Hong Kong – an incredible international food paradise. Too much food, too little time.
Hong Kong doesn’t actually have a night market because the entire city never sleeps. Either you want to grab a quick bite or a sit down for a complete fine-dining, great food is just minutes away from your door. While you find great Italian food in Italy, great Japanese food in Japan, great Mexican food in Mexico, great western food in the US. Hong Kong serves a great selection of different “authentic” cuisine and they are so accessible. Delicacies from all over the world are here: Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, American, Indian, French, and Malaysian… the list goes on and on and they were all made so affordable and accessible. Places like Soho, Lan Kwai Fong, Temple Street, Kowloon City, and Tsim Sha Tsui are where you should be going.
Hong Kong’s local dishes have been known to the world, as it celebrates ingredients from the east to the west. Most dishes originate from the neighboring Cantonese Province. After years of separation of sovereignty and cultural development, the city somehow added its own twist to the dishes and made it their own. In fact, “Hong Kong Style” or “Hong Kong Restaurant” could be seen in cities around the world now, representing a certain kind of culinary genre and culture that is different from the typical Chinese cuisine. Some of the dishes have an odd mix of ingredients that may sound novel to foreigners. So here, I am introducing a list of must-try for the first-timers!
One of the most appalling sights to foreigners in Chinatown is probably seeing all types of poultry, sometimes a suckling pig or seafood, hanging up in front of a glass window at the restaurant’s front. The chef at the kitchen counter uses their large butcher’s knife and chop them up when there’s an order.
In Cantonese, they are called “Siu Mei” – it’s a general term for Hong Kong-style roasted or barbecued meat. The most common meats are goose, duck, chicken, pork, or suckling pig, roasted to perfection over an open fire with burning wood (the traditional way) or cooked in a rotisserie oven (in the modern days).
While a health magazine may tell you at times that siu mei is “unhealthy”: it’s greasy, high in sodium level, and barbecued food is carcinogenic. However, the dishes are so delicious that it probably won’t hurt you to dive into a dish once in a while. How many types of siu mei are there? and Where to eat siu mei?
Barbecued Pork (Char Siu)
Char siu is the most common and well-known type of siu mei that is served in a fast-food, a street-side deli, a cha chaan teng, or a tea house; some local restaurants received its Michelin star because they mastered the skills of roasting a strip of boneless pork shoulder to perfection and coating it with a delicious sauce that made of soy sauce, honey, garlic and more. What makes a piece of char siu legendary, is its layered taste and unique texture while eating it – flavoury and flavourful on the outside, but succulent and tender on the inside.
While char siu tastes divine as a stand-alone dish, it is much more fulfilling with rice, an over-easy egg (sometimes scrambled eggs), and a drizzle of sweetened soy sauce. Char siu egg rice is a classic local dish that holds a sentiment to many local’s hearts, being their number-one “comfort food” that was featured in the Hong Kong blockbuster movie in God of Cookery in 1996.
Mong Kee Cafe is a new local restaurant chain that brought back some classic local dishes, including the char siu egg rice that brought back the nostalgia with its silky and fluffy scrambled eggs and delicious char siu, paired perfectly with a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea.
Roasted Pork Belly (Siu Yuk)
Siu Yuk is another type of roasted pork – the pork belly is roasted at a higher temperature in a furnace with different seasonings – salt and vinegar were used to marinate the meat. The 3-layered piece of delicacy offers a completely different texture and taste. The skin is crispy, followed by a layer of juicy fat, and tender meat at the bottom.
Same as char siu, it could be found from a cha chaan teng to a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant; and it could also be served as a stand-alone dish. Interestingly, siu yuk may not necessarily stay crispy, it tastes great when stir-fried with braised tofu, poured into a clay pot and laid on a bed of jasmine rice. Braised tofu with roast pork rice is a popular dish among the working class that could be found in almost every street-side shops’ menu (as most frequently as “Kung Pao Chicken”, “sweet and sour pork”, and “Ma Po Tofu” in the Chinatowns).
