What you need to know
From 1950s diners to mystery street side marinades, Hong Kong food is a melting pot of international influences.
Don’t let Hong Kong’s geography fool you, there is more culture packed into its narrow streets than most mega-cities have in their metropolitan area. Swirling smells tempt you down every side street, beckoning you to take a culinary journey from Asia to the West.
When I think of Cantonese food, my mind fills with toppling towers of bamboo steamers, each holding a dim sum delicacy to be slowly savored over never-ending tea. But the dishes that local Hong Kongers eat every day reveal a surprising side to the Hong Kong palate. Many of these dishes are not native to the city but have been inherited from migrants and adapted to local customs. Their origins show how local Hong Kong dishes have been colored by many different cuisines, creating a kaleidoscope of flavors.
A Hong Kong style 'cuppa' tea
Stepping into a Hong Kong-style diner, Cha Chaan Teng (茶餐廳), takes you straight back to the 50s via funky red leather booths, checkered tablecloths and classic menus. Back then, Western food had already become popular in Hong Kong, and as manufacturing boomed, so did the production of factory produced foodstuffs such as evaporated milk and sliced white bread. These, paired with the influence of British tea shops, led to the creation of these time capsule diners.
There’s a diner on every street – they still outstrip the number of Starbucks in town – frequented by a myriad of people from businessmen on lunch breaks to pensioners reading the papers over a slow breakfast. A typical menu lists breakfast to dinner: sweet cakes, sandwiches and stir fries included.
The must-try combo is a pineapple bun and a glass of sweet milk tea. Not actually made with pineapple, but named after the shape on top of the bun, this is essentially a sweet bread roll. The selling point, though, is the giant slab of butter wedged into the middle, that slowly melts if the bun is hot out the oven. Washed down with the almost sickly-sweet Hong Kong milk tea, made with evaporated milk, this is the perfect afternoon sugar boost for exploring the streets of Kowloon.
On nearly every street corner, more common than the diners and Starbucks combined, are street stalls with deep pots of marinade sauce, bubbling away all day and night, filled to the brim with a curious assortment of snacks. This is where truly local snacks are found, though most visitors are wary of the unidentifiable offerings. This method of marinating was introduced to Hong Kong by the people from the city of Chaozhou in Guangdong Province.
When Hong Kong’s borders were opened in the 1950s, the city experienced an influx of migrants, many of whom came from Chaozhou. They initially set up "rice stores," selling mainly dried foods and, well, rice. But it was their technique of braising and then marinating, known as lu (滷), which had the biggest influence on Hong Kong. Chaozhou cuisine has many marinated dishes, including duck, pork, offal, fish balls and tofu, all of which can be found stewing away endlessly at these stalls. Originally tough and chewy animal parts, such as cow stomach and intestine, become soft and tender, soaked right through with the flavor of the marinade.
The trick to the intense tastes of these street stall snacks is grounded in the marinade, with each establishment having their own secret recipe. The marinade mixes can even be decades old, notably in some older marinated goose restaurants. New stock and spices are added daily, giving their products that old-aged flavor. It is said that if a marinade shop changes hands, the new owners have to buy the marinade off the original owners – the older the marinade, the higher the price!
Some controversial dishes were brought over to Hong Kong from mainland China but have not been accepted as easily as the British/American diners or Guangdong marinades. The consumption of dog meat has a long and continuous history on the mainland but was banned in Hong Kong over 65 years ago. Similarly, the market for the upper-class signifier shark fin soup has actually seen a decline in recent years, for similarly humane reasons.
For those still craving the experience of eating these contentious dishes, without actually having to try the meat, there is the Michelin-star endowed street stall Block 18 Doggie’s Noodle (十八座狗仔粉).
The stall takes its name from its most popular dish, Doggie’s Noodle - short, thick rice flour noodles that look like a dog’s tail, served in a gooey soup thickened with cornflour and packing a garlic punch. During the Second World War, this carb-heavy noodle was rationed out to people under the name "salvation noodle". The Cantonese word for salvation, gauzai (救濟) is a homonym for that of dog (狗仔), so after the war and as times improved, the name was changed to "doggie noodle."
They also make an imitation shark fin soup. This originated in the 1950s when local people couldn’t afford the high-end real deal. Street vendors recreated the dish using discarded pieces of shark fin. It wasn’t quite the same, but it was cheap, and that was enough to popularize the dish. Today at Block 18, no shark fin is used, with rice noodles deployed instead to imitate the texture of the fin.
Hong Kong is proud of being a center for cultural combination, but only the tastiest dishes will be accepted into the cultural, and after a local twist is spun on these dishes, they become distinctively Hong Kong style.
Hong Kong Free Tours contributed information for this article.
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TNL Editor: TNL Staff