Header images courtesy of Oh My Food Recipes and @randytann (Instagram)
Noodles are arguably one of China’s greatest inventions (next to ink and paper, of course), and though many experts have argued back and forth over whether it was the Chinese or the Italians who invented noodles, well, a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China should settle that debate. (Additionally, it should be noted that the most likely scenario is that pasta was developed in the West, while noodles were developed in the East.)
Regardless of its origins, the art of noodle-making (or noodle-pulling) has been passed down throughout Chinese history. You would be hard-pressed to find a province or region on the Mainland without its own signature noodle dish. Up in northern China, noodle dishes are famous for being heavier and more filling since they are mostly made from wheat. Down in southern China, we like to use rice noodles as a snack or a main dish. Hong Kong itself is an influential hub of local noodle dishes in its own right, so without further ado, here is a brief introduction to the different noodle dishes you can find in Hong Kong’s traditional noodle shops or your neighbourhood cha chaan teng!
We thought we might start with a classic: fishball rice noodles. You can usually choose what type of noodles you would like with your fishball rice noodles when you order them in cha chaan tengs, but we usually go with hor fun, a thick flat noodle that is easy to slurp up. The dish is usually served in a clear broth with fish balls and also rectangular-shaped chunks of fish meat. If you’re lucky, the shop might even serve them with a piece of fried fish skin. Aside from excellent noodle-making skills, there is also an art to making superior fishballs, pounding the meat until it forms a smooth texture—and you best believe it takes a lot of time and effort to create the perfect, bounciest texture!
When people thinking of Hong Kong noodle dishes, we bet wonton noodles is one of the top noodle dishes you think of. Typical noodles to choose are either the thin shrimp roe noodles or the thick egg noodles. What they have in common is that people like their noodles with a bit of an al-dente texture, so it is only blanched for a short amount of time before it is served in a hot broth. Since you don’t want to be slurping up soggy noodles, you will see that almost everyone will be wolfing down the noodles once it’s served. Wontons are usually made with a mix of shrimp meat and pork meat, and the thinner the skin of the wonton wrapper, the better. You can also enjoy wonton noodles with red vinegar as a condiment served on the side, as it can enhance the flavour of the broth and dumplings and get rid of any greasiness you may have. There has long been a rivalry between local noodle shops Mak’s Noodles and Tsim Chai Kee for the best bowl of wonton noodles, but we’ll let you decide.
Very few shops still make traditional bamboo-kneaded noodles, but if you do come across one, you are in for a treat. Egg noodle dough is kneaded with a massive bamboo pole that needs a chef sitting on top to push it down. They will also sprinkle specks of shrimp roe to give to extra flavour! This labour-intensive method is known to give the noodle even more of a crunchy al-dente texture when sliced thin and blanched in hot water for just a few seconds. Some places serve them in a broth with wontons, whereas some places serve them dry with extra shrimp roe dusted on top. Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodle and Lau Sum Kee Noodle are two of the very last shops still specialising in jook-sing noodles.
One of our childhood favourites is the stir-fried beef hor fun. The noodles used here are typically flat and very wide, cut in little rectangular pieces rather than long stripes is the way we like it. Stir-frying the noodles is a popular cooking method but it requires a lot of technique and a strong fire to keep the noodles al-dente and separate instead of a gooey mess that is all stuck together. With soy sauce and thin slices of beef, you can find this common dish in almost any cha chaan teng. Kam Wah Café is a popular place where you can find stir-fried beef hor fun.
We mentioned that stir-frying is a popular cooking method, so this time we are going to talk about the most basic chow meen, which is stir-fried noodles. These thin noodles may look like they are easier to stir fry than the thick hor fun mentioned above, but it takes a lot of practice to fry them in a way that doesn’t break the brittle noodles, and you still got to make sure you are stirring them enough to get the wok aroma cooked into the noodles. Everything needs to be just right: the number of noodles, the amount of soy sauce, the balance of oil, and the perfect texture. Try a perfect bowl of soy sauce chow meen for yourself at Xin Dau Ji.
Another popular form of noodles to stir-fry is vermicelli, and a popular dish that uses them is the Singaporean-style fried noodles. The vermicelli is mixed with local curry powder, bean sprouts, scrambled eggs, bell pepper, ginger, soy sauce, and chillies. You can choose to have it with meat, seafood, or just as a vegetarian option. We’re not really sure why it is named after Singapore since it is arguably more Canto-Chinese than Singaporean, but it is a staple dish that you can find in almost all local cha chaan teng establishments. Try them at Kam Wah Café!
An unlikely “noodle” dish but something that we bet most of you will have had is the quintessential cheung fun. It is made with a thin sheet of rice noodle mixture that is poured onto a thin piece of cloth and steamed before it is rolled up and served. It can be served as a street snack, with the smaller and shorter version of plain cheung fun dipped into sesame sauce and sweet sauce. You can also find it in restaurants, with fillings of barbecued pork or shrimp inside, but these are usually served in longer and bigger rolls with sweet soy sauce that you can pour over it. Some of the best can be found at Hop Yik Tai, Fat Kee Cheung Fun, and Chiu Chow Cuisine.
If you’re thinking about a traditional noodle shop, it doesn’t get more local than cart noodles. This noodle dish is usually served in local street stalls and you can mix and match ingredients to your liking. It is almost like a buffet since you can add as many toppings as you like—as long as you pay for the extras! One of the cheapest meals you can find in Hong Kong, your bowl of cart noodles will be prepared as fast as possible so that you can finish it in a jiffy and another customer can take your seat, so make sure you eat fast—you don’t want the shop aunties yelling at you! Find authentic bowls of cart noodles at Man Kee Cart Noodles and Wing Kee Cart Noodles.
Our personal noodle favourite is the beef brisket and tendon noodles in clear broth, a dish where you can also choose your preferred type of noodle. We like to go with thick hor fun to contrast with the tender beef brisket and have a fuller taste of the broth. The soup broths are always a shop’s best-kept secret, so you can around and compare between different beef brisket places to find your favourite. The braised radish that you sometimes find at the bottom of your bowl is gold since the radish will have soaked up all the essence of the broth, so make sure to finish them! Sister Wah and Kau Kee are among the highest-rated eateries for beef brisket noodles.
Time for a bit of extravagance: make way for the lobster yee meen! Yee meen is a thick, hand-rolled noodle that is similar to ramen, with a texture that’s perfect for scooping up sauces. This particular dish is usually the grand finale to a Cantonese seafood banquet, where a whole lobster is sliced up and cooked in a cheese sauce before it is slathered all over the yee meen. The thick noodles are sometimes deep-fried as well, so you can have a golden crunch to go with the seafood cheese sauce. Trust us when we say you will be back for more! Sai Kung is one of the best places to have lobster yee meen, with Chuen Kee Seafood Restaurant and Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant as the top destinations.
Of course, we couldn’t leave out lou ding, a cha chaan teng favourite especially during tea times. Ding stands for cooked instant noodles that are served dry, whereas lou means mixed with toppings. You can usually find it served with a scrambled egg or a fried chicken cutlet as a teatime snack or a quick meal in-between work hours. It is also a childhood favourite for locals, because what Hong Kong kid doesn’t adore instant noodles? Our favourite places to nosh on a bowl of lou ding include Law Mark Kee and Lung Mun Café.