Rachel Wright lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years, and has also enjoyed living and working in Beijing. She has written on education and social issues for the South China Morning Post.
Food is such a central part of Chinese culture that it merits a whole book on the subject – certainly more than I can cover briefly here. Hong Kong is definitely a place where people live to eat – a few years ago, there were over 10,400 restaurants counted – and the enjoyment taken in food, as well as the widespread sophisticated, discriminating appreciation for it, is palpable. The attention paid to the presentation of food, however, can sometimes be quite cursory, so don’t be put off by appearances.
Food is what brings people together – family, colleagues, friends – and for most people who live in small apartments in the city, a restaurant is the preferred place for meeting socially. It’s less common than in the West for friends and colleagues to invite you over to their place to eat. There isn’t really much etiquette involved with eating Chinese food, but there is a lot of symbolism: chopsticks stuck vertically into rice should be avoided, as it reminds people of incense sticks and death; chopsticks held very high up are thought to signify travelling far from home – again, not good.
Food is often eaten because it sounds good. Pig’s tongue (lei) sounds like a word meaning ‘profit’, so it’s supposed to be lucky for those starting up a business. Fat choi, a black, stringy, now endangered moss that often serves as a garnish to green vegetables or is cooked in soup, sounds the same as a word meaning ‘make wealth’. It is gobbled up by everyone during the Lunar New Year, when eating auspicious-sounding food starts the year on a positive note. There used to be a tradition practised by bosses who had to lay off staff at this time of the year – considered very unfortunate, when everyone else is celebrating – that involved a cooked chicken. At the office dinner, the boss would point the head of the bird towards the employee who was going to lose his job. It delicately dispensed with the need for words.
At times, English translations of food names on menus can be maddeningly unspecific. ‘Dumpling’ seems to cover over a hundred varieties of food, all having very different flavours, textures and appearances. A certain amount of experimentation will be necessary. ‘Rice cake fried with pork and cabbage’ is altogether savoury; ‘barbecue pork bun’ will appear on the table as a white, sweetened pork donut, steamed. Dishes are often christened with fabulous or preposterous names, impossible to decipher. ‘Dragon, tiger, phoenix’, available just over the border in Shenzhen, is one such example. This is dressed up snake, cat and chicken.
Precious little goes to waste in Chinese restaurants. The extremities, innards, tendons and gelatinous parts of fish, fowl or beast are often prized because of their texture and their ability to soak up piquant sauces. Fish eyes, pig’s ears, nose and tail, goose web and head, chicken’s heart and feet are all dished up. Many foods are believed to be good for the health, such as snake bile and ox blood (served in chunks and cooked in a hotpot).
Below is a sampler of some common Hong Kong delicacies.
Dim sum (or ‘little bits of heart’) are a cherished feature of Hong Kong cuisine and rightly so. Standard meals in the lunch-time institution of yum cha(‘drink tea’) that are served at Cantonese restaurants all over Hong Kong include:
- siu mai – steamed mince and prawn dumplings decorated with bright orange crab eggs;
- har gau – steamed prawn dumplings;
- cheung fen – soft white rice flour rolls sloshed with soy;
- luo buo gau – fried squares of turnip, pork and mushroom mash; and
- char siu bao – sweet pork stuffed in the centre of a white steamed bun.
Eaten briskly with colleagues on weekday lunch-times or lingered over with family at the weekend, several hundred types of dim sum fry and steam their way onto tables from 11:00 in the morning till past three in the afternoon. The noise generated by customers in a big restaurant can be deafening.
In some places, the serving ladies still push around trolleys from which you make your selection, whilst in other restaurants the waitress brings food to your table. Trolley ladies can be found at Maxim’s Palace (2/F, Low Block, City Hall) and The Metropole (4/F, United Centre, Admiralty – but watch your bag, as thieves are known to operate there). You select a dish from the trolley and the serving lady stamps your order card. When there are no trolleys, you first mark up your order sheet, which also shows the price of each item – low, medium, high or special price. Then give the order sheet to the waitress, who brings the dishes, often in bamboo steamers, to your table. The only problem with this is that most Chinese restaurants do not have an English translation of dim sum menus. A nice pictorial guide to many of the most famous dim sum is Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide by Kit Shan Li (Chronicle Books).
