A heady mix in Hong Kong
Fresh pork cuts hang from hooks in Hong Kong.

The pungency of shelves full of dried fish hits my delicate Western nostrils.

This little shop, which is typical of many lining Hong Kong's streets, is full of riches - piled high above my head are dried oysters, octopus, abalone, dried hammerhead shark's fin of all shapes and sizes, fish maw (swim bladders), and parts of just about every other conceivable sea creature.

Jars and baskets of what look like grey, shrivelled gherkins turn out to be dried sea cucumbers. The small, dainty ones are from Japan, the medium-sized ones from WA and the enormous club-shaped ones from Papua New Guinea.

One of the most expensive items is edible bird's nest, displayed on its own set of shelves down the back of the shop. Bird's nest has always had me flummoxed.

Seeing it listed on a Chinese restaurant menu brings to mind images of twigs and feathers floating in the broth. Turns out edible bird's nest is made from the saliva of a little bird known as a swiftlet, part of the swallow family.

Helpful English-speaking shop assistant, Siu Tak Mo, explains that Chinese people have been consuming this odd and incredibly expensive delicacy for hundreds of years in the belief it will keep them young.

He tells us how the nests are processed to remove all the feathers and other things you might expect to find in a bird's nest. The product is dried so that later it can be soaked in cold water overnight, then it is boiled or steamed.

A teaspoon a day is the best way to stay youthful, but at $HK9600 ($1100) for a box weighing 500g, eternal youth does not come cheap.

Special: Cities of Asia
SHANGHAI A TALE OF TWO CITIES
COLD COMFORT ON THE GREAT WALL
PHU, WHAT A MAGNIFICENT VIEW
OUTPOST CHIANG MAI HAS URBAN FEEL
SEOUL FOOD SENSATION
HOPE WITH CAMBODIAN DANCE REVIVAL

A world away from the shop, I have my first taste of bird's nest. It is served on top of an egg tart dessert at Michelin two-starred restaurant Cuisine Cuisine at the former Miramar hotel, recently refurbished and rebadged The Mira.

The Mira's dark wood floors and white bedspreads are cool and welcoming, with bright green or red chairs providing a funky touch. Some of the best rooms overlook Kowloon Park, where many older locals gather in the morning to practise tai chi.

After a superb dinner, I venture out into the sultry streets, following the crowds flowing down Nathan Road, mesmerised by the brightly lit shops and the tendrils dangling from the decades-old banyan trees. Most shops stay open until 10 or even 11pm.

The tropical night air is redolent of another, almost indefinable smell, which is a little bit XO sauce, and instantly recognisable as belonging to Hong Kong.

The next day, wandering through the Gage Road wet market is just as mesmerising. Live fish swim in a few centimetres of water in their polystyrene boxes, waiting to be picked out and gutted for someone's dinner. Barbecued ducks and geese hang by their necks, beaks still intact.

Gleaming purple eggplant contrasts with the dark green of kale and other vegetables. Relegated to their own basket and wrapped separately in plastic (which still does not block the smell) are the black, fermented salted duck eggs.

To our eyes, used to buying meat already plastic-wrapped at the supermarket, the huge slabs of pink pork hanging on racks above the sidewalk seem out of place. It's hard to believe the meat won't go off in the sticky, 30C heat, or get covered in flies.

But guide Michael Poon assures me the meat is so fresh it is fine for one day. He says housewives used to buy what they needed at the wet markets twice a day. In the morning they would collect the ingredients they needed for lunch and then they would shop again about 5pm to gather whatever was needed for the evening meal.

Walking in this clammy weather is thirsty work so we stop for an iced tea, Hong Kong style. Known as milk tea, it is made from black tea and condensed milk. Different stalls have their own secret tea blend but Lan Fong Yuen at the top of Gough Street is one of the oldest.

The drink came about during Hong Kong's days of English colonisation. Served in a paper cup with a straw, the drink is like a tea-flavoured milkshake.

Hong Kong is not all shopping and eating.

On Hollywood Road is the Taoist Man Mo Temple, named after two major divinities. My eyes smarting from the incense, I hit the temple gong three times, and then the bell, to let the gods know I'm there.

Students come to pray to Man, the god of literature, for good grades. In an interesting juxtaposition, Mo is the god of martial arts and war, so visitors pray to him for strength and bravery.

Using sticks marked with numbers, supplicants can also ask questions of the gods, with each number equating to a cryptic verse to help them make up their minds on which course of action to take.

And as part of Hong Kong's homage to progress, its newest building, the International Commerce Centre, has speared its way into the record books as the world's fourth tallest building.

Sky100 is the name of the observation deck but, sadly, on the day we are there, white fog clouds the windows and the city is invisible.

And the bird's nest? It was clear, gelatinous and, I'm sorry to say, almost tasteless. But maybe one or two wrinkles disappeared overnight.

For tourism information on Hong Kong call HKTB on 1300 886 610 or visit www.discoverhongkong.com/australia.

Bethany Hiatt visited Hong Kong as a guest of Hong Kong Tourism Board, Cathay Pacific and The Mira hotel.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West