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Header image: Still from In the Mood for Love (2000)
Hong Kong cinema is an enigmatic world, encapsulating the city’s unique history and multicultural diversity. Looking through the kaleidoscope of Hong Kong cinema, people around the world can also catch a glimpse of the fascinating culinary heritage of this metropolis, from quick bites at street stalls, tasty cha chaan teng dishes, to a casual experience at the open-air dai pai dong. We’ve compiled a list of iconic Hong Kong foods featured in our favourite made-in-Hong-Kong films, many of which are from the 1980s and 1990s. Come prepared, as you are destined to feel nostalgic—and probably a bit peckish.
“Egg tarts fresh out of the oven—watch out!” (熱蛋撻出爐, 唔該借借!) Piping hot and fragrant beyond belief, this iconic pastry—paired with a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea—is considered a classic mid-afternoon pick-me-up for many Hongkongers.
Lucky Café, a fictional mom-and-pop cha chaan teng famous for Hong Kong-style egg tarts, features heavily in the 1998 star-studded Lunar New Year comedy film The Lucky Guy (幸運一條龍). Well-loved by the local community, owner Li (Ng Man-tat) always remembers his regulars’ orders when they holler “lai6 paai4” (例牌; “the usual stuff”).
In the film, Lucky Café also attracts attention thanks to waiter Ho Kam-sui (Stephen Chow), a lady’s man and self-proclaimed “prince of egg tarts.” Although Sui and his coworkers all get tangled up with different problems of the heart, they also spare no efforts to save their beloved neighbourhood café from forced closure.
You might want to think twice before deciding to snack while watching this infamous 2004 horror film directed by Fruit Chan! In Dumplings, the gastronomical lens focuses on the morsels made by Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), but instead of cooking them with a beef or pork filling, these unusual dumplings are stuffed with the unsavoury ingredient of unborn fetuses, which she claims will impart youth and beauty to whoever consumes them. Mrs Li (Miriam Yeung), a retired actress desperate to avoid ageing in order to retain her husband’s affection, seeks out Aunt Mei, and, well, you can probably imagine the rest.
While Chicken and Duck Talk (雞同鴨講) is named after a popular Chinese idiom that illustrates how two people are unable effectively communicate with each other, the 1988 satire film centres around a penny-pinching owner of a poorly-run Cantonese roast duck shop, who goes head to head with an American-style fried chicken store across the street.
Despite his struggles with his business, restaurateur Old Hui (Hong Kong comedy star and auteur Michael Hui) harbours a true appreciation for Cantonese roasted duck and shares with a female customer the right attitude to eating the dish: “Imagine you are kissing your lover. You need to be gentle while chewing every bite of the duck meat.” (妳食鴨呢, 就好似錫妳嘅情人一樣, 一定要好溫柔咁一啖一啖咁樣食.)
As the king of street foods, fishballs (魚蛋) can be found everywhere across the city as a quick and cheap snack. In fact, the humble fishball even made an appearance in a 1988 crime thriller titled As Tears Go By (旺角卡門). In the film, Wah (Andy Lau) finds a job for his troublemaking younger brother Fly (Jacky Cheung) after he loses at gambling and gets beaten up by a group of gangsters: selling fishball skewers from a street cart. Nowadays, fishballs are more commonly served in styrofoam bowls, and you can choose to drizzle them in either soy sauce, chilli sauce, satay sauce, or a little bit of everything.
Put chai ko (缽仔糕; red bean pudding cake) symbolises love in the 1993 romantic melodrama C’est La Vie, Mon Chéri (新不了情). Min (Anita Yuen), a cheerful young woman saddled with an illness since childhood, is seen snacking on a put chai ko with a struggling musician Kit (Sean Lau Ching-wan) as the two develop a budding romance. Palm-sized and sweet, this steamed Cantonese dessert is made from either white or brown sugar.
In the final scene of this tearjerker, Kit is stricken by remorse as he realises Min has passed away while he was out buying put chai ko for the love of his life. Weepies aside, if you have an itch for this sweet treat, look no further than Kwan Kee Store in Sham Shui Po.
In the Mood for Love (花樣年華) is a Hong Kong cinema classic directed by Wong Kar-wai. A magnum opus of unrequited love, this elegiac masterpiece draws in viewers with its lush visuals, dream-like beauty, and melodramatic tunes. One of the most striking scenes of the film is when we witness the lonely protagonists Su (Maggie Cheung) and Chow (Tony Leung) share a meal at a red leather booth seat inside the now-defunct Goldfinch Restaurant, well-known for serving soy sauce Western cuisine (豉油西餐).
