Street snacks

Street snacks

By
Jeremy Pang
Contains
15 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978-1-84949-992-7
Photographer
Kris Kirkham

Roadside barbecue pits

Hong Kong’s train and metro system is so efficient that it can almost make people forget that there are places to be visited and enjoyed outside the reach of the MTR and overground. Some of the best streetside eating in the city will in fact require you ditching the underground in favour of a minibus or taxi and possibly even some dreaded walking, but in my opinion it’s an adventure worth taking!

Beachside barbecue pits around the Western Country Park can be rented, and along many of the more popular beaches around Sai Kung region you can get all the equipment and premarinated food you need to keep the barbecue going. These entrepreneurial restaurant owners have taken note of the true basics of Chinese cooking, where 90 per cent of the work is in the preparation (which they do for you), and the other 10 per cent is there for you to have fun, experiencing the food in a memorable environment: beachside or parkside, circling around a large barbecue pit. And what a great restaurant business it is too. Aside from the immense amount of marinating, there are almost no chefs required to run the restaurants! Genius.

With the food on offer at these barbecue joints, it’s a given that most Hong Kong barbecues will involve quite a few processed foods, such as shop-bought fish cakes, frankfurters (Hong Kongers LOVE frankfurters), fishballs and meatballs of all kinds to suit the Hong Konger’s love of processed meats and fish. If that’s not your kind of food, however, you can dive straight into the meat section, where you will find fresh marinated steak, ribs, chops, chicken legs and wings, or a whole array of seafood; whatever takes your fancy.

The posher places are also a little more inventive and have straw mushrooms wrapped in thin slices of minute steak, whole garlic tiger prawns on a stick, poached octopus tentacles on a stick, curried tripe on a stick, fresh shiitake on a stick . . . genuinely anything that can, pretty much will be thrown on to a stick when it comes to Hong Kong street food. In Sai Kung, you can actually head over to the pier, where there are fishermen selling freshly caught fish and seafood, pick up what you want and then take it to the barbecue joints to cook up on the fire.

And as the stick-loving street food culture brings us back to the busier streets of Hong Kong, it’s not just the beachsides that embrace the barbecue culture and love of raw fire. There are still some local streetside hot pot places around Kowloon City and Temple Street that have their hot pots cooking on outdoor coal-fired table-top buckets, where the claypots are interchangeable with small table-top grills, allowing you to barbecue whatever you want at your table. During the winter months, when locals are less inclined to sit outside to eat, streetside sweet potato stands pop out of nowhere to warm you up, with their coal pits roasting chestnuts on the top, and a secret built-in ‘oven’ that’s busily slow-cooking a box full of sweet potatoes below. Hong Kong people love to eat simple food like this, where the natural flavour and texture is perfect as it is.

Cha chaan tengs

If I were to paint a picture of Hong Kong, I would always start with the best places to eat. Eat your way through Hong Kong in the right way, and you get a true sense of the city and the people who live there. Put out of your mind the high-end sprawling shopping centres, Monopoly-like high-rises of hotels and trendy restaurants. The heart of Hong Kong does not float high in the air, but rather is nestled down at street level, crowd level. The real fun starts with the cha chaan tengs!

The best way to describe a cha chaan teng is to combine one part UK greasy spoon, with its simplicity of uncomplicated sandwiches, fry-ups and builder’s tea, with one part US diner: think Formica booth seating, bright fluorescent lighting and comforting home-cooked style dishes. Bear in mind that this does not describe the food itself, but rather the essence of the environment and its function.

Cha chaan tengs, directly translated as ‘tea house lounges’, were created after the Second World War and were based on the desire to make accessible what were often prohibitively expensive, and sometimes downright racist, establishments that served Western-style food only to Westerners, or to those with the funds to buy their way in. Post-war, the quintessentially British tea and cake culture and consumption saw such a surge in Hong Kong that there needed to be a new affordable eatery that could accommodate this practice, knocking Western food off the pedestal it had been placed on due to its exclusivity. Given the hustle and bustle of the city, there was also the great need to focus on simplicity and quick service in order to serve busy locals. Thus the cha chaan teng was born.

Some of the signature dishes of the cha chaan teng include condensed milk on heavily buttered toast, macaroni soups topped with spam and a fried egg, crusty roll sandwiches (much like the Pork Chop Crusty Roll) that straddle a Western school tuck-shop crisp sandwich roll, and a fluffy steamed Eastern bao. All to be washed down by the milkiest ‘cuppa tea’ – made with condensed milk, of course.

It may sound like the clunkiest of combinations, I realize, but trust me when I say that these eateries serve delicious and honestly comforting food and will be one of the best cultural experiences you can have when visiting Hong Kong.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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