Fancy going to a Michelin-starred restaurant? Ming Court is a Michelin 2-starred restaurant in Cordis Hotel, Mong Kok. The restaurant earned its stars from its legendary char siu and siu yuk dishes. It is also a fabulous dim sum restaurant for lunch or dinner.
Roasted Suckling Pig
It is technically another kind of pork, roasted suckling pig tastes completely different. It is distinctive for its light and crunchy skin, which is the signature of the entire dish. It is not as commonly eaten as char siu or siu yuk, but still, they are served in some siu mei restaurants and Chinese restaurants. The roasted suckling pig is an opening dish for many Chinese banquets, like weddings, anniversaries, celebrations, or companies’ annual parties. It goes well with a dedicated sauce that is made by a mix of many traditional Chinese condiments including soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, fermented red bean curd, dried tangerine peel, chu hou paste, garlic, sand ginger, and more.
Roasted Goose and Duck
Moving to the poultry, the roasted goose has a unique flavor that tastes distinctly different from ducks or chicken. While geese are not commonly used in western dishes (except the foie gras in French, but it’s goose liver), their crispy skin adheres with a thin layer of fat that brings out its unique fragrance. Geese and ducks taste even better after dipping in a plum sauce and they also go with a bowl of rice spaghetti or vermicelli.
I saved chicken for the last because the ways of making chicken are so much more diverse. It could be baked, fried, or roasted; there are so many variations that each restaurant has its own specialty. Some are braised with a mindfully prepared soup base, and some are fried to crispy and brown. My recommendation, go for “baat cit gai” (white cut chicken) that is served with ginger and scallion sauce because it uniquely represents an authentic taste of Southern Chinese cuisine; if you are looking for something more savory, go for soy sauce chicken that is marinated in soy sauce.
It is always comforting to enjoy a bowl of noodles with hot savory soup, and it’s also an easy meal for many locals in Hong Kong as they are always “on the go” on a workday. Either with wontons, beef briskets, or fish balls, they are some of the most commonly used “toppings” with egg noodles or shrimp roe noodles that I never get tired of.
Wontons, in general, are shrimp dumplings. Now, wontons are so widely-used it is also listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is also one of the most “missed” dishes while the locals are away from home that Cathay Pacific added wonton noodles on their menu in the airport lounges worldwide. Unlike the typical dumplings in Northern China, the wrapping pastry of wonton is usually rolled very thin that it hugs the stuffing tightly and becomes transparent when boiled. The stuffing of a wonton are shrimp, minced pork, ginger, and spring onions – they could be served in the soup that is warm and soft, or deep-fried until the skin is crisped for a dip in the sweet and sour sauce. Tasty soup stock and egg noodles play an integral part in a good bowl of wonton noodle soup – many local restaurants use alkaline water for their soup base and noodles, it is basically a compound of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that gives a yellow color to the noodles and a chewy “al-dente” texture to the noodles. Some restaurants use higher quality ingredients like premium Jinhua hams to prepare the stock.
Beef brisket noodles
The same kind of noodles are used for the bowl, however, it tastes completely different with pieces of juicy and tender beef briskets or beef tendon. Its broth or sauce may vary from place to place, the best is a clear pork bone soup that has a savory taste.
Kau Kee in Soho, Central serves some of the tastiest beef brisket soup that is also listed in many Japanese and Korean travel guides. Don’t be surprised if you see a long queue of tourists from Japan, Korea, or China outside of the restaurant right after the shop is opened; if you don’t want to stand in the line, you could also go to Shin Kee Beef Noodles in Sheung Wan, Tai Lee, Sister Wah, and Eight Treasure in Causeway Bay, Kwun Kee in Kowloon City, Sun Sin in Yau Ma Tei, there are just so many choices!
Fishball is a collective memory for a lot of the Hong Kong working class. Making fish balls requires a lot of elbow grease, therefore, as simple as it looks, it is not commonly homemade, considering the efforts required. To make things worse, many traditional noodle shops were driven out of business because of the increasing costs of ingredients, labor, and rent. Most fish ball noodle soup uses a dash of pepper to drive away from the fishy tastes, pairing with flat rice noodles. Another inseparable ingredient is Chiu Chow chili oil – and I am serious, the taste of the sauce can really make or break your fishball experience. You may still find a lot of traditional noodle places in old districts like Tai Po or Kowloon City, Choi Yuen Kee, Tak Cheong, or On Lee are some of my recommendations.
