To outsiders, cooked food centres may seem daunting at first. Situated above raw food markets or 街市 gaai1 si5, one must usually pass through these living markets before entering the more contained canteens above.
If you walk through the fruit and veg stalls first, you’ll be met with the vivid colours that only a port city at the confluence of southeast and northeast Asia can provide: the alien purple of dragon fruit; apples so lusciously pink, large, and pricey, you wonder who the hell buys them; and the verdant shades of 菜心 choi3 sam1, all glowing fiercely under the ubiquitous red lamps. If you’re lucky you might bypass the puddles of questionable liquid, hanging offal, still-flapping fish and unfortunate toads by the cage-full. But if you don’t, you’ve been warned, it is a wet market after all, so named for the constantly damp floors which are hosed down to wash off-cuts, peelings and other casualties of commerce down the drain.
Pass these street-level stalls and make your way up the side stairs to the third floor: Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre. Here you’ll find the usual set up for a cooked food centre, with a slight difference. Wai Kee is one of the restaurants here, an open-plan joint specialising in mutton curry and roast duck, all done to halal standards. Because of this, the dishes are fairly unique in Hong Kong, and are made up of an Indian-Cantonese fusion. The rice is straight outta Hong Kong, but the curry has hints of a master-sauce begun in Bombay (or at least brought over the harbour from Chungking Mansions). The dish is potent and flavourful, but doesn’t overwhelm with spice, so even those with weak spirits will enjoy. While the mutton curry is the star of the show at $44, the roast duck (which you can have with noodles or rice, portioned by bowl or plate) is better here than at many other cooked food centres, and is well worth the $36 a bowl.
Another drawing card for Wai Kee is its mix of clientele. Because of its halal status, reasonable prices, and consistency in serving up bowls of curried lamb, beef and mutton day in and day out, it attracts local Muslims and Chinese alike, as well as visitors from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East. Hong Kong’s Muslim population is small but eclectic, and goes far beyond Nathan Road. The SAR has around 70,000 Muslims, more than half of whom are local Chinese.
We went to Bowrington on the coldest day in Hong Kong since 1957, and the weather gave us lots to talk to other customers about. Anyone who’s done any canteen-style dining before will know that you sit wherever you can, usually at tables that already have patrons. We sat with a gentleman who delighted in showing us videos of hikers sliding down the icy road up to Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak. We sat solemnly as we saw the unprepared hikers skidding all over the black ice in the howling wind. We were just glad to be in amongst the spice, steam, stools and elbows of the Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre.
The Rules of Engagement at Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre:
Every cooked food canteen is slightly different, so you might find the below guidelines helpful:
- Grab a stool and table anywhere in the Wai Kee section. Here, you’ll find English/Cantonese Menus on the tables bearing Wai Kee’s name.
- Once you’ve settled on some dishes, you’ll need to raise your hand to get the attention of the wait staff. If you don’t raise your hand and start looking for help, it is unlikely any will arrive. Wai Kee is a popular place.
- Once you’ve gotten the server’s attention, order away. You can branch out, but you’re unlikely to go wrong with a mutton curry and duck noodles.
- There's tea in the plastic jugs on your table which cuts the oil of the curries and the fat of the duck nicely. If you happen to sit at a table with cold leftovers, don't be afraid to ask for a fresh jug.
- Eat and be merry.
6. Wave again for the bill. You can pay at your table.