Table of Contents
- Street Food Capital of the World
- Some Street Food Definitions
- What About Something to Drink?
- Our Grand Tour
- Prince Edward
- Sham Shui Po
- Wan Chai
- Dai Paai Dongs
- North Point
- Yau Ma Tei
- The Dining Experience
- The Grand Explainer
Hong Kong – the “street food” capital of the world?
OK, this post started off with something else in mind. I was going to do something on the Shanghai street food scene. But, after reviewing the images I had on hand, I had little choice but to do something else – as in acknowledging the fact that, Hong Kong may well indeed be the street food capital of the world.
It was the late, great Anthony Bourdain who, in the Hong Kong episode of The Layover – his TV documentary series featuring some of the world’s great layovers – stated, “I’m constantly asked ‘what’s the greatest food city in the world?’ and no one can say you’re wrong if you say Hong Kong”. Towards the end of that episode, Bourdain closed off by saying Hong Kong is, “A city where great food is a birth right and almost taken for granted”.
And, who am I to ever disagree with either of those statements – me, having lived in this great metropolis for the better part of two decades? In this post we’re going to take a closer look at Hong Kong’s “street food” scene. Don’t get me wrong, this is NOT a definitive guide. Rather, this a rough and ready overview of what is on offer around this burg. You won’t be disappointed
Some Street Food Definitions.
Not wanting to steal any of Bourdain’s thunder, let’s run past some quick definitions here. Here we are talking about “street food” – something you buy off the street and usually, nosh on the street.
Yes, there are plenty of restaurants, tea houses, banqueting halls and more besides, to be found in and around Hong Kong. And, just to add, there are some pretty great, world class restaurants to be found around town at that. I mean, east, west who is best, matters not. You will find just about everything in Hong Kong – Indian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, western cuisine of every persuasion not to forget some great local and regional Chinese cuisine. But, these are part of the formal dining scene.
On the informal side, you will find vendors selling a wide variety of dishes from mainly “hole in the wall” establishments. In Hong Kong, trading from mobile food carts and/or vehicles, I believe, is illegal. Or, at least, discouraged – mainly from a hygiene and health standards point of view. Well, the ring-a-ding-ding ice cream van maybe an exception. But, we’re not going there.
The other essential component to Hong Kong’s street food scene are the dai-paai-dongs [大牌档] – basically put, “informal street restaurants” – as in a couple of tables and chairs situated around a mobile kitchen of sorts. And no, they are not mobile. Just rather temporary structures as is their tenure.
Those definitions. Hong Kong street food falls into one of three general categories:
- COOKED FOODS [燒味] – here you will find what are usually referred to as cooked foods or “roasted meats” – cha siu, sui mei including roast pork and sucking pig, roast goose, roast chicken, steamed chicken and, occasionally, pigeon – steamed or roasted, steamed squid and crab.
- STEAMED FOODS [清蒸] – then there are the steamed foods – lots of them – mainly in the form of dim sum – as in a variety of dumplings – small, tasty morsels usually consisting of a rice noodle wrap and something stuffed inside. There are steamed buns with a variety of fillings. There are noodles of some description and all served with a variety of sauces and dips.
- SOUPS [湯水} – soups could cover a multitude of culinary sins. On the one side you have have dishes like wonton [云吞] soup – rice noodle dumplings stuffed with minced pork and/or shrimp in a thin chicken broth and a sprinkling of vegetables. Added to this, are varieties of noodles – vermicelli, flat noodles and more. In the middle, we have fish and meat balls of every kind, not to mention giblets, chicken feet and all awash in some sort of soup. At the other end of the spectrum, we have Chinese desserts [糖水] – “tong sui” – sweet soups of one sort or another – some thin, some thick and custardy – usually milk based.
And, that just about covers it. Yes there are place where you can pick up a bowlful of fried noodles, congee and a variety of other dishes as and where you may find them.
Aside from the international and local franchised food outlets, there are joints selling hamburgers [and some very good ones at that], as well as pizza, kebabs, shawarma and sandwiches but, these are usually “foreign imports” – by comparison, that is.
There are many bakeries and pastry shops around town but, and again, these too sort of fall outside the milieu of what constitutes “street food” in this city of cities.
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And, Something To Drink…
What about something to drink? OK, let’s forego the foreign imports stuff, soft drinks and the like. The bubble tea fad in Hong Kong rises and falls in much the same way as those bubbles of sago jelly bob up and down in flask of bubble tea. Can’t really call them cups, can we?
Hong Kong is well served with coffee shops and this right across the Territory. Pacific Coffee Co is a home-grown chain store operation and was around long before Starbucks ever came to town. The coffee culture in Hong Kong is now well inculcated. In between the chain store operations are a plethora of specialty coffee shops catering for all tastes. And, we shouldn’t over look the few remaining tea houses – Hong Kong’s hidden gems.
