Doesn’t matter what time of the year it is — spring, summer, hurricane season, fall or winter. From Sheung Wan, it’s either down Tung St. or Water Ln. to get onto Hollywood Rd. If I take Tung I could continue down to Queen’s Road Central, but sometimes I’d hang a right on Hollywood and then a left on Ladder St. or Hillier St. to get onto Queen’s Road Central. If I took Tung all the way, I’d make a left either on Cleverly St. or Hillier St.; if I took Ladder I would probably be talking Hillier because taking Cleverly would mean tracing a few steps away from the destination. If I take Cleverly, sometimes I’d make a right on Jervois St. and then a left onto Hillier; other times I’d make a right onto Burd St. And… my destination has arrived.
When Congee Lady isn’t taking orders on the phone for pick-ups or relaying orders to the kitchen with what seems like a perfectly calibrated combination of tone, enunciation and volume, for optimal communication of each customer’s peculiarities of what is essentially still the same thing (congee), surely honed over many years, she’s either cutting Youtiao (油條) -- the deep-fried sticks of dough people like to dip into their congee -- or setting up little bowls with soy sauce and julienned ginger that’s served as an accompaniment with any congee you order. There’s very rarely a moment of inactivity, and conversations with regulars occur only in transit from the kitchen to when the congee is brought out to you; pleasantries are never exchanged at the door.
The social reward for familiarity comes in the form of a dramatically abbreviated correspondence. As you enter, you now only need acknowledge that yes, indeed, you’d like your usual, the fish congee with century egg -- not with words, of course; a nod is more efficient.
The kanji (കഞ്ഞി, in Malayalam) in south India is more watery and lacks any flavor. We’d eat it when we were sick, with a little bit of salt and achar (Indian pickles) for flavor. My regular at Sang Kee, the aforementioned fish congee, is cooked in a broth made using fish and pork bones. Along with the century egg, it manages to be umami-packed, comforting, delicious and nourishing. Unlike several other congee places, the egg here comes on the side (instead of in the bowl), topped with a drop of peanut oil. When I asked Congee Lady why she does that, with a smile she said it’s because her mother always did. Just then I sensed that we transcended to a different realm in our relationship.
The vibe here is staid and that seems almost by necessity. It’s not that it’s unfeeling, but it errs on the side of functionalism. But if you come often enough you’ll witness moments in jest, re-affirming in you the humanity behind the cold façade.
The wonderful thing about a congee is that you really can’t rush into consuming it. You have to eat it one spoonful at a time, only after several blows on each bite to make sure it’s not too hot. There isn’t time to contemplate the banality of your stupid routine; a congee is meant to be eaten hot. Mine goes tepid only when I’m almost done with it, which makes me think I have good congee karma. I was meant to eat this.
Eating congee also means avoiding the ostentatious crassness of new-moneyed bought culture that's at display all over Central: solipsistic monologues muddled with unthinking idle chatter about puppy kindergarten and fine wine*. For a city that seems perpetually in motion, mornings are a surprisingly sedate affair; it bears little resemblance to the night before. Western-style cafes open late; and the only kinds of places to procure nourishment at 7am are old-school Chinese restaurants, most of them serving congee. Walking the relatively deserted streets feels like my fellow congee-eating brethrens’ way of staking claim of the island for a couple of peaceful hours devoid of gustatory (or really any) pretension.
Congee consumed, $29 HKD (around $4 USD) poorer, energized for the day ahead, I bid adieu to the Congee Lady of Sang Kee.
Sang Kee (生記粥品專家) is at 7-9 Burd St., Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
*I love Burgundys, and I may write about some of the more interesting ones we’ve had. Self-deprecation is a conscious cover for hypocrisy.