I’ve never before lived in a city whose culture seems to so closely link food and friendship.
The following three Hong Kong food trends revolve around honoring and celebrating with friends. From keeping an eye on your friend’s teacup should it require a refill during yum cha to chatting and slurping noodles together in the cha chaan teng, food trends in Hong Kong are greatly communal.
Yum Cha 飲茶
Turnip cakes, pork buns, siu mai, shrimp dumplings—and pu-erh tea to cleanse the grease out of your system. Yum cha refers to the Cantonese practice of drinking tea and eating many small platters (a.k.a. dim sum) for brunch.
When I lived in the U.S., I would have dim sum on the weekends with my friends to cure hangovers, but when I moved to Hong Kong, my perspective changed. Yum cha includes the tea drinking as well as the food, which suddenly turned my focus onto the tea. In Hong Kong, I also learned proper Yum cha etiquette, such as cleansing my bowls and utensils with tea before eating. Pouring tea for others before serving yourself is also important. You can also “finger kowtow,” using your middle three fingers to tap the table, in thanks to those of your table who graciously pick choice morsels for you and refill your cup.
Next time you’re in Hong Kong, indulge in some high-quality mid-morning Yum cha to appreciate and serve your friendships.
Poon Choi 盆菜
Poon Choi is a layered meal, sort of like meat-only lasagna. I first tried Poon Choi at a banquet at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. At least twelve people could eat from one poon choi, and there were so many pairs of chopsticks picking at morsels of meat that I had to stand up just to see what I wanted to eat.
Poon Choi, also known as “Big Bowl Feast,” consists of a large metal, wooden, or porcelain bowl filled with layered meat. The bottom layer is usually egg, pig skin, tofu, bean curd, and/or daikon, as these ingredients are “soft” and best absorb the juices and flavors from the meats above. The middle region contains layers of everything from fishballs and pork to beef and eel. However, the top layer consists of more “eye-catching” ingredients for appearances’ sake, such as whole shrimps, abalone, and chicken bits (including the head!).
As I poked around the duck heads and chicken heads in search of Hong Kong’s famous BBQ pork (char siu), I asked one of the professors at our table about the dish’s origins. She told me that long, long ago, a Chinese emperor fled with his court from the Mongolians to the New Territories region of Hong Kong. In order to show the refugees hospitality, the local villagers gathered all the best foods they could (which obviously did not include vegetables!), and since they lacked enough containers, they piled them into large basins. This way, all of the emperor’s men could feast and enjoy the good food.
Cha Chaan Teng 茶餐廳
The saying “New York minute, Hong Kong Second” captures the rush and bustle of the cha chaan teng. I first walked into a cha chaan teng in Tai Po shortly after arriving in Hong Kong. My friends and I were immediately rushed to the empty seats at another customer’s table. The waitress shoved a menu into our hands and within seconds was ready to take our order before we even had the chance to glance at the pictures. We just pointed to something and prayed that it would be palatable.
After Hong Kongers began developing a taste for Western food through British colonial influence, the cha chaan teng or “tea restaurant” began cropping up as a means of providing cheap, efficient Canto-Western food to the working classes.
These fast-paced restaurants became wildly popular—the equivalent of American diners—and, still today, serve a variety of classic dishes that signify the marriage of Western and Eastern food traditions with a uniquely Hong-Kong twist. These include macaroni-and-spam soup, instant noodles, Hong Kong-style French toast (deep-fried, syrupy, and peanut-buttery), lemon tea, milk tea, and scrambled egg sandwiches.
And believe it or not, macaroni-and-spam soup ain’t half bad.