Header image courtesy of @saisons.hk (via Instagram)
It’s such a cliché to say that Hong Kong is a melting pot of cultures, but clichés are clichés because they are mostly true, and with Hong Kong’s long history of being an international port of commerce as well as a British colony with a varied Chinese population, our food has indeed taken on qualities from various different cuisines around the world.
One of our most interesting types of food is Hong Kong-style Western cuisine—this is so ubiquitous and widely available in our cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; “tea restaurant”) and restaurants that sometimes it’s easy to forget that they are classed into this special category! Here are some dishes with Western origins that savvy Hongkongers have modified and made their own; keep an eye out and try some the next time you’re out and about.
When Britain colonised Hong Kong in 1841, we were little more than a collection of villages and fishing settlements, and the local food was rudimentary. In comparison, it was Canton (now known as Guangzhou) across the border which was leading in Chinese cuisine.
In fact, there was even a traditional Chinese saying which includes the proclamation “To eat, go to Canton” (食在廣州) and Cantonese cuisine (粵菜; jyut6 coi3) peaked towards the 1920s. As Hong Kong quickly developed, increasing numbers of mainland Chinese immigrants moved into the city, bringing the Guangdong cooking styles with them.
In contrast, Western cuisine was a cultural import brought over by the British as soon as colonisation began, but was limited as a privilege for the expatriate population or the upper class. When the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, a fresh wave of refugees flooded into Hong Kong, and not just the Cantonese-speaking population of Guangdong.
In particular, a lot of Shanghainese immigrants moved to Hong Kong, marking the introduction of Shanghai cuisine into our city’s culinary landscape. Without delving into the complexities of how Hong Kong ended up as the undisputed epicentre of Chinese—not just Cantonese—cuisine by the late 1970s, the 1940s was also the period which saw Western influences permeating Hong Kong’s dining, with classics such as Hong Kong-style milk tea and egg tarts coming into the mainstream.
After World War II, Western foods were assimilated into local Hong Kong cuisine, starting with dairy products becoming more widespread. Cha chaan tengs then started serving modified versions of Western dishes, targeted at local palates and making them available to Hongkongers at a much lower price than dining in dedicated Western restaurants.
This blending of Western foods and styles into our culinary landscape is what sets Hong Kong food apart from Cantonese food or Chinese food in general. After being classed as a mere subculture of Guangdong cooking for years, Hong Kong’s cuisine finally came into its own and was seen as a separate entity with unique properties.
Interestingly, these Western-inspired dishes in Hong Kong remained local instead of being expatriate-focused in their targeting and eventually became the go-to convenient foods for the average working Hongkonger. Most Hong Kong-style Western food makes up the basis of popular cha chaan teng fare, with a small handful of more upscale eateries also serving such dishes to this day.
It was no doubt the British who introduced to us a love for adding dairy to tea, but anyone who has ever had a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea will understand that this is a very different animal. Although based on English origins, the main difference is that our milk tea contains evaporated or condensed milk instead of fresh milk. This is sometimes also called “pantyhose milk tea” (絲襪奶茶; si1 mat6 naai5 caa4), funnily named after the sackcloth bag used as a filter to strain out the tea leaves, which is said to resemble silk stockings.
It is also possible to make milk tea without the sackcloth bag, but this method is supposed to make the drink silkier in texture—one of the most important criteria for a good cup of milk tea! Hongkongers consume approximately 900 million glasses of milk tea each year, and it has also been included as part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage.
With the rise of the Hong Kong-style milk tea came another of our most famous drinks: the yuenyeung (鴛鴦). Its name is actually the name for mandarin ducks, which are known for appearing in pairs, and therefore signifies the compatibility of tea and coffee. It is a popular drink usually served in a cha chaan teng or dai pai dong (大排檔; open-air food stall), and is made using three parts coffee and seven parts Hong Kong milk tea.
As both the tea and coffee used are normally brewed to be strong, the yuenyeung is a drink that will definitely give you a mid-day kick, though there is also a caffeine-free variant usually served to children made from a mix of Horlicks and Ovaltine. Lan Fong Yuen claims to be the inventor of both Hong Kong-style milk tea and yuenyeung, and though we cannot verify this claim, they do serve both drinks with amazing flavour and intensity.
Slices of bread soaked in beaten eggs and pan-fried is not an invention unique to Hong Kong, but our version is special in that it is made using thick-cut slices, or multiple slices, of bread. It is also topped with butter and plenty of golden syrup and is traditionally filled with peanut butter. It is this balance of salty and sweet which makes this snack so moreish.
Called 西多 (sai1 do1)—a shortened form of 西多士 (sai1 do1 si6), which is itself a transliteration of “Western toast”—Hong Kong French toast can be found in most cha chaan tengs, and some even come with bolder fillings such as meat floss or beef satay.
A slightly similar local dish is the 奶油多 (naai5 jau4 do1), which is buttered toast drizzled with condensed milk. One of the best places we’ve had French toast at is the dingy dai pai dong called Si Yik (泗益) in Stanley, next to the flower shop at the roundabout.
Inspired by English custard tarts, egg tarts were first created in Guangzhou during the early twentieth century, and made their way to Hong Kong in the 1940s. Although only exclusive to high-end Western restaurants at first, by the 1960s, egg tarts had trickled down to the cha chaan tengs of the city and became widely loved.
There are two popular kinds of traditional Hong Kong-style egg tarts, with the outer shell either as a crumbly shortcrust cookie or a flaky puff pastry. Every Hongkonger you ask about egg tarts will have a preference, but we think both are definitely worth trying! Tai Cheong in Central always has a queue going down Lyndhurst Terrace, but their cookie crust egg tarts are more than worth the wait.
