Header images courtesy of @leicasimon (Instagram) and @hkfoodiesbite (Instagram)
In the West, you have cookies and milk, the PB&J, and grilled cheese and tomato soup. In Hong Kong, we have peanut butter and condensed milk, cream soda and milk, and spam and egg. These iconic Hong Kong food duos represent the city’s intangible cultural heritage, as well as play starring roles in the stories that people tell of their childhood. Join us on a trip down memory lane as we identify the best and most representative taste combinations of Hong Kong!
Usually spread on toast, this creamy combo balances the sweetness of condensed milk with a hint of savoury courtesy of the peanut butter. In the 1950s and 1960s, condensed milk was a popular infant formula alternative for families in Hong Kong that couldn’t afford to buy and store fresh milk. It was invented by an American, Gail Borden, in the nineteenth century, but the condensed milk we consume in Hong Kong today comes from a Dutch dairy company called FreislandCampina, sold under a localised brand named Longevity Condensed Milk.
Ordinarily found in cha chaan tengs, called naai jerng dor (奶醬多), this is a popular teatime snack usually washed down with some Hong Kong-style milk tea. There is no limit to how much of both condiments you can slather on. The limit does not exist.
Spam was created in 1937 by an American company called Hormel Corporation, created as a cheaper and fuss-free alternative to traditional meat sources. Its influence spread to Asia when canned meats became a staple for American soldiers, and a core part of the relief efforts by the US government after the destruction of war. Particularly in countries like the Philippines, Japan, and Korea, Spam became an important shared memory amongst a generation that grew up post-war, when food shortages forced people to turn to Spam as a protein source to feed their families.
In Hong Kong during the 1950s, cha chaan tengs began churning out creations that combined Western and Chinese ingredients, and the iconic Spam and egg duo was born. You can enjoy it in a sandwich, or on top of noodles, rice, or macaroni. Its versatility is unparalleled—you can have it for breakfast, lunch, tea, or dinner, whenever it strikes your fancy.
Another cha chaan teng staple, yuen yeung is a drink that mixes coffee and tea. Specifically, it is traditionally made with three parts of coffee and seven parts of Hong Kong-style milk tea. Its namesake, the Mandarin duck, is a symbol of marital fidelity in Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan, even though the male and female ducks look nothing alike. Like a good partnership, the resulting blend should be a perfect marriage of flavours, with neither component overpowering the other.
This sweet and savoury combination is usually enjoyed with steamed rice rolls, or chee cheung fun. This iconic food duo can be eaten on the go for breakfast, or as part of a dim sum meal. The rice mixture is steamed in sheets, then rolled and chopped into bite-sized pieces. The pile of rice rolls are then doused with sesame sauce, which kind of tastes like diluted peanut sauce, and sweet sauce, which is a dark red or brown sauce made with soybeans and flour.
This legendary food duo has now reached iconic status as one of the must-try food items if you wish to sample Hong Kong’s local cuisine. Traditional bakeries make pineapple buns sans butter, but if you go to a cha chaan teng or dai pai dong, they frequently serve it with a cold slab of butter sandwiched in the middle. The butter melts into the warm pastry, but not completely, so when you bite into the bun, there would be a contrast of temperature as well as texture, courtesy of the crunchy top layer that inspired the pastry’s name.
The invention of ice cream soda has been a source of dispute, but most accounts credit Robert McCay Green as the father of the summertime treat. The combination of the icy dessert and the carbonation seems to be a hit, and was a staple in bing sutts and cha chaan tengs in the 1970s. The Hong Kong version of the ice cream soda is a scoop of chocolate ice cream dolloped into a glass of coke, affectionately named “Black Cow” (黑牛), presumably because of the colour of the drink and the dairy components involved.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, soda and ice cream were luxury items. People would put a block of ice cream in a big bowl, pour cream soda over it, and enjoy it as a family treat. This was the precursor to the modern iteration, which is to drink cream soda with milk, a treat that was popularised in the 1970s. To create this iconic food duo, you would be given a glass of cold milk, a bottle of cream soda, and an empty glass so you can mix the two yourself; the trick is to either pour both at the same time or to pour the soda into the milk. If you do it the other way around, the milk will curdle and affect the taste and appearance. The resulting drink is a rich, creamy soda pop that tastes like melted ice cream!
Preserved salted limes dunked in a cold glass of 7-Up soda is a summertime favourite for many Hong Kong people. This is another classic cha chaan teng drink that was invented in the late 1990s, and the saltiness of the limes brings out the sweetness of the soda for a refreshing twist. Preserved salted limes are said to be a good sore throat remedy, so this iconic drink duo can also be consumed for medicinal purposes!
A lot of Hong Kong childhood memories involve this little skewer of meat and fruit, from birthday parties to picnics. The flavour combination is vaguely Hawaiian, but the ubiquity in Hong Kong local culture is undeniable. This bite-sized Hong Kong food duo is beloved by children and adults alike, as they’re delicious and extremely easy to make in large batches. Cocktail sausages or crispy cheese sausages can be used based on personal preference, and the pineapple has to be the canned variety.
A glorious product of colonialism, and a melding of different cultures, curry fish balls are a popular street stall snack enjoyed by locals and tourists of Hong Kong. The curry spice was introduced into Hong Kong by Indians who emigrated to the fellow British colony, and the humble fishball hails from Chiu Chow, but the combination is uniquely Hong Kong. The chewy bobbles covered in spicy sauce are served in a skewer or a cup, depending on how many you get. Each stall has their own secret sauce, so don’t be afraid to sample a quick dozen just so you can cover your bases. You can also have it as a topping for cart noodles, another Hong Kong street food staple.