But, before I get too carried away, there is something – there is one thing that stands head and shoulders above all else in this foodie city and that is, a tall glass of “dung laai chai” [凍奶茶] – iced milk tea. If ever you want a pick me on a hot and humid day in this city, there’s little else that can beat that tall glass of iced milk tea. And, if you’re looking to stay up wide eyed all night, a glass of the same will do just that.
As history has it, the recipe for this tea was kind of inherited from the British military back in the colonial days. And no, laai cha [奶茶] is not based on that genteel beverage that’s sipped while enjoying a high tea somewhere – as in tea poured into delicate, bone-china cups from cosied teapots, adding in a dash of milk and a sugar cube or two. No, the “laai cha” referred to here is based on that rough, sweet, soupy stuff poured from army canteens into a trooper’s billy can or the bottled stuff that a navvy would take to work with him – be it on a building site, on the docks and wherever.
To make it, a charge of tea is loaded into a stocking of sorts and then, seeped and drawn in an urn of boiled water. On placing an order, some of this dark brew is poured into a cup or glass and a splash of evaporated or condensed milk is added. The cup is for hot tea and the glass for cold. For that cold tea, ice is added. Dung laai cha has got to be the original “energy” drink.
On a personal note, no one else can make “laai cha” or milk tea as it is made in Hong Kong. I’ve tried it in New York and I have tried it in London. Not the same.
OK, let’s go on a quick tour around town and let’s see what we have. And again, this is not a definitive tour of the “best” nosh joints in town – just a quick overview of what there is out there and maybe what to look for.
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THE “STREET FOODS” TOUR…
So, February 21 was a Sunday and, this place is packed. You can also pitch up here on any evening of the week and its like this – winter, summer, rain or shine. The kiosk is situated under the Prince Edward Road flyover and quite near to the Prince Edward MTR station. Here they serve up curried fish balls as well as squid and meat balls. There is liver, chicken giblets, chicken feet, duck intestine, tofu and a few other exotic choices. Your selection is loaded into a container and you are provided with a spiked picker. Some soup is added, some condiments and a gravy like sauce of sorts – either sweet or spicy – and, you’re good to go. As for the garish yellow light – an overhead street sodium lamp.
In a kiosk next door to the one featured in the picture above, waffles are being prepared. They are hollow, crunchy and almost sweet to the taste. There are no fillings. While hot, the waffle is still soft. It is then rolled up and placed into a paper bag and, that’s it. You’re good to go.
Remaining in Prince Edward and nearby, is this vendor selling only curried fish balls – a perennial Hong Kong favourite . On a side note, there is little love for strongly spicy food in Cantonese cuisine. Yes, they use garlic and ginger but things like chilli are used sparing. Sichuan and Chaozhou cuisine is different in this respect. But. this is Hong Kong. The curry here is decidedly British rather than south Asian. Strong on turmeric for the colour [hence the yellow] and masala for the flavouring. Again, portions are served into plastic or, in this case, a Styrofoam container together with spiked picker. Heaven for some.
We just can’t seem to get away from Prince Edward can we? OK, there’s a two years difference between this image and those images featured above. The point – these kiosks and the food they serve seem to have been around forever. Here the chef is preparing and barbequing chicken and pork kebab’s – almost Sichuan style, as in adding the spiced up chili/pepper mix. Customers wait on patiently. Is there such a thing in Hong Kong? This is one good reason Hong Kong suited me – I’m not a particularly patient person.
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Sham Shui Po
One of my favourite nosh districts is Sham Shui Po. On the four quadrants of any city block in this district, there’s got to be a least one establishment serving up some sort of meal. While I’ve never frequented this particular kiosk, their speciality is a range of soup dishes. I’m not a soup person, per se – one reason for not eating here. But, you have it all. The order could be anything soup or congee based – add in some noodles or some dried tofu, some chopped up lettuce, a sprinkling of bean sprouts, a fish or meat ball or two, sliced sausage, some siu mei – as in cooked meats – and, you’re good to go.
Here, siu mei [烧味] – cooked meats – dishes are being prepared as customers wait on. I think there’s something to note here. Despite all the apparent mayhem, the confusion and evident sloppiness – as in around the serving area and into the background, Hongkongers are very discerning when it comes to choice and to choosing. If the food is not up to a high stand, people will walk. It’s that simple. Siu mei refers to cooked meats such as char siu [barbequed pork], roast or streamed chicken, roast goose, sucking pig and the like. A customer will either choose to buy meat cuts of one sort or other and nothing else or, a whole takeaway meal which would include meat cuts, rice, some gravy and chopped up choy sum. It’s all there and waiting for you.
