One of the world’s most delicious cities, Hong Kong offers culinary excitement whether you’re spending HK$50 on a bowl of noodles or HK$2000 on a seafood feast. The best of China is well represented, be it Cantonese, Shanghainese, Northern or Sichuanese. Similarly, the smorgasbord of non-Chinese – French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese Indian – is the most diverse in all of Asia.
The dominant cuisine in Hong Kong is Cantonese and it’s easily the best in the world. Many of China’s top chefs fled to the territory around 1949; it was therefore here and not in its original home, Guǎngzhōu, that Cantonese cuisine flourished.
This style of cooking is characterised by an insistence on freshness. Seafood restaurants display tanks full of finned and shelled creatures in their final moments. Flavours are delicate and balanced, obtained through restrained use of seasoning and light-handed cooking techniques such as steaming and quick stir-frying.
Cantonese cuisine refers to the culinary styles of Guǎngdōng province, as well as Chiu Chow (Cháozhōu) and Hakka cuisines. Chiu Chow dishes reflect a penchant for seafood and condiments. Deep-fried soft-boned fish comes with tangerine oil; braised goose with a vinegar and garlic dip. Hakka cuisine is known for its saltiness and use of preserved meat. Salt-baked chicken and pork stewed with preserved vegetables fed many hungry families and famished workers back in leaner times.
Hong Kong’s chefs are also an innovative bunch who’ll seize upon new ingredients and find wondrous ways of using them. For example, dim sum has expanded to include mango pudding, and shortbread tarts stuffed with abalone and chicken. Black truffles – the kind you see on French or Italian menus – are sometimes sprinkled on rolled rice sheets and steamed. And it works.
Dim-sum classes are nigh-on impossible to come by at a reasonable price (too fiddly/time-consuming), but Hong Kong is a good place to hone your skills in the other arts of Chinese cookery. Try these:
Home's Cooking This highly rated cooking class offers three-hour morning sessions from the owner's home in the east of Hong Kong Island. Students cook a three-course Chinese meal: think spring rolls, lotus-leaf chicken and ginger pudding. Classes include a trip to a local wet market and lunch. There's a class minimum of two people.
Martha Sherpa Expert Cantonese home-cook Martha Sherpa (her last name comes from her Nepali husband) has taught the likes of former Australian PM Julia Gillard how to cook Hong Kong favourites. Small-group classes cover topics like restaurant-style Hong Kong Cantonese cuisine, Cantonese barbecue, Chinese regional cuisines, dim sum and vegetarian Chinese cookery. Half-day, full-day and evening classes are available.
Dim sum are Cantonese tidbits consumed with tea for breakfast or lunch. The term literally means ‘to touch the heart’ and the act of eating dim sum is referred to as yum cha, meaning ‘to drink tea’.
In the postwar period, yum cha was largely an activity of single males, who met over their breakfast tea to socialise or exchange tips about job-seeking. Soon yum cha became a family activity.
Each dish, often containing two to four morsels steamed in a bamboo basket, is meant to be shared. In old-style dim sum places, just stop the waiter and choose something from the cart. Modern venues give you an order slip, but it’s often in Chinese only. However, as dim sum dishes are often ready-made, the waiters should be able to show you samples to choose from.
The holy trinity of Hong Kong dim sum consists of har gow, translucent steamed parcels of chunky chopped shrimp; siu mai, a thicker skin encasing minced pork, topped with fish roe; and char siu bao, the classic barbecue pork bun. Other staples include molten custard buns and chicken feet in black bean sauce. To truly be initiated into Hong Kong dining, you must try all of these.
Soy Sauce Western
‘Soy sauce western’ (si yau sai chaan) features western-style dishes prepared with a large dollop of wisdom from the Chinese kitchen. It’s said to have emerged in the 1940s when the ingenious chef of Tai Ping Koon decided to ‘improve’ on western cooking by tweaking recipes, such as replacing dairy products with local seasoning – lactose intolerance is common among East Asians – and putting rice on the menu.
His invention met its soulmate in White Russians, who had fled to Shànghǎi after the Bolshevik Revolution and sought refuge in Hong Kong in 1949; they soon cooked up what’s known as Shanghainese–Russian food.
