Eating is one of my favourite things to do whenever I’m back in Hong Kong. There are so many local dishes that you just can’t get elsewhere, maybe if you’ve got a Chinatown near you, but most of the street foods are those from nearby regions in China or local dishes that are very much a part of growing up in Hong Kong.
I’ve heard a lot of stories from friends who mentioned going to a Chinese restaurant in an Western country and being served food from one menu while Chinese people speak to the staff and are served a completely different set of dishes that aren’t available on the menu they’d been given. I’ve never had this experience before, but then again seeing the dishes that are offered on takeaway menus here in Edinburgh, I normally don’t bother ordering and tend to cook my own Chinese food at home.
To give you an idea of what to eat and what you can expect from Hong Kong, I’ve put together a few of my own recommendations of where you can go. If you’ve got friends in Hong Kong, the easiest way would be to ask them to take you to the restaurants they like best, but here are some suggestions for where to go. You can also use the OpenRice site or app (a review site where users post photos and reviews of restaurants in Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzen) to see where others suggest you go for, say, vegan food, or thought of a particular restaurant if you’ve been recommended one.
What to expect
One of the first things you should know about service in Hong Kong is that most restaurants is that it can be quite varied. As a non-Cantonese speaker, the waiting staff might be more helpful, but I can’t really be an objective judge on that seeing as how I can speak Cantonese.
When you’re eating with other Chinese people, it’s common for the host to order dishes for everyone, depending on how familiar you are. It’s likely that they will ask you what you would like to eat, if there’s anything you won’t eat or some might even ask you to choose some dishes. You’ll usually be sitting at a round table with around 5 dishes (depending on how many people there are) which you will all share, and a bowl of rice each. There will usually be ‘communal chopsticks’ for the table so that you don’t use the chopsticks you’re eating with to pick up food that you’re sharing with others (basically the same idea of using the fork or spoon you’ve been eating with to serve others from your plate).
Prices are somewhat higher than what I was used to growing up (it’s comparable to prices in the UK), but the amount of food you get for the price more than makes up for it.
Another thing to note is that a 10% service charge is always included on the bill regardless of how many people you’ve got at a table. The only exception to this is if you’re ordering food to take away with you and eat at home or elsewhere.
Tipping isn’t necessary, but if you do find a particular member of staff providing you with great or exceptional service, be sure to hand that member of waiting staff cash directly. Any tip included in the bill fold or added to your credit card slip you sign gets put towards ‘staff development and training’ but more often than not, the staff never see those tips.
If you want to experience a typical Chinese breakfase at a restaurant/cafe, the easiest (and closest) once you’ve arrived is to try Tsui Wah (pronounced Chui Wah) on the restaurant mezzanine in the Departures section. As a chain restaurant, there are various branches (locations and addresses here) dotted about the country that you can visit depending on where you have planned to go (see my previous post here about different things to see and do around Hong Kong). The Chinese-style cafe offers strong tea mixed with milk, but to give you fair warning, it’s not the same kind of tea you’ll probably be used to if you’re used to tea in the UK. These cafes also offer lunch and dinner as well as late night suppers (most branches are open till 1 or 2am in the morning while others only till 11pm, some are open 24 hours).
Here, you will find everything that are typically Hong Kong: Hong Kong style French toast (a sweet version of your egg-dipped fried piece of bread), breakfast of noodles or pasta in soup with ham or a meal of Chinese-style roasted meat on a bed of rice. If you’re a meat eater, I would recommend ordering the Hainan chicken rice dish.
This is another chain restaurant that has opened branches in various countries across Asia and the US, but if you want to try classic Chinese dishes, this is one I would recommend. One of their more well known dishes is their Xiao Long Bao (or ‘siu loong bao’ in Cantonese). This is a steamed dumpling with a pork filling in soup. When steamed, the glutinous rice outer wrap sticks to the paper lining the bamboo steaming cage so you need to be careful when picking one up with chopsticks or a fork. Always have a spoon on hand to scoop it up quickly!