Sauces and dips served with dim sum include soy sauce, vinegar (garnished with thin strips of ginger), chilli oil, XO sauce (oil flavoured with chilli and seafood), chilli sauce, sweet sauce and mustard sauce (especially good with roast pork). Tea is usually drunk as an accompaniment – sao mei, bo lei and tik guan yum being among the most popular with local Hong Kongers. Lift the tea-pot lid to the side when you want a hot water refill.
Beside the dim sum, which usually come in three or four strips or items per helping, it’s common to order other side dishes such as a roast meat plate – pork, goose, duck and eel are common – and one of the many fried rice, congee or fried noodle dishes. (Fried rice with dried scallop and egg white is tasty.) Chinese also commonly order a plate of blanched choi sum, green stalky vegetables served with oyster sauce.
There is usually a small selection of desserts served after dim sum. Amongst the most popular are:
- mango pudding in a lagoon of evaporated milk;
- sweet red bean soup flavoured with sun-dried tangerine peel;
- mini-egg tarts with the centres almost runny; and
- sesame or peanut balls in sweet soup (tong yun).
Expect to pay about $130–160 per head for a meal of dim sum, depending on what is ordered. An excellent restaurant for dim sum is Victoria City (5/F, Citic Tower, Admiralty), which has a splendid view of the harbour.
One last note – you may or may not be able to book a table for dim sum, depending on the rules of the establishment concerned. Having booked a table, you may well have to wait ten minutes or more for it to be cleared for you, even though you have arrived on time. If time is tight, it’s better to get there before midday to avoid the stampede and before the egg tarts start to run out. Alternatively, go later – usually after 3:00 pm – to enjoy half-price dim sum at many of the restaurants.
One of the most common and distressing sights around Hong Kong – until you get used to it – is the display of carcasses on hooks in restaurant windows. These roasted meats include:
- siu yok roast pork – with crispy crackling;
- char siu pork – sweet honey roast pork that is red at the edges;
- chicken – yellow-skinned;
- duck – dark brown, very rich and fatty; and
- goose – light brown.
A standard lunch box for office workers consists of rice plus one or more roast meat, topped with a splash of soy sauce, a dab of crushed garlic and spring onion in oil and a slip of green stemmed vegetable. They usually cost around $25 and are extremely good value and tasty.
Roast pigeon is the house speciality at Han Lok Yuen on Lamma Island (on the steps above Hung Shing Ye Beach; tel. 2982 0608/0680).
Chinese dessert houses
These are a very popular hang-out for locals, although some desserts are an acquired taste for expats. Common desserts include:
- dau fu fa – soft, semi-solid beancurd, sweetened with brown sugar or syrup;
- walnut and sesame soups;
- tapioca and tarot egg pudding;
- mango and durian pancakes – fresh fruit and false cream wrapped in a yellow skin; and
- a large range of clear soups supposed to be good for your skin and health that include exotic ingredients such as papaya, gingko nuts, Job’s tears and white fungus.
An excellent selection of desserts can be found at Honeymoon Dessert (9–11 Po Tung Road, Sai Kung), Moon House Dessert at the bottom of Sing Woo Road in Happy Valley and 50–56 Paterson Street, Causeway Bay, and Heung Fa Lau (D’Aguilar Street).
Delicious milk desserts of semi-solid milk mixed with egg or other ingredients served hot and cold – try the ginger one – are found on the menus of many small restaurants and in dedicated Formica-tabled diners such as Yee Shun Milk Co. (85 Percival Street, Causeway Bay; 519 Nathan Road and elsewhere).
I guess the closest equivalent in English to the cha chanteng is a builder’s caff or greasy spoon. It’s a place where people drop in for breakfast, lunch or dinner to get a filling meal cheaply and quickly. Breakfast ‘sets’ include nai cha (‘milk tea’ made with very strong black tea and evaporated milk), egg tarts or toast, eggy bread sandwiched with peanut butter, a plate of macaroni and spam in cooking water, and scrambled egg with a sweet bun on the side. Lunch sets are typically noodle or rice sets – choose from beef tendon on top of noodles in soup, roast duck pieces on top of noodles in soup, rice smothered with a curry beef sauce, etc. It’s very Hong Kong, so there’s bound to be one close to your home or office.
AFTERNOON TEAS, TEA BUFFETS AND TEA SETS
Most small Chinese restaurants and cafes do a ‘tea set’, usually from 3:00 to 6:00 pm. Tea sets generally comprise a hot meal, such as spaghetti and pork chop, a drink (for example, ice lemon tea) and coffee or dessert, which could be ice cream, waffle or pancake. The meal may cost as little as $30.