The two schools of western-inspired cuisine offered affordable and exotic dining to locals at a time when authentic western eateries catered almost exclusively to expatriates. Eventually the two styles mingled, spawning soy sauce western as we know it today. Popular dishes include Russian borscht, baked pork chop over fried rice and beef stroganoff with rice.
Dai Pai Dong
A dai pai dong (大牌檔) is a food stall, hawker-style or built into a rickety hut crammed with tables and stools that sometimes spill out onto the pavement. After WWII the colonial government issued food-stall licences to the families of injured or deceased civil servants. The licences were big so the stalls came to be known as dai pai dong (meaning ‘big licence stalls’).
Dai pai dong can spring up anywhere: by the side of a slope, in an alley or under a tree. That said, these vintage places for trillion-star dining are fast vanishing; most have now been relocated to government-run, cooked-food centres.
The culinary repertoire of dai pai dong varies from stall to stall. One may specialise in congee while its neighbour whips up seafood dishes that give restaurants a run for their money. In places where there’s a cluster of dai pai dong, you can order dishes from different operators.
Cha Chaan Tang
Teahouses (茶餐廳; cha chaan tang) are cheap and cheery neighbourhood eateries that appeared in the 1940s serving western-style snacks and drinks to those who couldn’t afford Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches. Their menus have since grown to include more substantial Chinese and soy sauce western dishes.
Some teahouses have bakeries creating European pastries with Chinese characteristics, such as pineapple buns (菠蘿包; bo law bao), which don’t contain a trace of the said fruit, and cocktail buns, which have coconut stuffing (雞尾包; gai may bao).
How Hong Kongers Eat
Many busy Hong Kongers take their breakfast and lunch at tea cafes. A full breakfast at these places consists of buttered toast, fried eggs and spam, instant noodles and a drink. The more health-conscious might opt for congee, with dim sum of rolled rice sheets (cheung fan) and steamed dumplings with pork and shrimp (siu mai).
Lunch for office workers can mean a bowl of wonton noodles, a plate of rice with Chinese barbecue or something more elaborate.
Afternoon tea is popular at the weekends. On weekdays it is the privilege of labourers and ladies of leisure (tai-tais). Workers are said to vanish, Cinderella fashion, at 3.15pm sharp for their daily fix of egg tarts and milk tea. For tai-tais, tea could mean scones and rose-petal jam with friends or a bowl of noodles at the hairdresser.
Dinner is the biggest meal of the day. If prepared at home, what’s on the table depends on the traditions of the family, but usually there’s soup, rice, veggies and a meat or fish dish. Everyone has their own bowl of rice and/or soup, with the rest of the dishes placed in the middle of the table for sharing. Dining out is also extremely common, with many families eating out three to five times a week. Eating is a communal affair in Hong Kong and few people eat alone; menus are designed around sharing.
From monkfish-liver sushi to French molecular cuisine, Hong Kong has no shortage of great restaurants specialising in the food of other cultures. The variety and quality of Asian cuisines is outstanding, surpassing even that of Tokyo. Then there’s the exceptional array of western options. Hong Kong’s affluent and cosmopolitan population loves western food, especially European. This is evidenced by the number of international celebrity chefs with restaurants here, such as Joël Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Gordon Ramsey. Prices at these and other top addresses can be steep, but there’s also a burgeoning number of excellent eateries specialising in rustic French or Italian that cater to food lovers with medium-sized pockets.
Good Eating (www.scmp.com) The restaurant guide and directory of a local English-language newspaper.
Hungry Hong Kong (http://hungryhk.blogspot.hk) Food and travel, with hunger-inducing photography.
Open Rice (www.openrice.com) Popular local site with restaurant reviews penned by the city’s armchair gourmands.
Sassy Hong Kong (www.sassyhongkong.com) Definitive city blog that's particularly strong on food and drink.
Time Out (www.timeout.com.hk) An authoritative fortnightly guide and listings of what's on.
WOM Guide (www.womguide.com) A guide to the city's dining scene, new trends and sustainable food features.
