In a typical cha chaan teng you can get a mix of Western and Eastern food served at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between. I’ve seen people eating scrambled eggs at random times during the day and from chatting to my colleagues that’s perfectly normal.
So from my experience and from what I’ve learned so far, here are some popular dishes that you should try (at least once) in a cha chaan teng:
Cha chaan teng literally means tea restaurant. A light, weak tea is served to all customers as soon as they sit down. Some choose to use this to clean their utensils (which people do a lot in Hong Kong, after SARS), but really it’s for drinking. The tea tends to be a standard green tea, but you can ask for Jasmine tea or other Chinese tea too.
The good stuff is the Hong Kong-style milk tea. This iconic drink made from a mixture of strong black teas with a lot of creamy milk should be an ocher-colored, velvet-smooth, mellow yet fragrant concoction.
Not just a midnight snack for bachelors, but actually a childhood favourite of many Hong Kong people are the instant noodles. You can have them with all kind of different topics, from vegetables and/or eggs to fish balls, meat dumplings or just spicy sauce. Cantonese people have a long history of cooking yi mein, a noodle invented in the Qing Dynasty. Modern instant noodles were publicly introduced as “Doll Noodles” in the late 1960s by Winner Food Products Ltd, which was bought by Nissin in 1984. That term has since become a synonym for instant noodles irrespective of brand in Hong Kong and Southern China. The first time I saw “doll noodles” written on a menu it made me laugh, but now I know the reason!
Toast in many different ways
People seem to love buttered toast – huge slices of fat-dripping bread, often finger-burning hot. Sometimes with custard creme or peanut butter on top. Always cut into triangels, never served as squares. Another favourite is Kaya, a sweet coconut jam popular in Southeast Asian countries, smeared between two slices of bread, and the whole thing is lightly fried, which preserves the fluffiness of the interior.
Also of note in the toast category is the “oil sand” thick toast. Fried toast is topped with a light coating of butter (“oil”) and a sprinkling of white sugar granules (“sand”), resulting in the perfect crunchy, savory-sweet concoction. Not for the dieting person!
Also note, the crispy bun falls into the bun category! That’s a toasted bun cut in half and with sweet condense milk on top!
Buns and more buns
I’ve tried and tasted buns with coconut, pork bbq, tuna, green tea, red beans and all kind of other fillings. There is even a pineapple bun from its vague resemblance to a pineapple. In essence, it’s a regular bun topped with a sweet, crusty pastry.
Here are some of my favourite buns I have tried so far:
- Cocktail bun – this is nothing fancy. It originates in the 1950s, is a type of bun stuffed with a filling made of unsold buns, sugar, and shredded coconut. At the time, the proprietors of bakeries found aversion to the wasteful disposal of unsold, but nonetheless edible, buns. As a solution to this problem, the cost-saving cocktail bun was formulated. They still do it today, even though they produce the bun inside the bun freshly and don’t use old stock
- Ham and Egg bun – it’s what the name says: a bun filled with a slice of ham and egg. Both shaped in a square and stacked upon each other. I guess this is an early McMuffin version!
- Green tea bun with red beans inside – that’s Japanese, not Chinese, but still delicious. Not only are the colours amazing, but it has a distinct taste and is not as overpowering and sweet as some of the Chinese buns I have had
- BBQ pork – yes that’s char siu again, this time in a roll made of yeast. It’s ok, but I had one where the meat was not so nice – so I guess I am back to the sweet rolls again!
The humble sandwich often occupies an entire column of the cha chaan teng menu. With a tip of the hat to the colonial legacy of high tea, Hong Kong sandwiches almost always consist of lightly toasted, crustless white bread slices flanking a wide variety of proteins, ranging from luncheon meat to egg to tuna. My colleagues often pick up an egg sandwich for breakfast as it is sold at many corners for just a few HKD.