Cover Stephanie Wong grew up in Kowloon Tong, where she'd pick up snacks from a street stall after school (Illustration: Stephen Collins)

The owner-chef at Star Street bistro Roots Eatery shares her most treasured food moments, from raucous family gatherings to rare seafood finds

As part of our series celebrating the vibrancy and community within Hong Kong’s dining scene, we spoke to several of the industry’s leading lights about why they love the city’s unique food culture. Here, Stephanie Wong – chef-owner of Cantonese-inspired French bistro Roots – talks about her must-visit spots for buying local seafood and why she’d go back to her Chiu Chow roots for her last meal in Hong Kong.

Tell us about your favourite Hong Kong food memories.

One of my favourite food memories would be any regular afternoon from my primary schooldays. My school was in Kowloon Tong and my walk back home would pass through a pedestrian tunnel, where an older uncle would be standing with his pushcart filled with an eclectic mix of food items—fish balls, beef balls, chicken kidneys, squid tentacles and egg waffles.

You’d be able to spot him from a mile away just from the aroma—or, some might say, stench—emanating from his bubbling cauldron of “balls”. To me, this was heaven. It was lunch, snack-time, dinner and dessert all combined into one, packed into those greasy brown paper bags, happily satisfying one (or many) greedy schoolkids. This was at a time when hygiene was significantly less regulated, but hey, we all grew up just fine! 

What are some of your favourite local ingredients to use?

Without a doubt, it would be the vast variety of fresh seafood here—think mantis shrimp, sea snails, groupers, razor clams, whelks, squid… just a few examples of what you can spot in your local wet market, all requiring different preparation methods and all bringing different elements and tastes of the sea to each dish. It’s exciting for both chefs and diners to experience all the fresh seafood that Hong Kong has to offer, and the fun part is that every wet market here will carry something you haven’t seen before. 

Wan Chai Market is great because it’s situated right in the heart of the city and has a good mix of both Western and Chinese produce. During this time of year, I love getting metapenaeopsis barbata shrimp, which is quite rare in its quantities; it’s a local small pink shrimp that’s roughly the size of your pinkie finger and has an incredible sweetness and crunch to it—you can eat its shell too.

Bowrington Road Market also has a vast variety of shellfish, such as different crabs and other types of crustacean. It’s always a fun trip, as everything is laid out in the streets for you to see and pick. If you’re happy to travel further, Tai Po Market is amazingly well-stocked too. It’s double, if not triple, the size of your average Hong Kong wet market, and I believe you’ll find the greatest variety here.

If you could only visit one restaurant in Hong Kong again, what would it be—and how does it sum up what you love about the city’s food scene?

If I could visit only one restaurant in Hong Kong again, I think that I’d go back to my ancestral roots at Chong Fat Chiu Chow Restaurant in Kowloon City. My grandparents and parents grew up in that area, as did many other Chiu Chow immigrants, and it was the special Sunday dinner venue for gathering the whole family together. The restaurant is grungy and the people are loud (as were my family members!) but that was the place where everyone could just be—with no pretence, everything stripped down, and our relationships fostered through the medium of food.

Chiu Chow cuisine is one that celebrates the simplicity and freshness of its ingredients, where all the preparation methods used are with the intention of extracting the cleanest and most intense flavours. Think of their [traditional] cold steamed fish dish; often made with grey mullet or threadfin, we would eat it simply with a yellow bean paste condiment. Or their white-pepper pig stomach and Chinese mustard soup, where there would be enough intensity from the pepper to counterbalance the “offal” taste from the stomach; the pepper element is also considered to have Chinese medicinal benefits.

Chong Fat Chiu Chow Restaurant represents something of the juxtaposition in Hong Kong. The city is so developed and filled with fancy skyscrapers, yet here you will find raw history with everything stripped down—which itself also tells part of the story and soul of Hong Kong. 

Stephanie’s Picks:

  • Chong Fat Chiu Chow Restaurant, G/F, 60-62 South Wall Road, Kowloon City, Hong Kong, +852 2383 3114
  • Bowrington Road Market, 21 Bowrington Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2834 7729
  • Wan Chai Market, 258 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2575 0192
  • Tai Po Hui Market, Tai Po Complex, 8 Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po, Hong Kong, +852 3183 9180
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