The two major supermarket chains, PARKnSHOP (www.parknshop.com) and Wellcome (www.wellcome.com.hk), have megastores that offer groceries as well as takeaway cooked food. But do seek out the many food markets that still exist around the city, too.
Wet markets for fresh produce (open 6am to 7pm) can be found all over town.
There are 101 ways to accidentally eat meat in Hong Kong. A plate of greens is probably cooked in meat stock and served with oyster sauce. Broth made with chicken is a prevalent ingredient, even in dishes where no meat is visible. In budget restaurants, chicken powder is used liberally. The safe bet for veggies wanting to go Chinese is to patronise vegetarian eateries or upscale establishments. Restaurants specialising in other cuisines are often more sympathetic to vegetarians when planning menus; life can be even harder for vegans.
Walled Village Cuisine
The modern history of Hong Kong begins with the First Opium War, but the roots of its cuisine go much further back. The local inhabitants who dwelt here ate what they could herd, grow or catch from the sea. Certain ancient food traditions from these peoples remain, most notably walled village cuisine, best known for the ‘basin feast’ (盆菜; poon choy). The story has it that the last emperor of the southern Song dynasty (AD 1127–1279), fleeing from the Mongols, retreated to a walled village in Hong Kong with his entourage. The villagers, lacking decent crockery, piled all kinds of food into a large basin to serve the royal guests. Poon choy has become a dish for festive occasions in the New Territories ever since.
Guided Food Tours
Guided food walks are a staple of Hong Kong and can help overcome the language barrier at some of the city's best Cantonese food stalls and hole-in-the-wall diners. A half-day trip will usually cost around HK$750 upwards.
Little Adventures in Hong Kong Tours are a little more pricey than some of its competitors, but its guided walks are led by food writers, journalists and chefs who provide insights few other tour guides can. Weekly group walks to Wan Chai or Kennedy Town (per person US$115) cover food, local history and culture; other options include a four-hour Wonton-a-thon walk, a cook's tour, and a smorgasbord of customisable options depending on your interest.
Hong Kong Foodie Tour Regular group tours crawling Hong Kong's local food joints with native guides, and one of the only operators covering further-flung food haunts in the New Territories. There are four options: Central and Sheung Wan, Sham Shui Po, the Tai Po Market, and Temple Street Night Market. Walks run every day of the week except Sunday. The Central and Sheung Wan trip departs Monday to Saturday at 1.45pm or 2.15pm and visits up to six locations: come hungry!
Humid with a Chance of Fishballs Personable Canadian–Hong Konger Virginia gets rave reviews and offers one of the cheapest food tours in the city: a guided dim-sum lunch in a chaotic 1950s parlour for HK$220. Or try eating typhoon-shelter crab on a sampan boat. She's also the only guide in the city offering a craft-beer breweries tour, which calls at three brewers most Saturdays (per person HK$608).
Aqua Luna Not guided per se, but Aqua Luna has a reasonably priced (HK$400) harbour cruise on its beautifully nostalgic Chinese wooden boat with an excellent dim sum lunch of truffled har gow, char siu bao and creamy egg-custard tarts: a great way to combine two of Hong Kong's favourite pastimes – scoffing and sailing. The weekly cruise departs Mondays.
Need to Know
- Lunch 11am–3pm
- Dinner 6pm–11pm
Some restaurants are open through the afternoon, while others are also open for breakfast. Most restaurants open on Sunday (some close Mondays) and close for at least two days during the Lunar New Year.
Most restaurants (midrange or above) take reservations. At popular addresses booking is crucial, especially for weekend dinners, and some may serve two or even three sittings a night.
HK$70 should buy you noodles and some greens at a Cantonese cheapie, or a set meal at a fast-food chain.
A sit-down lunch in a midrange restaurant costs at least HK$130, and dinner HK$300. Dinner at upscale restaurants will set you back at least HK$600.
Many restaurants in Central have lunch specials, especially the pricey western ones.
Tipping is not a must as every bill (except at the cheapest Cantonese joints) includes a 10% service charge, but this almost always goes into the owner’s coffers, so if you’re happy with the service, tip as you see fit. Most people leave behind the small change.