The establishment featured in the image above never ceases to amaze me. This is home from home cooking. I mean, this is home cooking. You wouldn’t expect to find this as a takeaway or street food. But yes, you can pick and choose from the trays of food on display here and then, take a seat in the restaurant at the back. But, most of the passing trade here is take out. Typically you would point out your selection. Your choice is then ladled into a Styrofoam punnet. Depending on quantity, you may have to walk away with two or more punnets. But, this is home cooking – as in the “meat and two veggies” thing. Love this place. As mentioned above, this looks like staged chaos. But, if the food wasn’t good, these establishment wouldn’t be in business. This is how you judge food in these parts. If there’s a crowd, you’ve come to the right place.
We’re still in Sham Shui Po. This is a typical scene at one of the bakeries in the district. Besides breads, pastries and cookies, the shop also sells steamed buns of some description as well as other local delicacies. The queues here are not some act of desperation. Hongkongers are spoilt for choice. And, as Bourdain has eluded to when he said, Hong Kong is ” A city where great food is a birth right and almost taken for granted“. There is so much in to choose from in this city. These folk don’t have to shop here. In many ways, what we are witnessing here – in these queues – are acts of appreciation. This is Hong Kong. This is how life is lived here – on the street. People live here.
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We’re now in Wan Chai. Things here appear to be a little more sedate – a slower pace and where people appear to be taking their time. While Wan Chai is largely a residential district, being on Hong Kong Island and close the to the CBD, the area is less densely populated. But, matter not, the standards and levels of service are equally high here – and perhaps more so.
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OK, a slight left turn here. Why is this picture here? Well, it says as much about Hong Kong as any picture I have ever taken in Hong Kong. Do I have to qualify it as being a “street food” picture? Street photography it is but, no, not really. This is Hong Kong as it is lived. Yup, but, what about the other people? Who – the people living in those fancy apartments around town, people living up on the Peak – who precisely? Been there and done that. Those sorts of people live in an approximation to a reality of sorts, a construct, in a kind of bubble. They drift into town in their little bubbles and they drift into their cubicles, they live out their 9 to 5 lives. They are no where to be seen – except in their private reserves – again, closed off to the world. No, this picture is raw. It says what it says. This is Hong Kong. You can’t take these people away from Hong Kong and you can’t take this picture away from the world. It’s that simple.
This picture was taken at a dai-paai-dong just off Graham Street in Central. Initially I was drawn to the area by the clanging made by the chef as he was reshaping his wok. The rest of the picture happened as you see it. There’s no intervention here – no posing.
Without being too disparaging of the well to do in these parts – remembering that Hong Kong has more millionaires per capitae than elsewhere in the world – they too participate in the delights found down here on the streets – as in sending in their minders to pick up their orders. There’s no getting away from – as in some of the best food around.
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The ubiquitous “Dai Paai Dong”
Here we are, at one of the few remaining Dai-Paai-Dongs [大牌档] in Hong Kong – largely situated in the Central district of Hong Kong and not too far off from Graham Street. Why? Graham Street is – or, rather was – the location of one of the earliest wet markets in Hong Kong. Graham Street is not too far off from Boundary Street. Boundary Street was the boarder between the City proper and the area that housed most of the Chinese workers, labourers, navies, coolies, rickshaw pullers, runners, nannies and more – who serviced the city, who worked the docks and who kept house for the expatriate communities living on Midlevel’s and on the Peak. Provisions and fresh produce were brought to Graham Street and the market here served all the communities.
Back in the day, the establishment of the Dai-Paai-Dongs – translated as “Big License Eateries”- was an attempt by the authorities to instil some sort of order and health standards among the plethora of eating establishments around the Hong Kong CBD and in other parts of Hong Kong. These eateries were set up sustain those working in the CBD at the time. Vendors were encouraged to pitch their stalls where they could. As we can see here, they were, more or less, hole-in-the-wall operations – consisting of little more than a cooker – usually using kerosene – and a serving table.
Besides their cooking facilities, they set up their tables and chairs where they could. And, this was the “magic” of a Dai-Paai-Dong – on a sunny day. But, come rain or shine, people had to eat and, this is where it happened. As in this alley near Graham Street.
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What more can I say, the caption above just about says it all. A corner stone of Cantonese cuisine is steamed siu mai [烧卖] or Chinese dumplings. This particular shop is located in the Chun Yueng Street market in North Point. The place is popular and the food here is delicious.