Dim sum is both a culinary and social experience. Just in case you have no idea what dim sum is (and I seriously doubt it): dim sum are small dishes like hors d’oeuvres or tapas. Starting from steamed dumplings, like har gow and siu mai in bamboo steamers, or fried savory dumplings or spring rolls in small dishes, the list of choices exploded like a kaleidoscope; now, char siu buns, cheung fan, or lo mai gai are added to the list. The list is so diversified that it is unfair for me to single out or highlight a single dish as the best, or the most delicious. Furthermore, every chef or kitchen has its own specialty and signature dish.
Creative dim sum comes in different shapes and sizes: a gold-fish-shaped har gow, a goose-shaped deep-fried dumpling, or a piggy-shaped red bean bun. Fusion-style ingredients are also used beyond imagination. No matter if you like the traditional or modern dim sum, it is very subjective and every dish has its fan. That’s why I said that a gathering of “eating dim sum and drinking tea” is also a social experience. In Cantonese, it’s called “yum cha”, where family and friends are gathered, enjoying food and sharing about their lives around the table; it could be a big group or an intimate gathering, but to me, it is always the more the merrier because I can order more food and have a taste of different things!
Michelin 1-star Tim Ho Wan is very well-known among tourists as it was featured in many travel books, Youtubers and bloggers for some time; other popular locations include Lin Heung Tea House and Luk Yu Tea House. Both Tim Ho Wan and Lin Heung offer good value. It’s part of the “experience” when you have to be shoved and pushed in front of the dim sum cart for a dish of dim sum in Lin Heung, dim sum carts are actually not that common anymore. However, if you are prepared to pamper yourself with some delicious delicacies, T’ang Court is a Michelin three-star restaurant; Spring Moon is Peninsula Hotel, and Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons has a good reputation with its dim sum choices.
Hot pot is delightfully another great culinary and social experience. Like yum cha, this is a chance to have a group of friends and family gathered around the table, sharing about their life with tasty food. Only for hot pot, the diners get to see the cooking in action. The concept of hot pot is not exactly unique, but the Cantonese Hong Kong-style hot pot has become a trademark that is so beloved for Chinese, even Asians, around the world. Hong Kong-style hot pot restaurants are getting popular and could be found in many Chinatowns in Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, Korea… or Beijing, or Shanghai.
Northern China’s hot pot, shuan yang rou, are thin-sliced mutton dipped in hot water; shabu shabu in Japan, are vegetables, beef, and Japanese ingredients, in a sweet miso soup base; but Hong Kong-style is so much more than that. High graded beef, fresh vegetables, lively seafood, and a vast array of food and ingredients can be dropped into the broth. Typically, chicken broth, satay, or Sichuan soup. However, this kind of basic soup base is not enough to satisfy the picky local diners anymore – some restaurants offer a list of 20 to 30 kinds of soup bases and I always have a headache just to choose one. Why limit yourself to one? Select double flavors!
A while ago, the hot pot scene was elevated to “steam pot” and emerged as a new trend. What is a steam pot? A specially designed pot was connected to a distilled water supply and seafood and beef are cooked by steaming instead of boiling. At the same time, the steam water is recycled back to the base, adding flavors to the porridge (congee) or herbal soup that warm up your stomach in the end.
Hong Kong was a coastal city with miles and miles of shoreline and facing the open water of the South China Sea. There will be no surprise that seafood is one of Hong Kong’s beloved cuisines. Until today, quaint and picturesque fishing villages are just a ferry ride away to the outlying islands, like Lamma island, Cheng Chau, Peng Chau, Tai O… where stilt houses are lined up along the inner harbor, and the locals sell traditional dry goods, snacks, and delicacies. Strolling through these stalls and alleys is a feast for the eyes and the nose. Besides, there are several shelters in Victoria Harbour, from Causeway Bay, Shau Kei Wan, to Kwun Tong. You might have seen movies about gangs and police getting into gunfights, jumping from one boat to another in a shelter, but have you heard of typhoon shelter crab? The wok-fried dishes are giant red crab (sometimes prawn) buried in garlic, ginger, and onion.
