Much like its culture and politics, the food found in the “Pearl of the Orient” is an eclectic and rich blend of the East-meets-West. Cantonese and other regional cuisines of mainland China have just as strong of an influence on the food culture Hong Kong as European cuisines. Not surprising, perhaps, given the century and a half of British rule in Hong Kong.
The 1997 handover did not result in a complete sinofication of Hong Kong’s cuisine, nor a wholesale retreat of the West from the city’s culinary front. From milk tea and Cha Chaan Tengs to artisan dim sum in Michelin-starred restaurants, Hong Kong’s melting pot cuisine continues to be bear testimony to its multicultural past and present.
Cha Chaan Teng
In many ways the humble but dependable Cha Chaan Teng (literally, tea restaurant) encapsulates the Hong Kong way of life. The service is no-nonsense and efficient. Its affordable menu is both international in its outlook and distinctly local at heart.
Here you will find Hong Kongers tucking into favourites like egg tarts, french toasts and fried noodles, all washed down with a generous helping of milk tea – Otherwise known simply as tea in the UK, though of course adding milk to tea was a concept introduced to Hong Kong by the British.
Enjoy into authentic wok-fried Chow Mein as you would at a Cha Chaan Teng at home with this recipe.
Lor Sung Tong
Lor Sung Tong, Hong Kong’s take on the Russian Borscht, is a quintessential CCT classic. Borscht was first brought to Hong Kong in the early 20th century by Russian migrants and refugees fleeing the October Revolution. Many settled in the vibrant port city and opened restaurants and since then the Russian staple has undergone an organic transformation in the Far East, with Lor Sung Tong’s main ingredient being tomato and cabbage as opposed to beetroot as in its original version, due to the difficulty of finding and growing beetroots in Hong Kong’s humid subtropical climate.
You can make your own Lor Sung Tong with beef stock and fresh vegetables by following this recipe.
Another prominent example of this unorthodox fusion cuisine offered at a CCT is the Hong Kong-style macaroni soup. Noodle soups like the famed Wonton Soup has long been the comfort food of choice for Hong Kongers. Then in the 1940s and 1950s, when European pasta was still largely out of reach for the masses and primarily enjoyed only by the city’s elites, CCTs innovated and bridged the culinary gap by replacing Chinese noodles with spaghetti and macaroni in their menu while retaining the traditional meat or fish-based stock, thus creating an instant-hit of a dish that transcended class and culture.
Whip up your own hearty bowl of macaroni soup on a cold day with pasta in the cupboard and chicken soup with this recipe.
Old Town 97 in London’s bustling Chinatown is well known for their CCT classics like baked pork chop rice – pan-fried pork chops served on a bed of fragrant fried rice covered in melted cheese.
For an authentic Cha Chaan Teng experience in Hong Kong, visit Cheung Heung Tea Restaurant in Kennedy Town for their freshly baked pineapple buns and egg tarts, Lan Fong Yuen in Central for their silky smooth milk tea in Central, or Star Cafe in Tsim Sha Tsui for their macaroni in a rich tomato soup bursting with umami goodness.
Often compared to tapas and mezze, a dim sum meal consists of a series of bite-size items served in steamed bamboo baskets and is an excellent way to sample the highlights of Cantonese cuisine native to Hong Kong.
Steaming is a cooking method used extensively in dim sum dishes, with Har Gau (steamed prawn dumpling), Siu Mai (steamed minced prawn and meat dumpling) and Char Siu Bao (steamed BBQ pork bun) are widely considered to the ‘Big Three’ of dim sum.
Nowadays steaming receives high praise for being a lighter and healthier way of cooking, as it requires very little to no oil while preserving the natural flavours and nutrients of the ingredients. There are plenty of online recipes for you make your own selection of easy and delicious steamed dim sum at home, see here for an example.
Other iconic steamed dim sum include Lor Mai Gai, glutinous rice with chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a lotus leaf, and Malai Gou, a treacle-flavoured sponge cake with possible Malaysian, British or even Portuguese origins.
But fried dim sum options like spring rolls, crispy tofu and fried custard buns remain equally popular among the locals.
Many diners also like to complete their dim sum meal with a rice or noodle dish like Yeung Chow Fried Rice or Fried Beef Hor Fun (flat rice noodles).
Here is a simple and quick Yeung Chow Fried Rice recipe that is better and more authentic than your local Chinese takeaway.
Drinking tea is an essential part of the dim sum experience. Indeed, in Hong Kong the act of going for dim sum – usually on a Sunday afternoon with family members – is referred to as yum cha, which literally translates to ‘drink tea’. Diners are normally asked what tea they would like to have with their meal before they place their orders. The mild and sweet crowd-pleaser Jasmine is the default tea choice at Dim Sum restaurants in the UK. Hong Kongers, however, are more likely to be partial to taking their dim sum with darker and stronger teas such as Pu’er or the Oolong tea Tieguanyin. Caffeine-free and flower-based alternatives like Chrysanthemum tea are also commonly found in many dim sum restaurants.
Fresh dim sum is served daily in many Cantonese restaurants across the UK, such as Orient, Golden Dragon and Royal China. For a more refined and upmarket experience, visit Alan Yau’s Hakkasan or A Wong by Andrew Wong.
When visiting Hong Kong, make sure to pay a visit to a Tim Ho Wan, famous for holding the title of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant chain in the world, and try their Baked BBQ Pork Buns and Lor Bak Gou (pan fried turnip cake).
If, however, you are as serious about the tea part of yum cha as Hong Kongers are, then Luk Yu Tea House, aptly named after the Tang Dynasty tea maestro and author of the first known monograph on the leaf-infused hot drink, comes highly recommended for their top of the range tea collection and the 1930s old Shanghai style decor.