There is little, safe to say, no difference from the food on offer here and what you would get in a dim sum restaurant. There’s also that other thing about, what is cheap and what is affordable? A matter of semantics of course. It often comes down to “value for money”. One of my favourite dishes – “cha-gai-hung-faan” [ 叉雞胸飯 – a mix of BBQ pork and chicken breast over rice with a lashing of gravy] typically costs less than a hamburger and fries. Yet the burger and fries is “cheap” – meaning to say I get more nutritional value from my Chinese dish than I would from the burger. Much the same can be said about most of the foods we can buy off the street in these parts.
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Yau Ma Tei
This is a scene outside one of my favourite eateries in Hong Kong, the New Keung Kee BBQ Shop [ 新強記燒臘飯店 ] located at 113 Shanghai Street in the Yau Ma Tei district in Hong Kong. Yes, yet another siu mei [cooked foods] shop. And, why do I stop by here as often as I do? Mainly for the photography. But, I do eat here as well. And, like much the same elsewhere when it comes to eating siu mei, this is where I order my “cha-gaai-hung-faan” [ 叉雞胸飯 ] and “dung laai cha”. It’s as good as I can get it, here as elsewhere.
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The Dining Experience – giving new purpose to the term “restaurant”.
Growing up where and when I did, eating out was a rare treat – for the family and otherwise. In Hong Kong, this is a regular affair. Typically, there is neither the space nor facility to entertain in most homes around Hong Kong. Thus, for a quick or quiet meet up, there’s always the chaan teng – the tea shop. Or, for the more trendy, a coffee shop somewhere. For something a little more serious or persuasive, there are restaurants of every persuasion.
In Australia, there’s the barbie culture. In South Africa, they have their braais – a cultural phenomenon predicated by the environments in those regions – referring here to their outdoor culture, favourable weather and back gardens. Around the Mediterranean and in southern Europe, weather-wise, we have something similar and cuisine to match. There’s also the pub culture in the UK, something largely dictated by weather and various social factors. In Hong Kong, the restaurant plays a crucial role in a Hongkonger’s social life – be this for a birthday celebration, a wedding, a birth or a family reunion – typically celebrated during any of the festivals as they happen across the year. As a result and to cater for these needs, the larger restaurants have private banqueting rooms to host such events. And, this is Hong Kong for you.
The Grand Explainer
OK, in closing, something of an explainer. What we’ve seen here will be, by degrees, found in every district of Hong Kong – on Hong Kong Island, in Kowloon and across the New Territories. The food scene in Hong Kong together with its profusion of cooked foods shops and plethora of eating establishments is all predicated on one thing, Hong Kong’s prevailing living conditions.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated conurbations in the world and the living conditions here make it unique. I’ve never been to Sao Paulo in Brazil which boast a similar population density. I’ve never been to any of the new towns in the Russian Federation who speak of the same. In travelling through China, I have toured through some of the new town developments there as well as through some of the newer districts in my wanderings in and around Shanghai. They are different in their reality and, from what I may have seen in pictures. In Hong Kong, there’s something here that is unique, almost purposeful, more settled and less nouveau.
The vast majority of Hongkongers live in high-rise housing estates – public housing and otherwise. A typical apartment consists of 2 bedrooms, a living area and a bathroom – call it a water closet if you will. And, all of this is squeezed into a space ranging from 300 to 450 square feet. Yes, of course, there are larger apartments around the Territory but, we are talking “on average” here.
Each apartment would typically accommodate 4 or more people – typically the mother and father – both of whom are likely to be working – whether they’re formally employed or not, 2 children and maybe one or other grandparent or a domestic helper.
Space being what it is in such an apartment, a typical kitchen, which maybe nothing more than an alcove, would consist of little else other then a rice cooker, a pot boiler, a single or two ring gas cooker and a sink somewhere. Aside from storage cupboards and/or bins, there’s usually no space for a refrigerator let a lone other appliances such as a washing machine or accessories such as blenders, coffee makers and whatever.
Thus, given these exigencies – cultural, physical and social – these have shaped and largely influenced the environment under which the Hong Kong food scene thrives and flourishes.
All of this is helped along by a well managed system of fresh produce markets found in most districts across Hong Kong.
Statistically, in Hong Kong, it is perhaps to cheaper to buy out than it would be to cook in – this after factoring what it may cost to buy the ingredients, to prepare them, to do the cooking and then, cleaning up after yourself.
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To end, we’ll use a common colloquial Hong Kong greeting, “Sek faan mei-ah [食咗飯未呀]”? – liberally translated as, “Have you eaten”?
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IMAGE SOURCE: There’s more – there’s always more. The images featured above in this post were “extracted” from a series of photo-essays featuring the streets of Hong Kong. The series, titled “Hong Kong Streets” can be found at this Behance hosted collection.
TECHNICAL NOTES: Most of the images featured in this post were taken using Fuji’s X series of cameras and various lenses. I use Capture One Pro to prep my images and finish them using Photoshop and Nix Software.
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