On my first trip to Hong Kong, I knew it as an amazing city full of movie stars and the home of the legendary Bruce Lee. It was also one of Asia’s most vibrant food and beverage hubs boasting countless Michelin starred restaurants serving the most delicious barbecue, Cantonese delicacies, or the most avant-garde modernist cuisine.
The virgin HK tourist that I was hopped from one attraction to another and ate only at the famed and named places – it was fantastic, but it wasn’t truly Hong Kong. As a recent transplant from Singapore, I’ve found food in Hong Kong that’s much cheaper and while the quality is questionable, it’s soulfully satisfying. This is the food of cha chaan tengs.
Cafes and food shops open all day for a quick meal, the cha chaan teng encompasses the entire history and culture of Hong Kong.
Imagine: 1899 AD. The British had just resolved a longstanding argument (to put it simply) with China over opium and had secured a 99-year lease for the territories of Hong Kong. This was the time where two cultures drastically collided and where the culture of today’s Hong Kong stems from. The British brought with them tea (how ironic) and cakes, but these luxurious items were reserved only for the prominent and wealthy. The Chinese, at the time, were already indulging in their own culture but were always curious about new food. And this went on for a long time.
Then, World War II came knocking on the shores of Hong Kong, and for four years Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation. After the Allies won the war, the Brits returned but this time, the economy was in terrible shape and the cost of everything dropped drastically. This, however, gave way to post-war entrepreneurs who knew there was a demand for luxurious Western food items at more affordable prices. And just like that, the Cha Chaan Teng was born. Now everyone has the opportunity to be able to enjoy the luxurious British food items with a little Hong Kong Kung-Fu flair.
Today Cha Chaan Tengs have come a long way and have evolved with the times but the soul of these teahouses still remain the same…Cheap, fusion cuisine, that aims to fill the belly and satisfy the heart.
Here are a few classic dishes and eateries not to be missed:
Tsui Wah, Multiple Outlets
Try: Macaroni Soup Breakfast Set
Macaroni soup is the Hong Kong breakfast of champions. A soup of fish, seafood or vegetable stock with slices of ham, and of course, macaroni. This dish is hearty, humble and would have you ready for the day. The best place to try it is Hong Kong’s biggest cha chaan teng chain Tsui Wah.
Capital Café, Shop B1, G/F, Kwong Sang Hong Building, 6 Heard Street, Wan Chai
Try: Scrambled Eggs on Toast
Capital Café makes their scrambled eggs a little bit more special than the others, they give you a nice little dollop of truffles on top. The first time I had this I wasn’t blown away, but with my recent obsession with the cha chaan teng, this is what modern Hong Kong cuisine is about…really affordable luxury.
May May Café, 44 Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan
Try: Yin Yang
This is a classic Hong Kong coffee based on the Taoist philosophy on Yin and Yang. There are so many aspects of this that just all makes perfect sense… Coffee and tea, according to Chinese medicine, are considered “hot” (the yang) and “cold” (the yin) drinks. And coffee is considered black whilst tea is a white, again an amazing metaphorical nickname.
Hay Hay Restaurant, 86 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
Try: Noodles, any kind
Don’t ever go during lunchtime – Hay Hay is a haven for the local crowd and is heaving for the three hours during lunch. The food is fast and delicious. They offer an array of noodles dishes (with pictures for easy pointing) and if you feel like it, try a plate of barbecued meats.
Mak’s Noodles, 77 Wellington Street, Central
Try: Beef Brisket and Wanton Noodles
Mak’s noodles are famouse for their wanton noodles and have been a household name for many many years. The fact that they’re also in Singapore says it all. Do also try their beef brisket noodles; the soup has big beefy flavour to rival the best pho or Thai beef noodle soups.
Top Image: Michell Zappa