The sad anecdote that we tell whenever a conversation with a stranger turns (as it often does) to the insanely high cost of living in Hong Kong is that we paid the equivalent of $1000HKD less to live in a spacious two-bedroom house on an idyllic street back in Montreal (two balconies! Self-watering flower boxes! Elegant crown molding!) than we do now, for an 83 square foot bedroom in a flatshare with four other people, no hot running water, in a six floor walk-up in an area that can best be described as "[deliberate pause] Local."
No, friends, it's not glamourous living, unless you consider a very specific kind of anti-glamour glamourous, as people often do about, say, their lost years in Paris, or the peeling wallpaper in the Chelsea Hotel. And for the most part, living here is fine. My butt, for example, has never been tighter after having to climb all those stairs every day. The toilet-in-the-shower situation is not so bad when you actually try it (the shower, mercifully, runs on an electric water heater). No hot water? We'll just rinse dishes with boiling water from the kettle. The kitchen.... well, the kitchen is the kitchen.
From what I understand, most kitchens in Hong Kong look like this, unless you live out in the New Territories or outlying islands or collect m@d $tack$$$$ from your IPO. I feel blessed to even have a toaster oven. And, as one writer has written in the WSJ, a tiny kitchen can present both challenges and opportunities for inspiration. Often, Adam has to chop in our bedroom because the kitchen counter can't accommodate more than one bowl perched precariously over the ledge of the sink. We can't plan meals beyond the next few days because the mini fridge is shared between five roommates. If you come over for dinner, don't bother asking if you can help with the cooking, there just isn't space. On the other hand, everything I need is within a short reach, and I have learned how to clean as I go (dishes stacked up in the sink is a mild inconvenience for most households; for ours, it's just impossible to keep cooking).
While the space is small, another challenge we've encountered is the difference in produce and ingredients offered in local grocery stores. Here is a list of items we can no longer afford:
- Cheese of any kind (insert devastated crying emoji, forever)
- Bell peppers
- Bagged salad
- Bread that isn't plain white sliced loaves à la Wonderbread (here, it's called Life Bread)
- Plain or Greek yogurt
This list doesn't include ingredients that we simply can't find, like dried beans or chickpeas, quinoa, etc. As a result, we eat a lot of rice, Chinese greens, kimchi soups, a ton of cabbage, and tofu. We reach for ramen more than we used to, and breakfast is toast with peanut butter or the custard buns from down the street. I have really upped my Clay pot rice (臘味飯) game, because it's a one pot wonder and unbelievably delicious, mixed with bok choy, preserved Chinese sausage (臘腸), garlic and ginger. When we go out during the day, we'll often stop into a 茶餐廳, a typical Hong Kong "tea restaurant" which serves Hong Kong-style Western foods, for a late afternoon curry chicken rice (Adam ordered a "Canadian-style pizza" the other day, and it came topped with ketchup, corn, ham, and pineapple), and return home to have a light dinner later.
I get the feeling that most people eat out a lot more here. Small restaurants and Hong Kong-style bakeries line our street and they're always busy, many offer take-out or street food. Outside of our subway exit every day around 6 o'clock, crowds of people gather around a corner take-out spot - the restaurant sets up two folding tables out front and load them with several rice cookers and huge plates of sautéed greens, stir-fried beef, curry chicken, barbecued pork and other goodies, along with styrofoam boxes so customers can take dinner home to their families. After all, apartments are tiny, people work hard and long hours, and local foods are relatively cheap.
But for me, cooking is a comfort, and I've still got time to enjoy it (although this may not be the case soon....stay tuned!). It's also a welcome challenge, and an opportunity to taste and try cooking with new ingredients. Besides, our kitchen may be tiny, but our open-concept living and dining room isn't too shabby.
I plan to post some recipes from my modest culinary journey on this blog in the coming few months. In the meantime, I welcome any links, tiny kitchen hacks, or recipes for your own one pot creations. Or even just recommendations on where a sister can get a bag of dried lentils or some camembert that won't bankrupt me.