Hong Kong’s famous roast meats. It’s warming and soothing, the soup complex and rich but understated, allowing the wontons centre stage.

I’d been meaning to try and recreate some of my Honkers favourites back home, so when, on a bleak rainy February morning, Lady AHAM expressed a desire for noodle soup, I jumped– if nothing else, this was an excuse for a trip to 99 Ranch. I’ve banged on about my love for this Asian supermarket before, and will do it again right now. What a magical, wondrous place; it’s like going on holidays. Situated in a depressed strip mall that couldn’t be more New Jersey if it tried, a grimy neglected trash-blown parking lot surrounded by run down pharmacies and empty fast food joints, it’s an open challenge to optimism, a denial of aesthetics, a place too grim for dreams. Then you pass through those juddering sliding doors and land, head spinning, in the mystical Far East. Breathe deeply, it’s the smell of travel, the unknown, unexplored worlds and cultures; within that smell is the knowledge that the world is so preposterously huge and complex that you will never grasp more than a microscopic speck of it. The next thing you’ll notice is that they’re piping in American country music- they always do- which only elevates the mystery.
I spent a wonderful hour prowling the aisles, inspecting strange and wonderful vegetables, animal parts (one day I’ll buy that tray of duck tongues), spices, pastes, powders, preserved eggs, dried fish… and came home with a few pounds of pork neck bones, some chicken wings, a whole dessicated flounder, some tiny dried shrimp, yellow chives, half a roast duck, and a bag of of frozen wontons, the last of which is our little secret, ok? I’ll attempt my own wontons next time, but one step at a time…

The night was spent making a simplified version of what’s known as Superior Stock- it’s the Chinese stock from which other soups are born, and is the one you’ve seen bubbling in huge vats through the fogged up windows in Chinatown. Chicken, pork, some aromatics, then the dried seafood at the end. I gave it three hours on the hob when I probably should have given it four or five, but the resulting broth was wonderful. The flavour was mild but deep, the collagen from the bones lending weight, the dried fish providing the umami. Bowls were simply constructed with wonton noodles, steamed choy sum, slabs of bony fatty roast duck, and my shameful pre-made shrimp and pork wontons. I’ve got a bit of work to do if I’m going to approach the standards of countless generations of Chinese families honing and perfecting and passing a secret recipe down though the years, but for a first stab, I was pretty pleased. After I’d slurped the last drops, I pushed my bowl away, dimmed the lights, fired up the smoke machine, turned on the mirror ball, pulled my saxophone out of its case and burst into a three hour set of Cantopop standards, as usual not quitting until my victims, or audience as they’re sometimes called, were dead, or extremely sleepy. I then packed up my horn, slipped quietly into the night, an invisible assassin, lurking in the shadows until my services were required again. Those who really need me, know where to find me. (The contact page)

This post originally appeared on A Hare After Midnight

Itinerant jazz guy. Writing when I’m not playing, eating, or drinking. Sometimes when I’m drinking. Music stuff here: https://nickhemptonband.com

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