In the bustling city of Hong Kong, food is available around every corner. Over time, its cuisine has been shaped by two main concepts: the first is cha chaan teng, a cafe or restaurant-style venue that locals have been going to since the 1950s.
The second is traditional street food or hawkers, where dishes such as fishballs and shark fin soup have long been staples. There’s a lot to reveal when it comes to Hong Kong’s overall food culture, but local venues aim to recreate the experience by capturing the essence of history, tradition and influence.
Hospitality interviews Howin Chui of Kowloon Café and David Chan of Sun Ming about key dishes and the cha chaan teng experience for diners in Sydney. Hong Kong cuisine is hard to pin down and is defined by its multi-faceted nature.
“Hong Kong food is Cantonese food, but if you’re talking about street food or coffee, it’s very different,” says Kowloon Café owner Howin Chui. “Hong Kong cafes can also be a mix of western food, but the street food is very authentic Hong Kong food.”
According to Sun Ming Hurstville owner and chef David Chan, geography has influenced much of the flavor profiles and dishes seen in Hong Kong.
“Everyone has different interpretations of what Hong Kong food is, but Hong Kong is located in southern China, so it’s a very southern type of Chinese cuisine and that means we don’t have not a lot of spices,” says Chan. “In the north, it’s very cold, so they use a lot more chilli. With Hong Kong cuisine, you won’t find that kind of spice, but it’s richer in flavor.
Both places specialize in cha chaan teng or Hong Kong cafe food, which is very common in the city. “There are a lot of cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong; they are practically everywhere,” Chui explains. “A cha chaan teng is the place where you can have a drink and get food quickly [for] breakfast, lunch or dinner. The menu is large, has a lot of variety and is really cheap.
The concept originated in the 1950s, with food representing an important historical period for the city. “Hong Kong was colonized by the British, so there is a
very British influence,” says Chan. “Breakfast menu would probably be congee
with a side dish of noodles, stir-fried noodles or youtiao (bread dough stick). You also get
French toast or macaroni soup with ham and peas.
Street food, found at open-air stalls known as dai pai dong, includes everything from curried fish balls and cheung fun (rolled rice noodles) to siu mai and tofu. stinking.
Although Kowloon Café’s offering is geared towards cha chaan teng dishes, the menu still features typical street snacks. “You don’t really find fish balls in cha chaan teng, but we sell them anyway,” Chui explains. “The Hong Kong-style curry is another big novelty; you can accompany it with fish balls, beef brisket or chicken for different flavors.
For Chan, street food stalls evoke fond memories of childhood, but the chef describes them as a “disappearing art” due to dwindling numbers. “Because it must be
cheap and good, rent is a big factor and far fewer people are on the streets now that COVID-19 is happening,” says the chef. “Growing up in Hong Kong, there would always have been stinky tofu, but it’s almost impossible to find now.”
A cha chaan teng menu can encompass many different dishes, but there are staple foods used across the board. Ingredients such as egg, ham, corned beef, and spam are the mainstays of a cha chaan teng and are frequently added to Kowloon Café. “Eggs and spam are huge because people order a rice [dish] and add eggs and spam or they get curry rice with extra spam.
Tomato-based dishes are also in the spotlight as Hong Kong’s cafe food continues to evolve. “In recent years, tomato-based foods have played a big role in Hong Kong cafes,” Chui explains. “The baked tomato pork chop is an old fashioned signature for a cha chaan teng, it’s a big tomato pork chop with rice and cheese on top.”
Noodles are ubiquitous at Sun Ming, with the popular wonton noodle soup requiring the right kind for the job. “You get really big wontons with lots of meat and a big piece of shrimp inside,” Chan says. “The noodles are like angel hair, which we don’t make here in Australia. We have a supplier who makes egg noodles, but they’re slightly thicker. In Hong Kong, they’re very thin, light and airy .
When talking about Hong Kong cuisine, the wok hei is essential, which translates to “the breath of the wok”. “We heat the wok very hot and coat it with oil,” says Chan. “Then we add the noodles or some other ingredient and the flavor of the melt comes through the food because of the extreme heat.
“You can actually smell the char and the raw stuff that gives the smoky character. Because of the high pressure of our workstations, a wok only lasts two weeks and then we throw it away because it has a hole in it.
The method is applied to a dish of beef and fried noodles. “It’s a stir-fried rice noodle with beef and we add bean sprouts and chives for color and flavor,” says Chan. “By the time we finish the dish, it has a very good char that represents how Hong Kong food should be.”
Desserts and drinks make up a big part of the menu at a typical cha chaan teng, and Kowloon Café’s Hong Kong-style French toast has always been a best-seller. The dessert uses thick slices of white bread sandwiched with peanut butter before being fried and topped with butter and condensed milk. “We use almost three pieces of bread to make our French toast,” Chui explains.
The venue uses thicker slices for the dish. “A friend of ours owns a bakery and we tell him the size we want,” Chui explains. “Normally people store it for a week, but we have it delivered every other day, so it’s fresh.”
Tea is served with any meal, and there’s a huge selection to choose from, from lemon teas to milk teas. Chan imports its tea from Hong Kong which serves as the basis for the venue’s drink selection. “If someone wants a lemon iced tea, we use that as a base,” he says. “For milk tea, we just add a little Carnation milk and sugar syrup.”
Other tea options in a cha chaan teng include si wa nai cha or milk tea storage where the infusion is transferred multiple times through a filter similar to a silk stocking. But at Sun Ming, yuenyeung is a basic drink. “It means ‘half half,’ and it’s half coffee, half tea,” Chan explains. “It’s very similar to an Italian macchiato.”
As described by Chui, the offering of a cha chaan teng “should be tasty, cheap and quick”. Affordability and convenience are seen as key pillars of the concept. “Hong Kong is a very fast-paced city,” says Chui. “Because of the pace, the food has to come fast and you can’t wait too long.”
Variety is also of utmost importance; a large menu with lots of options is part of the appeal of a cha chaan teng or street stall.
“One of the things is variety, which is weird because in the restaurant business, everyone is cutting their menus short,” Chan says. “You’d rather do something good than have a lot because it’s easier. I probably have over 80 items on my menu. But if I remove one thing, my clients are like, ‘Why did you remove that? I would like to eat that’. It is very difficult to take away dishes that customers are used to.
Outside of Hong Kong, cha chaan tengs are prevalent in Macau and parts of Guandong, but the concept has also caught on in Britain, Canada and, of course, Australia.
For Chui, it’s about perpetuating tradition and culture while bringing a touch of freshness. “We opened Kowloon Café because my friends and I always go back to Hong Kong and there’s food we miss,” he says. “We still have little bits of Hong Kong culture, but I want to make sure people come and go, ‘We’re here to eat cha chaan teng food with a high standard.'”
Hong Kong cuisine has taken hold in the local food landscape and customers are paying a lot of attention to it. “In terms of food, there are always different phases of things that come up,” Chan explains. “Before, there were all these Sichuan hotpots, but Hong Kong food is all the rage right now.”