Note: Hong Kong is currently facing the worst COVID surge it has ever experienced, so let’s take a moment to send our prayers for the health and well-being of the people there.
In April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself wanting to learn how to make spaghetti bolognese at home. However, I didn’t have any of the right ingredients because the supermarket shelves were almost empty, so I decided to improvise and used tomato soup, macaroni pasta, crumbled burger patties, and American cheese to make some kind of spaghetti soup monstrosity. It tasted pretty good despite how sloppy it looked, but as I was eating it, I couldn’t help but wonder how many Italians would turn up at my doorstep with pitchforks if they found out about this concoction. Almost two years later, I was surprised to discover that my spaghetti soup wasn’t as groundbreaking as I thought because it’s actually a common dish served in a Cha Chaan Teng.
Cha Chaan Teng (茶餐廳) translates to “tea restaurant,” and it’s Hong Kong’s primary hub for Chinese and Western fusion cuisine, but while most fusion cuisine these days is a deliberate attempt to innovate food, Cha Chaan Tengs are products of the British Colonial rule in Hong Kong. Before the Cha Chaan Teng became popular in the 1950s, they began as Bing Sutt (冰室), meaning “ice room,” which are cafes that serve cold refreshments and sandwiches. But as Hong Kongers continued to be influenced by the British, they also developed a desire for the European lifestyle. However, many of the “true European” restaurants were too expensive for the average Hong Konger to afford, so as a response, Bing Sutts started serving cheap European-inspired meals. The Bing Sutt eventually evolved into the Cha Chaan Teng, which now serves full meals as well as afternoon snacks and drinks. (Although there are presently still Bing Sutts in Hong Kong).
Of course, there were some cultural barriers, since Eastern and Western cuisine are wildly different. Hong Kongers weren’t exactly equipped with the knowledge on how to properly make pasta or french toast, so instead, they would use creative methods to achieve the same effect. Cha Chaan Tengs incorporated a lot of canned and processed goods into their cooking, like using cream of chicken soup to make white sauce and ketchup to make tomato sauce. These dishes might have started out as shortcuts, but Hong Kongers eventually grew to love them, and as Chef Lucas Sin of Junzi Kitchen said: “Once you have nostalgia, that food way becomes tradition.”
As for the food that’s typically served in a Cha Chaan Teng, the aforementioned spaghetti soup with char siu pork (also known locally as asado) might be the wildest combination, but it isn’t the most popular dish, so here are some of the things to try if you get the chance to dine at a Cha Chaan Teng:
All Day Set Meals
Set meals are a popular breakfast and lunch choice for many Cha Chaan Teng diners. Typically served all day, the set meals range from “Nutritious Set” to “Fast Set,” although the most commonly ordered one is the “Regular Set” (常餐). This set consists of macaroni soup with ham (火腿通), which is made with cream of chicken soup, a plate of scrambled eggs and toast that’s drizzled with condensed milk, and a drink of your choice.
Noodles with Luncheon Meat (餐蛋麵)
Before Korea’s Buddae Jjiggae (Army Stew) became popular, most of us probably wouldn’t even think of putting fried Spam in a bowl of stew, but that’s exactly what this Hong Kong dish is. It’s a bowl of instant noodles topped with fried Ma Ling luncheon meat, a sunny-side-up egg, and ketchup. If that’s not your thing, there’s also another noodle dish called Lou Ding (撈丁), which are also instant noodles but topped with char siu or chicken wings.
Baked Pork Chop Rice (焗豬排飯)
This dish is as heavenly as its name suggests. It’s a casserole that consists of fried rice, topped with pork chops and scrambled eggs and baked in tomato sauce and cheese. It’s easily the most filling dish you can order, but if you want something lighter, you can opt for the pork chop burger (豬扒堡) instead.
French Toast (西多士)
We all know French Toast for its crispy, custardy goodness, but Cha Chaan Teng French Toast is on a whole different level. Instead of just serving pieces of toast that’s been soaked in custard and pan-fried, the Hong Kong version is a deep fried peanut butter sandwich topped with condensed milk and butter.
Pineapple Bun (菠蘿包)
Most of you are probably more familiar with Taiwan’s pineapple cake, but this version is a crumbly bun that’s filled with either custard, red bean paste, butter, or even barbecued pork. The filling doesn’t usually contain pineapple, but it’s only called as such because the craggily bun resembles the exterior of a pineapple.
Red Bean Ice (紅豆冰)
Red Bean Ice is one of the refreshments that is originally served in Bing Sutts. It resembles Halo-Halo in a way, since it’s basically a glass swilled with sweetened red beans, evaporated milk, syrup, crushed ice, and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Coffee or tea? Well, in a Cha Chaan Teng, you wouldn’t have to choose between them because you can have both at the same time. Yuenyang is a blend of black coffee, black tea, and milk. The tea has been poured through a silk stocking about three times, giving it a dark color and a silky texture, and combining it with coffee and milk gives you a satisfying yet powerful kick to start off your day. If that seems like a little too much caffeine for you, you can also try the Hong Kong style milk tea (奶茶), which is made with the same silk stocking tea with evaporated milk.
When you think about Hong Kong cuisine, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Dimsum, Peking Duck, or some variation of a noodle dish, but the fusion food in Cha Chaan Tengs are just as delicious and culturally significant, so it’s definitely worth giving a try the next time you’re Hong Kong.