Hong Kongers expect a lot of ‘bang’ for their bucks and afternoon tea buffets can often be the equivalent of a hearty meal. Spreads laid on by the big hotels are extravagant affairs and built to withstand extensive grazing. There is usually a selection of Western and Asian food, including sandwiches, dim sum, rice, fried noodles, soup, cooked dishes, cooked meats, sushi, salads, oysters and French cheeses, as well as an assortment of cakes, fruit, desserts, mousses, chocolate puddings, petit fours, tarts, brownies, fresh pancakes and ice cream. Popular buffets include the excellent value Marriott hotel afternoon tea buffet.
For more demure dining, you can enjoy a very English afternoon tea in the opulent surroundings of the Peninsula Hotel Lobby. Here, your afternoon tea is brought to your table on tiered plates while you are serenaded from the minstrels’ gallery.
Other popular afternoon tea venues include the Mandarin Oriental’s Clipper Lounge and the well-positioned China Tee Club (101 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central). Strictly speaking a members-only club, they allow first-time visits and you get the membership fee back in dining coupons.
Dessert buffets and late night buffets from 9:00 pm onwards are also available in some hotels – check HK Magazine for details.
Street snacks in Hong Kong are not as varied as in other parts of China, but the hawkers who vigorously ply their wares add to the vibrant atmosphere of this 24/7 city. The same old favourites seem to grace the corner of Temple Street Night Market in Jordan, the bus stops in Wanchai and the Sai Kung seaside. Take-away snacks include fish balls on sticks dunked in curry sauce, ‘stinky’ tofu (rare these days), octopus tentacles, curly pig intestines (coloured orange to make them more appetizing), fish balls (deep fried or broiled), beef balls, red and green pepper halves stuffed with fish paste and imitation shark’s fin soup. Snack stalls are usually right on the main road, metres away from roaring traffic and bus exhaust fumes.
Sweet snacks sold on hawker’s stalls include tong chong beng, a crisp rice flour wafer folded or rolled and sprinkled with peanut powder or dessicated coconut, and dan zai (‘little eggs’), a kind of almond-flavoured waffle ball cooked in pitted iron moulds.
Oliver’s Supersandwiches and Delifrance are two sandwich chains serving expats who refuse to trade in their daily bread for a rice box. Pret a Manger (in Central MTR station, Lippo Centre Admiralty and other locations) arrived in 2002 and is expanding every year.
Drinks stalls supply take-away drinks for people on the move. Common drinks found at stalls around Hong Kong include herbal/health teas, soya milk and ‘pearl’ drinks that contain fruit juice and pulp, sago, coconut milk, grass jelly, red beans, ice and jellied candy.
One of the things that always gets my brother’s mouth watering when he comes to visit is the fresh fruit juice stalls dotted around the city; imagine being able to watch your favourite fruit being juiced and handed over in a large cup for immediate consumption at a cost of $5–10. Fresh juice menus feature orange, grapefruit, apple, strawberry, kiwi, pear, watermelon, mango, pineapple, star fruit, dragon fruit, as well as special combos such as celery, aloe vera and carrot, or honeydew melon, bittersquash and papaya – or you can select your own mix. Fruit is seasonal and depends heavily on imports from Thailand and China. Juice bars also often sell boxes of mixed fresh fruit or sandwich and fruit box sets as take-away. The prices, needless to say, are half the price for an equivalent bought from a supermarket. You can also often order flower arrangements or fruit baskets – mixed whole fruits in a wicker basket, cellophane-wrapped with a bow – as presents. Try Funny Shop (corner of Lockhart Road and Luard Road).
The main coffee shop chains operating in Hong Kong are the home-grown Pacific Coffee, notable for its plush red velveteen sofas, and the world-dominating Starbucks, which entered Hong Kong in 2000. Most coffee shops are along the north of Hong Kong Island in the area between Causeway Bay and Central, with outlets also in the upmarket shopping malls in Kowloon (Harbour City, TST; Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong – be warned, though: most of Kowloon and the New Territories is a frappuccino-free zone.). All Pacific Coffee shops are equipped with Internet access.
Cova Coffee has branches in Pacific Place, Harbour City and Lee Gardens (Causeway Bay), and is a luxurious though very enjoyable place to meet for a gossip.
