[Hong Kong] Tai O Fishing Village

Sited on the northwestern part of Lantau Island and a mere thirty miles away from Disneyland, Tai O Fishing Village is about as un-Hong Kong as it gets. Skyscrapers are nowhere in sight in the sole remaining fishing village in Hong Kong, where the landscape comprises low rise houses and a few municipal buildings. It’s known for two things: Seafood, and the distinctive stilt houses lining the wetlands leading into the sea.

Tai O – Laid-back, rustic, and how I imagine life to be like in the ’60s.

Opting not to take the tourist boats round the island, we wandered through winding alleys of residential houses without a map. The afternoon was quiet save for the occasional stream of Cantonese from a television playing in a house we passed, or the distant clattering of mahjong tiles.

After some time we realised that we were quite lost. No matter, since we were in a glass half-full mood, and were cheerfully hoping to happen upon a hidden gem. Sadly all we accomplished was being tailed by a pug with bloodshot eyes through a maze of wooden walkways, which we thankfully managed to shake off without coming down with rabies. Hands down the scariest five minutes in recent memory.

Gai dan zai (雞蛋仔)

Gai dan zai (雞蛋仔), or egg waffle.

We stumbled upon a provision shop selling gai dan zai, or a honeycomb-shaped, egg-based waffle that’s commonly sold as a street snack in Hong Kong. This gai dan zai was acceptably fluffy and eggy, but what we found unusual was that the lady running the shop didn’t seem to be local, judging from her olive-coloured skin and how she spoke to us in English. Our curiosity was further piqued when we realised there were packets of Indomie (an Indonesian brand of instant noodles) and other Indonesian groceries displayed on the rack next to the waffle machine. Can’t understand why a foreigner would be working in such a remote and homogeneously Cantonese village, but I suppose all our immigrant forefathers had to start somewhere.

Bean curd (豆腐花)

半路棚.

Contrary to what the people in the photograph are wearing, it was actually a warm day. I can’t wrap my head round the Hong Kong penchant for winterwear in any season that’s not summer.

半路棚 faces the Tai O Post Office, and is run by an adorable middle-aged lady who’s plastered posters of K-Pop idols to the inside of the shack. All hail the power of hallyu. Cartoon figurines were placed on every table, the tackiness of which was totally overshadowed by the lady boss’ sincere attempts at engaging her customers in friendly conversation. She seemed to know the all the other residents of Tai O by name, and good-naturedly teased a passing fireman for looking slightly more rotund than when she last saw him. “That’s why I’m jogging,” he panted. We giggled.

DIY customization for your bean curd, HKD12.00 per bowl.

The bean curd we had at 半路棚 was fragrant, smooth and had the grainy texture possessed only by soybeans ground by hand. Instead of serving the bean curd in sugar syrup, as is the common practice in Singapore, patrons were free to flavour the bean curd with the toppings available at each table, which ranged from brown sugar to ginger syrup. The ginger syrup, proudly handmade by the lady boss, came highly recommended. Alternating between mildly sweet and refreshingly spicy, it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Missed out on the famous Kin Hing Ah Por Tofu Dessert on this trip, but I’ll be back for more.

Lor mai chi (糯米糍)

Magic in the making, the old school way.

The path we took back to the main street of Tai O weaved between two rows of houses. There was a short line of people in front of one of them, and upon closer inspection we realised the owners of the house actually made glutinous rice balls or 糯米糍 (lor mai chi) for sale. The shop was 茶果財 (Cha Kwo Choy)- as the name suggests, they also serve 茶果 (cha kwo), a steamed snack originating from Guangdong province made with sticky glutinous rice. However, the lor mai chi was what I was after.

As I waited my turn, I watched one of the old men roll a piece of dough through a mountain of crushed peanuts and desiccated coconut, before deftly sealing the ball with his fingertips and gently dusting it with icing sugar.

THE most delicious rice ball I’ve ever had, HKD4.50.

The second I bit into the peanut ball, the generous load of peanut/coconut burst through the thin glutinous rice skin. I knew in an instant that this was the best rice ball I’ve tasted, and may possibly ever taste. No lor mai chi I’ve had comes close to this level of soft, unearthly chewiness. Its texture was cottony soft, I’m telling you, and every bite I took pulled apart easily from the rest of the rice ball, melting effortlessly upon contact with my tongue. It was so good that I rejoined the queue after the first bite, and bought two more lor mai chi (including one with red bean paste this time) for breakfast the next day.