Unlike most other cuisines where the seafood is barbecued or deep-fried, the Chinese cook seafood with steam. To get fresh, and a vast array of a seafood feast, go to Sai Kung, Lei Yu Mun, or Sam Shing, if you want to go farther, go to Lau Fou Shan – diners can pick out seafood right outside the restaurants from the fish tanks, and have the chef cook them any way you want. All the dishes are made to order, and they are usually a lot cheaper than the seafood you have in the city center.
Lei Yu Mun is closer to the city center but the restaurants are more “touristy” and commercial, I did love the old-fashioned ferry ride from Lei Yu Mun back to Hong Kong Island in Sai Wan Ho – the night view of the Hong Kong skyline is sparkly.
Sai Kung is Hong Kong’s back garden filled with country parks. The GeoPark is a manifesto of Hong Kong’s diversified landscape and coastlines, and I recommend joining a Geotour Route, hopping on a boat, and enjoying some seafood afterward.
Dimsum, seafood, and hot pot are well-known to foreigners. Claypot Rice, maybe less so. It is rice cooked in a clay pot, and the authentic clay pot rice is cooked over charcoal. It is like many others, one of the most beloved traditional dishes among the locals, especially in winter. The best-tasting clay pot rice is made in many streetside food stalls, like Temple Street in Mong Kok. The magic of the dish is a layer of crispy, brownish scorched rice at the bottom of the clay pot, with juicy and tasty toppings! Only cooking the rice in a clay pot allows the heat to be transmitted evenly, and so the rice is slightly burnt but not overcooked.
Toppings are diversified – pork ribs, chicken and mushrooms, chicken feet, even freshwater eels, but my all-time favorite is Chinese sausages.
Cha Chaan Teng
Hong Kong-style milk tea
Cha chaan teng is yet another Hong Kong-style food sensation that sweeps the world like a storm. Starting from the Hong Kong-style milk tea, the silky texture and unique aftertaste have won many people’s hearts. Inherited from various tea cultures around the world, Hong Kong made it on its own and now the tea has an identity in the city. The tea blend is a mix of several types of black tea including the Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka. Hot water was then poured into a sackcloth bag filled with tea leaves repeatedly to create a smooth, silky texture. The sackcloth bag is jokingly referred to as a “pantyhose”, and the locals simply named it the “pantyhose milk tea”.
The blend of the black tea leaves is always regarded as a commercial secret and so it is difficult to make your own Hong Kong-style milk tea at home and have the same smoothness and richness. Luckily, Hong Kong-style milk tea is widely available at many local “cha chaan teng” at a low price. I had no idea that even the mugs have fans and many tourists want the “Black & White Company” mug with a cow printed on it.
To make things more competitive, there is a legit competition on creating the best milk tea. Kam Cha Competition is an annual event organized by the Association of Coffee and Tea of Hong Kong, and every year chefs from all types of businesses come for the title of “Kam Cha Wong” – the Golden King of Tea.
Lan Fong Yuen started in Central’s local market, and it has a great history for its milk tea for decades. Now it has a few restaurants opened around the city, but the original shop in Central still attracts many to come and have a cup of authentic taste.
The regular set
Char chaan teng is not only defined by its decor or setting, but also the menu that offers food that may sound whimsy to foreigners. Like a regular set, one-dish rice, mixed instant noodles, Hong Kong-style French toast, Yuenyeung, or ice Ribena with lemon.
The “regular set” is a general term for a set meal that usually includes hot noodle soup, buttered toasts and eggs, and a drink. Like all-day breakfast, it is available all day and the meal varies from places to places, usually, the hot noodle dish is macaroni soup with ham, satay beef soup noodles, or char siu spaghetti in soup – yes, it’s quite interesting to serve pasta and char siu in soup, and that’s the way the Hong Kong locals do. One-dish rice/noodles are a mix of vegetables, meat, and carbs in one dish.