You can pick up a nice, cheap coffee and snack at Ali-Oli Bakery and The Coffee Mill in Sai Kung, and the town is well-equipped with coffee shops generally due to the presence of a significant number of expats in the neighbourhhood. Two Rooms (Min Fat Street, Happy Valley) do a nice afternoon cake/coffee tea set, and for sitting down and people-watching, nothing beats Kosmo (D’Aguilar Street).
Traditional Chinese tea shops specialize in serving and selling different varieties of Chinese tea to discerning customers. Service is very attentive and staff are knowledgeable, sometimes offering classes on tea preparation. Shops include the well-known Ying Kee (152 Queen’s Road, Central and 170 Johnson Road, Wanchai), Lok Cha Teashop (290B Queen’s Road, Sheung Wan; tel. 2805 1360), and Ming Cha (Great Food Hall, Pacific Place).
More recently, Hong Kongers obsessed with health have turned to tea to help with weight loss, coughs, colds, stress and digestion. These tea shops are commonly found in MTR stations. Brews cooked up by Chinese Urban Healing Tea Shops include Heat Cough Tea, Mulberry & Self-Heal Spike Drink and Perilla Herbal Soup for Enhancing Immunity.
McDonald’s faces stiff competition from local food and this is reflected in the price of its burger meals – at about $22, reputedly one of the cheapest in the world. The McDonald’s with the best view in the world has to be the one located at Fenwick Pier in Wanchai: from there, you can see the whole of the Kowloon harbour peninsula. Twenty-four hour restaurants operate at China Chem Johnston Plaza, 178–186 Johnston Road, Wanchai and in TST (Peking Road branch). McDonald’s’ younger sibling, McCafe, offers salads, pastries, muffins and so on. Other American-style fast food chains include Jollibee, Hardee’s, KFC and Spaghetti House. Chinese fast food outlets include Café de Coral, Fairwood and Maxim Fast Food, serving up East-meets-West combos such as pig knuckle and rice, ham and cheese toast, and American baked potato and egg salad. They also do party-size take-aways.
Popular and cheap Japanese fast food chains include Genki Sushi for Japanese conveyor-belt sushi and Yoshinoya for stringy beef and rice bowl sets.
Besides sandwiches, Delifrance does soup and sandwich sets, quiche and salad, baked potatoes, and tempting basketfuls of French-style sweet breads (chocolate croissants, raisin rolls, muffins, etc.).
A tasty fish and chips or pie and chips is served up at Chips, Pottinger Street, Central. In the same neighbourhood is the delectable but more expensive Archie B’s (7–9 Staunton Street, on the Mid-Levels escalator), which features speciality sandwiches such as hot pastrami and Swiss cheese melts. Both provide for eat-in and take-away diners.
Kebab vendors and take-away Thai food sellers can be found around the Lockhart Road area in Wanchai.
Food courts, which generally serve food till about 9:30 pm, are usefully located in shopping malls all round Hong Kong. Great’s Food Hall (Basement, Pacific Place) features speedy dining from a range of vendors selling oysters and sashimi, roasts, pasta, Korean and Chinese food, burgers from Canadian Triple O’s White Spot and pizza by Pizza Express. Another food court on the Lower Floor of Pacific Place includes standard fast food from round the world. Branches of City’super Food Court/Pit-Stop (Times Square Basement, Harbour City and Basement of Silvercord building, Haiphong Road) include Indian, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai food counters.
If you’re shopping in Whampoa, the Gourmet Plaza in ‘Screen World’ is well worth a visit. Featuring a range of famous Chinese restaurants, some of which were former daipaidong – restaurants catering to the masses with rows of tables laid out in the street – this is the place to pick up a steaming bowl of hand-made noodles, dim sum or dumplings at a very reasonable price. Another tasty daipaidong-style restaurant that is now indoors is the Wong Nai Chung Cooked Food Centre at the top of the Urban Council Building in Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley.
Although you don’t often see locals eating snacks as they walk along the street, ice cream is the exception. Häagen-Dazs has over ten branches, including Lan Kwai Fong, Peak Galleria, Festival Walk and Times Square; there are also several Ben & Jerry’s outlets, including those in D’Aguilar Street, Festival Walk, Two IFC and Level 2, World Trade Centre. Alternatively, try the delicious local lick XTC on Ice (45 Cochrane Street, Soho; Lan Kwai Fong; Star Ferry Terminal, TST, etc.).