A unique Hong Kong-style cuisine, soy sauce Western emerged in the 1960s as a perfect example of East-meets-West. Western dishes were localised to the Cantonese palate and offered to grassroots communities, such as a sizzling platter of steak (鐵板牛排餐), baked pork chop with fried rice (焗豬扒飯) or “Swiss sauce” chicken wings (瑞士汁雞翼).
Like Stephen Chow’s enduring comedic schticks, the famed “sorrowful rice” (黯然銷魂飯) that debuted in the 1996 comedy The God of Cookery (食神) has remained a timeless comfort food. Despite its dramatic name, the Cantonese-style barbequed pork rice with a sunny-side-up egg is a simple but jovial carb-infused meal celebrated by Hongkongers.
In the cooking competition scene, Stephen Chow a.k.a. Sik San, the disgraced “god of cookery,” vows to reclaim his title with “sorrowful rice” as his competition entry. Nancy Sit, who plays the judge, tastes his food and swoons in ecstasy at thought of not being able to eat such a wonderful bowl of char siu rice again. She is even moved to tears as the hearty bowl leaves her with a touched but sorrowful feeling, thanks to the fragrant onions soaked in the honey glaze from the succulent and luscious cuts of barbequed pork.
While this classic Cantonese roasted meat dish is widely accessible, perhaps Chop Chop, where chef Dai Lung shared his secret recipe of how to make the famous “sorrowful rice,” is the place that truly brings this signature dish back to life from the film.
Another hallmark food in The God of Cookery, the “explosive pissing beef balls” (爆漿瀨尿牛丸) were the talk of the town when the film was released. Created by Chow, the beef is claimed to be pounded 28,600 times by Turkey (Karen Mok) to gain an elastic texture. A bite of the beef ball with soup inside induces an explosive sensation, and even the rival gangster Goosehead says that the pleasure is better than the memory of his first love.
A can of sliced pineapples (鳳梨罐頭) is extensively talked about in the 1994 romantic crime drama Chungking Express (重慶森林) as it carries a special meaning to Cop 223 (Kaneshiro Takeshi). His ex-girlfriend May, who dumped him on 1 April, enjoyed them, so he keeps hunting for canned pineapples with an expiration date of 1 May—his birthday—to convince himself that being dumped on April Fool’s Day was just a “joke” and not done in earnest.
However, like canned foods, perhaps everything has an expiration date, including relationships. Later on, Cop 233 is trying to move on from his ex by hitting on a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) at a dark and gloomy bar, using the silly pick-up line, “Excuse me, miss. Do you like pineapples?” (小姐, 請問妳鍾唔鍾意食菠蘿?)
What does Curry and Pepper (咖喱辣椒) have in common with the longstanding Cantonese staple of wonton noodles (雲吞麵)? In the 1990 buddy cop film, carefree policemen Curry (Jacky Cheung) and Pepper (Stephen Chow) sit down for wonton noodles at an eatery run by a cocky chef. Although the wonton noodles they are served are nothing to write home about, Curry chose this spot because he “admires” the chef’s devil-may-care attitude.
Shortly after, Curry and Pepper are encouraged to conduct a currency exchange with a tourist couple sitting at another table so that they can have local currency to pay for their meal, only to find out later that the US$100 dollar bill they received from them is fake.
In 1986, the legendary heroic bloodshed film A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色) shot Chow Yun-fat to international stardom. His role as Mark Gor, a trench-coated, sunglasses-wearing gangster with a swagger, is truly unforgettable and effortlessly cool. He even lights a cigarette by burning a dollar bill like it’s no big deal. But the film’s opening scene is also a nostalgic reminder of Hong Kong’s past: Mark Gor enjoys a plate of steamed rice rolls (豬腸粉; zyu1 coeng4 fan2) ordered from an illegal street hawker outside of the Hong Kong Club until law enforcement shows up and they both have to leg it from the cops.
Steamed rice noodle rolls without filling are a simple but delightful street food that many Hongkongers hold dearly to their hearts. In fact, Chow Yun-fat once said that steamed rice rolls are his favourite thing to eat for breakfast. Steamed rice rolls, slathered in sesame sauce and soy sauce, also make an appearance in the 2021 biopic Anita (梅艷芳), a clandestine snack shared between a young Anita Mui (Louise Wong) and her secret beau.