Australia Dairy Company has nothing to do with Australia or dairy, it’s an old cha chaan teng in Yau Ma Tei, and it gained fame among tourists for all the right or wrong reasons. While they have a classic char chann teng menu and decent food, people actually come to experience their notoriously rude services. While I bet it was not intentional, cha chaan teng was originally a place for the working class, and there were no service charges or tips included in the bill. Foreigner customers were at first surprised by the snarky attitude and cold-hearted services that they received; words spread and then it became a signature of the place that I felt they have their “reputation” to maintain and it was almost rude not to be rude. Whether it was an act or a genuine expression of their work ethics, now it would be too difficult to tell.
Warm bakeries can also warm hearts – isn’t it wonderful to enjoy bread fresh from the oven in the morning from a local bakery? Local bakeries in Hong Kong also offer an exciting choice of cake, tarts, and buns. Egg tarts, chick biscuits, Chinese shortbread, paper-wrapped chiffon cupcakes, cream puffs, sugar doughnuts, and sweetheart cakes (lou po beng) are some of the classics, and my favorite – pineapple buns with butter. The bun’s flavor has nothing to do with pineapple. It got its name merely because of its look – an extra layer of sweetened crumbly pastry on top of the bun that looks like the pineapple skin.
Tai Cheong Bakery is a famous and traditional bakery – it is well-known for its egg tarts and sugar doughnuts. Other cake shops like Wing Wah Cake Shop, Kee Wah Bakery, and Maria’s Bakery are some local famous chains with cakes that are good to take home as a souvenir as well. Go to Sai Kung Cafe & Bakery for the best pineapple buns! But there could be a long queue during the holidays.
Egg Waffle, imitation shark fin soup, and local street food
Also made of flour and eggs, you probably won’t find an egg waffle in a cha chaan teng or local bakeries. Rather, they could be found in local street food stands without seatings. Local street food like curry or chili fish balls skewers, steamed siu mai bowl, fried squid, lettuce and minced fish soup, beef entrails (boiled beef internal organs), and imitation shark fin soup are always in the mix.
Let’s talk a little about “imitation shark fin soup”. It is also called a “fake shark fin soup” because no shark fin was used in the bowl, it is a “street food” version of the soup that imitates the soup’s thickness. Instead, cellphone noodles are used in the soup as shark fin, adding mushrooms, fungi, shredded chicken, eggs, and more. Like all soups in any Chinese restaurant in any Chinatowns… (no, no, No, real soup is never like that), corn starch is heavily used in this case to make the soup thick.
Egg waffles, together with Hong Kong-style waffles, AGAIN, sweep across the world like a tornado when they step up as a new trend to the world’s food scene. You will not be able to resist when you smell them miles away on the street because they are always made to order. It’s crispy on the outside, with a spongy and light filling on the inside. There are some variations when ice cream (or even fruits) is added in the center and presented like a crepe. I still find its original version tastes best.
Have no idea where to find a good store? Master Low-key Food Shop and Lee Keung Kee are two of my favorites but there are just too many, check out my food map for some ideas.
Delicious waffles, ice cream, cakes, shaved ices, and soufflés are popular among the young generations. There is always a long queue outside local dessert cafes after dinner time where a group of friends having their fun night out.
Hold it – it doesn’t mean that the traditional “sweet soups” don’t deserve any attention, many dessert parlors always keep a list of traditional sweet soup in their menu, adding their own twist: like fresh fruits (watermelons, cantaloupes, strawberries, mixed berries, mango, even durians) to traditional desserts (Sago, Tofa, red bean soup, herbal jelly, green bean soup, bean curd pudding and so on…).
For me, I still love the taste of traditional desserts and sweet snacks, either sitting in an old-fashioned, local “icehouse” like Kai Kai in Yau Ma Tei or grabbing a stool at a food stall like Leaf Dessert on the side of the road in Hollywood Road. Try ground sesame, walnut, or almond sweet soup; Tang Yuan (glutinous rice dumplings), or Sweet potato sweet soup with ginger…!