Walk down any street in Hong Kong and, sooner or later, you’ll stumble across one of its thousands of cha chaan tengs. Literally translated as “tea houses”, these cheap and cheerful restaurants serve inexpensive Western staples that have been adapted for the Cantonese palate, reflecting 150 years of British rule on the city.
If you’re new to Hong Kong, if you’re only here on a whistle-stop tour or if you just haven’t quite gotten your head around the idea of the cha chaan teng, this handy guide will tell you everything you need to know. From what to order, how to order it and which ones to seek out especially, we’ve got you covered when it comes to learning about this unique aspect of Hong Kong culture.
Cha chaan tengs sprung up in the 50s and 60s by necessity, offering the working classes an affordable place to eat out. Because of this, time and space are both valuable commodities in a cha chaan teng and dawdling while choosing from the menu or getting precious about sharing table space are both heavily frowned upon.
You should also be aware that the staff prioritise efficiency above manners, so don’t be offended if they come across as curt or unfriendly – they’re just doing their very busy jobs. Signalling to the staff how many people are in your party will expedite the process of finding a table on entry, while payment should be made to the manned till at the exit of the store; don’t forget to bring the slip of paper with your order in Chinese shorthand as you make your way out.
The menu offered by cha chaan tengs is often referred to by locals as “Western comfort food” or “soy sauce Western food” due to its inexpensive, express nature. A normal cha chaang teng is likely to have a menu longer than your arm, with everything from Portuguese chicken rice to Swiss chicken wings to Russian borscht available on it. Here are a handful of the likely options on offer:
French toast - The Hong Kongese twist on this Western classic sees thick slabs of toast glued together with peanut butter, then drizzled with syrup and dolloped with butter.
Milk tea - Soaked in an iron urn for hours to help release the flavours inside, Hong Kong-style is known for its smoothness and aroma and is commonly served with condensed milk.
Singapore fried rice vermicelli - Despite the name, this stir-fry dish isn’t found in Singapore, but its mix of onions, sprouts, scrambled egg, shrimp and pork is certainly a popular one.
Doll noodles - Frizzy noodles are served in a bowl of savoury broth which is far tastier than any instant packet you’ll find this side of the divide. Served with spam and a fried egg.
Hong Kong buns - These simple but satisfying sandwiches can have all manner of fillings, from barbecued pork to Satay beef to buttered pineapple.
As mentioned above, time is of the essence in a cha chaan teng, and though the sheer range of options on offer may seem overwhelming, it’s a good idea to choose quickly to avoid upsetting the staff. Given that most locales serve pretty much just variations on the same thing, that kind of indecision is only likely to plague you for your first visit or two in any case.
Although cha chaan tengs have come under threat from increased culinary competition in recent years, there are still literally thousands of them to choose from in Hong Kong. How can you know which one you should bestow your custom upon? To be honest, the experience isn’t likely to vary wildly from one to another, but there are certainly some which stand above the competition. Here are our picks:
Having featured in many music videos and TV shows, the vintage feel and old-school ambience is well-known among locals. The food isn’t half bad, either.
63 Temple Street, Jordan
Kam Wah Café & Bakery
This unassuming café is famous for its polo pineapple buns, which go down excellently well with a mug of milk tea. Just make sure you order “bo lo yau” to get a slab of butter in there too.
47 Bute Street, Prince Edward
With 21 branches across Hong Kong, this chain brings the cha chaan teng into the 21stcentury with gaudy signs and massive dining areas, but tellingly, the locals keep coming back for more.
15D-19 Wellington Street, Central