Many years ago I lived in Hong Kong for a while, while researching and writing the Rough Guide to Hong Kong.
It was before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, so it was still a British territory – a colony – and I was, to all intents and purposes, just another gweilo in town. A foreigner, a ‘ghost man’, a ‘foreign devil’, albeit one with a book contract rather than just a backpack or a job at Morgan Stanley.
Oh, and I also had a Cantonese mother-in-law and, by extension, a Cantonese wife, though that’s entirely another story.
Home wasn’t a backpacker dorm on Nathan Road or an expat pad in Causeway Bay. It was grandma’s empty four-room village house in the old part of Sheung Shui, which back then was as far as you could go out of central Hong Kong before coming hard up against the Chinese border, where men with telescopic rifles patrolled the perimeter.
Narrow alleys with open gutters
You walked through tight narrow alleys with an open gutter to reach the house, and stepped across the threshhold through a metal door. It was tiled inside from floor to ceiling, and not in a good rustic-Mediterranean-basket-of-lemons kind of way. Have you seen The Shawshank Redemption? Right. Just like that.
There was a lounge with an oversized TV and ornate wooden furniture of the sort you find as decoration in upmarket Cantonese restaurants, only we had to sit in it and dine off it. The bed was entirely draped in mosquito nets; the bathroom had a wall-mounted boiler with just one tap and one setting – scalding hot.
The cockroaches scurried for safety
And the kitchen had a floor that at first sight seemed to move when you turned the light on and, at second sight, did move, as the cockroaches scurried for safety before you could hit them with a broom.
We were young, and the house was free, and it turned out to be a brilliant place to learn about real Hong Kong life, as opposed to the expat fairytale of banks and bars and boats.
I spent the day doing touristy things to put in the guide, and came home in the evening to hang out on the doorstep, talking English to the fascinated local kids and popping down to the local shop – I say, shop, it was really someone else’s front room – to buy a beer in excruciating Cantonese.
Any time you want a number of beers between one and ten ordering, I’m still your man.
Dinner was whatever we had bought that day in the market. Fish, eggs and rice mostly – not frogs from the Frog Lady, who had a bucket of live frogs on one side of her stool, a cleaver in her hand and a bucket of twitching half-frogs in a bucket on the other side of her stool.
Perfect steamed rice, every time
And of all the lessons I learned in Hong Kong, how to make perfect steamed rice every time was the most essential. Mother-in-law, like many Cantonese women, was a genius in the kitchen, and no gweilo was going to mess up her rice. So back home in the UK I had watched and learned, and in Hong Kong I perfected her technique.
- Measure out some white rice in a cup. It doesn’t matter how much – what’s important is that you know how much you’re going to cook, so don’t just pour it straight in the pan.
- Put the rice in a pan and pour on exactly twice as much just-boiled water minus a bit. That bit’s in bold because it’s where the alchemy lies. You want not-quite-as-much-as-twice the water to rice.
- Switch on the heat and bring to the simmer, and as soon as you see the first bubbles, turn down the heat to the lowest setting possible. Then cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, so that no steam can escape. For the best results, stretch tinfoil over the pan, then put on the lid and turn the foil up over the top, making a tight seal.
- Leave on the very low heat for exactly 10 minutes. Exactly. No more, no less. Set the alarm.
- Do not, under any circumstances, at any point, lift the lid to see how it’s getting on, or I will personally come round to your house and admonish you severely.
- After exactly 10 minutes, switch off the heat and leave the pan where it is. Don’t touch it or otherwise disturb it for at least another 10 minutes. Fifteen or even 20 minutes is OK too.
- Take off the lid, serve, eat, enjoy. You’re welcome.
Our lives later changed, and my wife and I moved on separately, but my mother-in-law never had time to become an ex-mother-in-law because she died of a brain aneurysm at the terrible age of 44. But I remember her and Hong Kong fondly, and her rice graces my table most weeks.