Food and drink

Comparing the Food Cultures of Hong Kong and Madrid

When Madrileño MANUEL PALACIO and Hongkonger CALVIN HUI switched cities, they found plenty of similarities

Manuel Palacio

A Madrileño in Hong Kong

Mention the words cocido madrileño to Manuel Palacio and his eyes mist over; his voice taking on a dreamy expression. The chickpea-based stew – crammed with pork belly, chorizo, beef shank, cabbage, carrots, turnips and more – is one of Madrid’s champion dishes, and was a winter staple during his childhood.

‘My father was very traditional – Saturday and Sunday family lunches were non-negotiable,’ says Palacio. ‘Without fail, my two sisters, my parents and sometimes uncles and aunties, too, would all sit down around the table for a formal meal. I loved – and still love – cocido, but my favourite time was cooking with my dad and having good ham and olives with our aperitivo.’

Right: Mike Pickles

A career as a chef and entrepreneur led Palacio to Hong Kong in 2012, where he encountered a whole new culinary vista, although some aspects of city life struck him as more than a little familiar.

‘I fell in love with Hong Kong’s diversity of cuisines, something that is missing in Spain,’ says Palacio, whose stable of 10 outlets in Hong Kong includes a Spanish grill, a dumpling house and a British cocktail salon.

‘But it struck me that gastronomy is an important part of daily life in both Hong Kong and Spain. Our food is enjoyed in small portions, and we both recognise the importance – the joy even – of sharing a meal with your seniors.’

Hong Kong, Spain, food

It took very little to persuade Palacio to embark on an extensive Hong Kong food tour, ingesting everything from the city’s edgiest eateries to better-known establishments gilded with Michelin stardust.

‘Temple Street may be blindingly obvious, but it is probably one of my favourite spots for street food,’ says Palacio. ‘I love everything about it, particularly the chaos. The food is great and it is just madness – everyone running around. That’s part of the charm.’

From the near-ridiculous to the sublime: another favourite is Fook Lam Moon, the 70-year-old Wan Chai restaurant dubbed ‘the rich man’s canteen’, where roast suckling pig and double-boiled soups occupy a prominent position on the menu.

‘I eat here once a week at least because I need my dim sum fix,’ says Palacio. ‘I could eat three-dozen xiao long bao every day. I can never seem to get enough. If I don’t go here, I go to Din Tai Fung.’

Sai Kung, Sai Kung Fish Village, Hong Kong, Spain, food
Joey Cheung/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

And then there’s that other Wan Chai phenomenon: Under Bridge Spicy Crab. ‘This is my go-to for dinner after a late night, as you can eat there at 2am or 3am when everywhere else has closed.’

For those with friends and relatives visiting from abroad, one of the first questions on arrival at Hong Kong International Airport is about their next meal.

‘Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons serves probably the most authentic high-end Cantonese cuisine, my out-of-town guests always love it; and Jade Garden (14 outlets around town) is very reliable, too,’ says Palacio.

‘I also take visitors to Samsen in Wan Chai for Thai noodles, and by way of contrast, to Pici for some straightforward, handmade pasta.’

For a final pick, Palacio homes in on Mott 32, with its very own duck-roasting oven, air-drying fridge and stellar reputation. ‘The place is superb – I dine here once a month.’

As to his origins, 32-year-old Palacio started out 17 years ago, washing dishes at a chocolateria in Madrid. ‘I thought I might run my own restaurant one day, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be running a culinary empire in Hong Kong.’

Manuel Palacio is co-founder of Hong Kong’s Pirata group

Calvin Hui

A Hongkonger in Madrid

In the early 2000s, Calvin Hui decided to live for a spell in Europe. For a budding art entrepreneur, the UK or Germany might have been the obvious choices. He went for the unobvious: Madrid.

‘I love modern art; and Spain is an important place for modern art,’ says Hui.

Spain, like many nations including China and Japan, has been through long periods of isolation from foreign influence. This has left a distinctive culture and language that can be challenging for incomers. Not for Calvin.

Right: Jack Malipan Travel Photography / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

‘It was exciting. Not a shock, but certainly a steep learning curve. I had a friend of a friend and we ended up sharing a flat in the Edificio España on the Plaza de España in the heart of Madrid. The flat had a stunning view overlooking the Temple of Debot and the Royal Palace.

‘He remains my closest friend to this day. As an Asian learning the language, the people were extremely friendly and I have nothing but fond memories.’

Hui was soon dining and drinking like a true Madrileño, starting the day in a local cafe with a piece of Spanish toast soaked in extra virgin olive oil and a cup of cafe con leche, and ending it with chocolate and churros after a long night of clubbing. (He got used to Spanish hours: lunch between 2pm and 3pm, dinner no earlier than 9:30pm and then out until – when? ‘Oh, 2, 3, 4, 5am’.)

Hong Kong, Spain, food
Marta Ortiz / iStockphoto / Getty Images

‘Everyone in Madrid loves to eat. People gather with their friends and invite new people to share; it makes immersion easier, because everyone is sharing laughter, wine and food.’

We could provide a list of names and addresses for eating out, but Hui thinks the joy of dining in Madrid comes from wandering around buzzy areas – such as Embajadores, recently named the coolest neighbourhood in the world by a global Time Out poll.

‘Madrid caters to all budgets and tastes, from upmarket areas like Salamanca to trendy neighbourhoods like Lavapiés and Chueca. Bartolomé market sells food from all over Spain, and is famous for its hams, olive oils and turron – a traditional nougat. One of the most enjoyable times for me was choosing fresh Spanish produce at the market to prepare simple yet exceedingly mouth-watering salads at home.’

Casa Gallardo, art nouveau building, hong kong, spain, food
Age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

After a while, it began to dawn on Calvin that his new hometown, seemingly so alien from Hong Kong, actually shared a lot of commonalities.

‘Spanish people and Chinese people have the same view that mealtimes are for sharing with family and friends. They spend Sunday together. They pay visits to grandma. At festivals we all get together.

‘Unlike other Europeans, the Spanish, like the Chinese, enjoy sharing their food. I think tapas and dim sum are similar for this. Madrileños will often go to several tapas restaurants in one night for different experiences – it remains one of my cherished memories of my time in Madrid.’

Calvin returns to Madrid at least a couple of times a year.

‘I miss the flair of an old European city that is alive with today’s generation making a new statement. And the fusion of Spanish food with Asian influences, which you see more and more in Madrid, is especially interesting.

‘If I landed in Madrid now, I would head straight to Plaza de España to walk through the charming old town, and sit and watch the magic of Madrid pass before me.’  ‭ ‬

Calvin Hui is the co-founder of 3812 Gallery in Hong Kong and London

Live Well And Live Long

No one could mistake Madrid for Hong Kong or vice versa, but despite their differences a shared fondness for small bites enjoyed with family and friends has provided a surprisingly strong commonality between the two cities.

This tendency towards healthier diets and quality of life has also brought about another similarity: life expectancy.

According to the latest study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Spaniards are projected to have an average lifespan of 85.8 years by 2040 – overtaking current frontrunner Japan.

Plaza Mayor in the centre of Madrid, Spain, hong kong, food
Peter Eastland / Alamy Stock Photo / Argusphoto

And though Hong Kong is not a country, and therefore not included in most global metrics, studies undertaken by local universities have noted that Hongkongers are also posting record-breaking life expectancies, with men living to 81.3 years on average and women to 87.3, as of 2016.

Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid from Hong Kong four times a week