Header image courtesy of @amyyyar (via Instagram)
Hong Kong’s dining scene thrives on nostalgia—cue the permanently packed-out cha chaan tengs, the long queues outside traditional local bakeries, and the ever-expanding empire of vintage-themed cafés. In Hong Kong, the taste of nostalgia has become a cultural capital, and we take pride in local foods rooted in tradition and history.
Yet, over the course of time, for one reason or another, some menu items have been pushed to the sidelines, disappearing from all but the most old-school tuck shops and eateries. Hop down memory lane and see how many of these bygone Hong Kong eats you still remember (or knew existed at all)!
Considered a poor man’s breakfast drink, raw egg in hot water was once widely served in cha chaan tengs as a budget-friendly way to add essential nutrients to one’s diet. It’s essentially prepared by cracking a raw egg into a cup of boiling water and stirring it with a few spoonfuls of sugar (sounds appetising).
Back in the day, you would hear customers referring to the drink as “monk jumping into the sea” (和尚跳海; wo4 soeng6 tiu3 hoi2) in Chinese, a nickname derived from the resemblance of the raw egg yolk to a bald monk’s head; and once it “jumps into the water,” the egg white cooks to reveal what looks like a monk’s flowy robe.
As strange as the drink may sound, the flavour is supposed to be vaguely evocative of egg drop soup—a Chinese delicacy many Hongkongers are familiar with. For a deluxe version, hot milk is sometimes used in lieu of water, leading to a creamier and more satisfying taste. Although rare these days, you can still order it at a small number of traditional cha chaan tengs and bing sutts, including Gwong Wing Bing Sutt and Shui Kee Coffee.
Hongkongers sure have a knack for creating eccentric beverages. Beef tea (牛肉茶) is another cha chaan teng classic born of poverty-stricken times after the Second World War (although its earliest incarnation is known to have existed long before then). Beef tea is brewed by steeping raw minced beef, ginger, wolfberries, and a dash of salt in water.
After the war, beef was hard to come by, and people sought alternative ways to meet their iron needs. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and thanks to the introduction of Bovril from the UK, cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong started whipping up an economical alternative to beef tea using the famous beefy meat extract paste. With the growing affluence of the city over the past few decades, the beefy drink has pretty much faded out of public consciousness. Goodbye or good riddance? We’ll let you decide.
Hailing from southern China, pork lard with rice was a staple household dish in the 1960s when many families lived under a tight budget and could not afford meat on a regular basis. Stretching all of their resources, people saved the rendered fat from pork and found ways to repurpose it—and such did pork lard with rice come into existence.
Not only was lard cheap and capable of infusing food with a fragrant, meaty flavour, but it could also be stored for a long time without going bad. In its most stripped-down form, the dish consists simply of soy sauce, lard, and rice. As the lard gets mixed in with the hot rice, it melts and coats the rice with umami flavour and a rich mouthfeel. To elevate the dish a notch, green onions and egg are ofttimes added on top.
Before the reign of mango pudding and red bean pudding, there was the humble agar-agar jelly. Made of sugar, water, and agar-agar (a seaweed extract known for its coagulating properties) the semi-translucent jelly was a sweet snacking sensation loved by kids and adults alike in the mid-twentieth century. Flavour-wise, it‘s nothing to write home about, but one cannot deny the fun of its adorable egg-like shape and pretty marbled effect!
Although this frugal dessert has long outlived its heyday—when it was sold ubiquitously in neighbourhood tuck shops around Hong Kong—it is still found in some old-school vendors. Tai Wo Tong in Mong Kok offers a traditional marbled version ($21) as well as a tasty spin-off made with coconut milk ($23).
Many of us may have tried wasabi green peas or roasted broad beans before, but we’re willing to bet that only the old-timers will know of Hong Kong’s OG bean snack—oyster sauce soybeans (蠔油豆)! Once upon a time, when you were hankering for a salty-sweet nibble, you would head to a local snack shop for a bag of roasted oyster sauce soybeans. High in protein, these morsels were a versatile snack fit for any occasion—they were perfect to munch on by the handful, but could also be served as a meal appetiser or a side snack paired with alcohol.
You can exhale a breath of relief—doggie noodles (狗仔粉) have nothing to do with their namesake animal beyond the mere resemblance of its shape to a dog’s tail. Halfway between a dumpling and a noodle, the stubby glutinous rice noodles were a huge hit in the 1950s and 1960s, peddled by street hawkers as a quick meal or a filling snack.
Doggie noodles were often served in a thick, gelatinous soup with mushroom, crispy fried pork skin, dried shrimp, and pickled radish. If you want a taste of this near-forgotten street food, Block 18 Doggie’s Noodle knows how to make them wonderfully bouncy and toothsome—the iconic eatery is even featured in the Michelin Guide!
Some items on the list sadden us more to see die off than others, and fried shredded radish cakes (炸油糍) are one of them. A traditional Hakka snack popularised in Hong Kong in the 1960s, these savoury disks of deep-fried deliciousness have retained their status as a delicacy despite the small handful of street vendors selling them.
Traditional fried shredded radish cakes have been largely phased out due to their tedious preparation process: the radishes are first shredded into fine slivers, sautéed until they have released their moisture, then seasoned and deep-fried twice before they are ready for consumption. One of the remaining spots that still commits to making them the old-school way is Tai Hing Restaurant—the long-standing snack shop in Lau Fau Shan batters and deep-fries every radish cake to order, ensuring a golden-crispy shell and tender interior!