The clay pot has blackened sides, a smooth ash-white handle and at its bottom is a stubborn, crispy adhesive layer of rice.
At Choi’s Kitchen, in an unconsidered side street in Hong Kong’s Tai Hang district, a short walk from the entirely opposite colonial setting of French cheeses and white port spritzers at Classified, clay pot dishes are the speciality, the rich one-hit meal that is cherished here in the winter months.
Each is cooked on an individual gas stove, the heat preserved by a curled metal shield around the clay. I have just reached the rice crust at the depths of the “mixed pot”, strewn with two Chinese sausages (one gelatinous, one dark and bloody), hunks of minced pork, chicken knuckle and vegetables. It is a punchy meal, and would be a perfect riposte to the cold.
The waitress had recommended this particular pot as the sequence to a starter of fresh pork tripe soup, which arrived in an alarmingly large pan, the size of a casserole. I opened the lid to find a pale grey liquid with an assertive whiff of offal, swimming with enoki mushrooms and cabbage, lightly seasoned with white pepper.
It is much more palatable than I expect, fragrant and uplifting, though the gallon-pan defeats me and is carried away unfinished. Pig liver soup is another option; while the variants on clay pot stretch over a page, from steamed eel with black bean and Sichuan sauce to steamed pig liver with onion and ginger.
In its small, unglamorous parameters – a thin room with four or five tables, a plastic curtain at the door – Choi’s Kitchen seems to manage a steady trade, with some customers following the restaurant from its previous location in Wan Chai, where the rents were too high.
The chef stands in the window facing the street, next to an almost-toppling stack of clay pots, plunging and removing them on to the heat with a minimum of fuss. Rice is cooked first for about 10 minutes, the rest is added for a further quarter of an hour to steam.
This is a wonderful city for comfort food: not just the clay pots but also the beef brisket, noodles and frying meat served up from pavement stalls, fresh seafood and, of course, the teaming dim sum halls that can feed thousands a day. I have the flour-and-water parcels, which need expert fingers to be filled, pinched into pleats and trimmed by scissors at the rate they are eaten, at Man Wah, where a lunch can quickly become a banquet, washed down with sweet chrysanthemum tea. And also at Tim Ho Wan, where the two-hour wait is rewarded with delicious vermicelli with tangy barbecue pork cubes, crispy sweet buns with pork and a bitter melon shell clinging to a meatball of beef and beans with chilli.
At the brightly lit, very simple diner Yat Moon Win (or One Bowl of Noodle) in North Point, I meet owner and former television producer Michael Lo, another comfort food pioneer.
His mission was to create a much wider style of noodle (2cm thick), which looks like an enlarged fettucini. This is a novelty for Hong Kong – a product of high and low gluten flour, alkaline water and duck and chicken eggs that is has a strong yellow colour. (The eggs have to be balanced correctly to produce the right kind of chewiness.)
Lo is a detail fanatic, serving his custom soy sauce made from red shallots, garlic, dried shrimp and Taiwanese soy sauce paste, which gives a caramel stickiness. The noodles are delicious, tossed in thick sauces. Tempting enough for second helpings, when comfort eventually shades into indulgence.
Choi’s Kitchen, Shop A1, G/F, 911 Shepherd Street, Tai Hang
Man Wah, 5 Connaught Road, Mandarin Oriental Central
Tim Ho Wan, Shop 8, Taui Yuen Mansion Phase 2, 220 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok
Yat Moon Win, G/F, Ngan Fai Building, 93 Wharf Road, North Point
Natalie Whittle travelled with Air New Zealand and Mandarin Oriental