A similar snack from Macau is the Macanese egg tart, called a “Portuguese tart” (葡撻; pou4 taat1). The Macanese egg tart came about when a bakery owner tried to recreate the Portuguese pastel de nata pastry, and this differs from the Hong Kong variety in that the egg custard filling is always housed in a flaky pastry and also has a caramelised top. The recipe for the Macanese egg tart was sold to KFC in 1999, which now mass produces this pastry for other Asian markets as well.
Restaurants serving Hong Kong-style Western food used to be nicknamed “soy sauce Western restaurants” as a reference to how Cantonese chefs would use Chinese flavours and cooking techniques when they initially began experimenting with Western food.
Consider a steak that has been marinated in soy sauce before being grilled—a uniquely Hong Kong interpretation of Western cuisine that, despite the prevalence of “proper” Western cuisine available, still remains an inimitable part of the Hong Kong dining scene. In fact, this type of cuisine and dining establishment was even featured in Wong Kar-wai’s famous film In the Mood for Love!
There aren’t very many of such soy sauce Western restaurants left, but the ones that do remain deliberately retain a nostalgic vibe in their establishments, usually serving up slabs of steaks on hotplates. Gravy or sauce—indeed still often containing soy sauce—is then poured on at the table, resulting in that iconic smokey sizzle. Top eatery choices for this type of steak include the long-standing Boston Restaurant and Tiffany Restaurant.
Influenced by the Western use of tomato sauce, cream, and cheese in their cooking, the Hong Kong baked pork chop rice resembles a lasagna at first glance. But digging past its melted cheese top will reveal a dish that is Western in appearance but fully Chinese at heart, much like most of Hong Kong’s own Western food.
The carby base of this dish isn’t just plain white rice; it is egg-fried rice that has been tossed to fluffy perfection. A layer of sweet, tangy tomato sauce is then poured on, sometimes followed with a roux, and then savoury pork chops which have been marinated the Chinese way with soy sauce, white pepper, and other seasonings.
The whole dish is then topped with cheese and put into an oven to bake, and is many of Hongkonger’s favourite fast food, readily available at most cha chaan tengs and fast food chains such as Fairwood or Café de Coral.
The elite of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s travelled extensively and came back to the city with a hankering for international flavours that were considered cosmopolitan and du jour, which were then emulated by Chinese chefs to the best of their abilities. One such adaptation that enjoyed wide popularity was the Swiss sauce, which is essentially a sweet and savoury soy sauce reduction.
Despite its name, this sauce has nothing to do with Switzerland; according to an urban legend illustrated on the menus of Tai Ping Koon—the old-school dining establishment most known for serving dishes with this sauce—its name came about when a foreign diner was impressed with the sauce’s flavours and asked what it was. His waiter, a Chinese man who knew little English, told him it was a “sweet sauce” but the diner misunderstood him because of his accent and it thus became known as “Swiss sauce” instead.
Slight racial misgivings aside, Swiss sauce is a fantastic invention and goes well with a surprising amount of dishes. Tai Ping Koon’s most popular offerings include the Swiss sauce chicken wings, as well as the Swiss sauce fried beef hor fun noodles. There aren’t that many other restaurants which still offer such nostalgic fare, and Tai Ping Koon is also worth a visit for its retro décor, which immediately makes visitors feel as though they have been plunged back in time to Hong Kong in the 1960s.
While a chicken noodle soup is normally relegated to food that you eat when ill in Western countries, Hong Kong has made the humble macaroni soup into a very different kind of meal. Favoured because it is incredibly easy to whip up and can be paired with essentially anything you find in your kitchen, the Hong Kong macaroni soup normally comes up with julienned ham and a sunny-side-up egg. Other common ingredients include green peas, corn, diced carrots, and luncheon meat.
Hongkongers like having this dish for breakfast, and it is still very much available at all cha chaan tengs, dai pai dongs, and even McDonald’s. An elevated version of the macaroni soup that we particularly love is the tomato soup macaroni noodles at the Sing Heung Yuen in Central, made with copious amounts of tangy tomato paste and a huge variety of toppings to choose from.
Eastern Europeans may be dismayed to find that our version of borscht soup is only distantly related to the beetroot-based, blood-red, sour soup that normally comes topped with sour cream in Russia or Ukraine. As the story goes, Russian food once enjoyed considerable popularity in Shanghai back around the time of World War II`, and when Shanghainese immigrants escaped into Hong Kong, they brought some of this cuisine with them.
Most of Russian cuisine never really took off in Hong Kong, but likely because of how easy a vegetable soup is to make, borscht soup was widely adopted by local Western-style restaurants and tweaked to fit local taste buds. Nowadays, borscht soup is often still offered in restaurants and cha chaan teng as the soup of the day, or as the starter that comes with a set meal. Tangy and hearty, but not too filling, it makes for the perfect start of a meal to whet appetites with, and is usually served with a dinner roll and butter. Try the borscht soup at Queen’s Café or Sammy’s Kitchen for the real Hong Kong deal.
Among Hong Kong’s many dessert shops touting Japanese-, Taiwanese-, and Korean-inspired sweets remains one dessert that is distinctly local and yet has Western influences. The humble mango pudding, a retro dessert favourite that is now rather overlooked next to its flashier counterparts, was inspired by the British love of puddings after their main meals, but given a regional twist using the tropical fruit so widely loved in Asia.
Cold, creamy, and unexpectedly light, the mango pudding’s texture is not as jelly-like as it appears and is more similar to panna cotta. What makes the Hong Kong version of this mango dessert special is that it is served with evaporated milk drizzled on top. This gives the dessert a slight savoury flavour that elevates the whole experience and keeps the sweetness from being too sickly. It also used to be popular for Hongkongers to consume jelly with evaporated milk—don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!