The lor mai chi alone makes Tai O a must on my future Hong Kong itineraries. As the proprietors of 茶果財 seem to be getting on in age, I doubt the shop will be around for much longer. If there’s someone out there looking for a pastry apprenticeship, please please please consider paying Tai O a visit and persuading the uncles at 茶果財 to teach you the art of rice ball making. You will thank me for this.

“Chinese pizza”

“Chinese pizza”, HKD20.00.

Lauded as a “must-try” by Time Out Hong Kong, this “Chinese pizza” was really more crepe than pizza. I’m not averse to spring onion and coriander, but I definitely wasn’t expecting so… much of them. Crunchy chai po (preserved radish), sesame seeds and the addition of a thin savory cracker add fragrance and texture to this crepe, which turned out to be one of those things that taste best on your first bite. Its flavour receded into monotony after some time, and we ended up not being able to finish this between the two of us. The uncle selling the crepes was very warm and friendly though.

Solo Cafe

Solo Cafe.

I peered into this quaintly furnished cafe, and saw that they had seats out on a patio that overlooked the waterway. Unfortunately it was close to dusk by then and we had yet to try any grilled seafood, so there was no time for us to linger over a cuppa. Next time, then.

Grilled seafood

Look at all that cheeeese.

There are lots of stalls on the main drag of Tai O selling grilled seafood, but we made a beeline for Fei Mui BBQ (肥妹燒烤小食) as it was recommended by numerous food blogs. We ordered a grilled oyster (HKD20.00) and grilled scallop (also HKD20.00) each. The seafood was, as expected of a fishing village, fresh and sweet. Cooking the shellfish in their shells also ensured that their juices were retained.

Monster scallop.

I preferred the grilled scallop to the oyster, as it was HUGE and served with minced garlic which enhanced the scallop’s natural sweetness. Though the oyster tasted good, the melted cheese it was covered with pretty much overwhelmed everything else.

Dried seafood

A little disturbing.

The distinctive but not unpleasant smell of dried seafood permeates the streets of Tai O. Little wonder, as the place is famous for its dried produce, which at times amounted to a rather macabre sight. See, for example, the blowfish in the picture above, preserved in an eternal state of inflation. Look past these and you’ll find treasure in the form of locally made prawn or fish pastes, both of which are invaluable additions to a home kitchen. Be sure to bring a jar home when you visit.

Welcome to Tai O Village… unless you’re the government.

Having experienced a tourism boom in recent years, Tai O is due to undergo massive gentrification before the end of the year. For a village that, up till 1990, was only accessible to outsiders via boat, it goes without saying that some residents are resistant against the redevelopment of the area into a tourist town. Their protests are reflected in the banners you see in the picture above.

Being a tourist and on the receiving end of any redevelopment efforts I’m not exactly in a position to comment on this, especially since I would never have thought to come here had it not been for Tripadvisor. Nevertheless I do hope that steps are taken to keep commercialisation in this idyllic fishing village to a minimum. I’ll just take a walk down Pagoda Street in Singapore’s Chinatown if I want something manufactured, thank you very much.

Getting to Tai O Fishing Village

1. Take bus no. 21 from Ngong Ping Village (30 minutes) or bus no. 11 from Tung Chung MTR station (50 minutes).
2. Alternatively, the village is accessible by ferry via Tuen Mun, Tung Chung or Sha Lo Wan ferry piers.

Addresses of/ directions to food shops listed

1. Bean Curd: 半路棚, 58 Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O (大澳石仔埗街58號地下).
Rice Balls: 茶果財 (Cha Kwo Choy), 106 Shek Tsai Po Street, Tai O (大澳石仔埗街106號地下).

Both are located along the path between CCC Tai O Primary School and Tai O Post Office. While walking from the school to the post office (with the sea on your left) you’ll pass the rice ball shop first, which will be on your right. The bean curd shack will be on your left, and is located across the street from the post office.

2. Chinese Pizza: Tai O Snacks Shop 大澳小食, 70 Kut Hing St, Tai O.

3. Solo Cafe: 86 Kat Hing St, G/F, Tai O.

4. Grilled Seafood: Fei Mui BBQ 肥妹燒烤小食, 21 Tai O Market St, Tai O.

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