In the photo above, the buns on the left are another savoury steamed bun variety that you will find has a very different texture to what we know as bread. Although some dishes will have strange names (like the ‘drunk chicken’ dish – steamed chicken in a Chinese wine sauce) or sound strange (like the jellyfish at the top), you might find it surprising how good it tastes. It’s like eating haggis, the thought of it knowing what it’s made of puts you off, but you’ll never know if you might like it without trying it!
Food stalls like this in empty shop spaces are a common sight, but this is also where you will get a true taste of street foods that the locals love. These are mostly snack foods that you eat on the go, but some are also quite filling. In the above photo, for example, you can get chee fan, a glutinous rice roll with a piece of deep fried dough, pork floss and pickled vegetables for a filling. You can also get a vegetable and pork steamed bun, spring rolls or skewered hot dog sausage with fishballs.
One of my favourite dishes is cheung fun yu dan. There aren’t many stalls that do this anymore, it’s basically a dish where you tell them how many glutinous rice rolls and fish balls you want in your serving (I normally go for HK$5 of each for a total of $10 for lunch). You can get non-spicy or spicy fish balls that have been cooked in broth and this comes with a combination of chilli, sweet, soy and peanut sauce depending on how you like it. I normally skip the chilli sauce and go for the other 3, but if you like spicy sauces, have them all except the peanut sauce with it. You can also opt to have other food items in your dish, but the glutinous rice rolls and fishballs usually fill me up pretty well.
The only thing I would caution is that while there are health and safety regulations for opening a shop, not all stalls are up to sanitary standards, so only visit the ones that seem to have a lot of customers.
One thing you have to try when you’re in Hong Kong is gai dan jai also called ‘egg waffles’ or ‘egglettes’. This is one of those foods that use traditional cooking methods from when it was popular in the 1950s that is slowly getting phased out because of its slowly declining popularity. A special batter recipe is made up and filled in a plastic liquid water/juice jug that gets poured into one half of the egg waffle pan with little half moons on either side and long wooden handles. Gai dan jai specialists know how to evenly spread the batter on the pan, when to turn it and when to remove it from the pan so that it comes out golden yellow with a crispy shell and filled with a soft and fluffy centre just like pancakes. There’s nothing else like it! You can choose to go for the original flavour (which is like pancakes) or some offer chocolate and taro flavours. A lot of the stall holders that I used to frequent are no longer making egg waffles, but you can try visiting the stalls mentioned in this article here.
Egg waffles! (gai dan jai)
Taiwan Beef Noodle, Tsim Sha Tsui
For a decent bowl of noodles, I would highly recommend Taiwan Beef Noodle opposite Harbour City on the 9th floor of 122 Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. I used to go here with my friends when it was a ground floor shop space, but it’s still one restaurant I like to visit every now and then.
A lot of people I’ve shown around Hong Kong are either interested or a bit surprised to see the kitchen glass filled with hanging meat and I have to explain that this is how roasted meats are displayed so that customers can see the quality of the meat being served. This is also done at roasted meat shops so customers can choose the meat they want to buy.
As the name suggests, their Taiwan beef noodles are their signature dish and you can choose to have your beef and noodles in a spicy or clear broth. Having said that, there are vegetarian options as well if you’re not a meat eater.
Peking Garden Restaurant, Tsim Sha Tsui
Another dish that is typical to Hong Kong is peking duck. This is really just a roast duck dish where the server expertly carves thin slivers of the crispy skin with some meat on it so you can put this in a thin wrap with sweet sauce and spring onions. We visited Peking Garden Restaurant on the third floor of Star House with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few years and we ended up ordering a bit too much food, but it was all amazing. Peking Garden Restaurant offers a lot of Chinese style dishes that you won’t get from your local takeaway restaurant in the US or UK. You’ll find that there are a lot of meat and seafood dishes in restaurants in Hong Kong as this is the main part of our diets when eating meals with rice.
There is usually a page for vegetable dishes you can order instead that are portion sizes for sharing if you’re vegetarian. If there are only two or 3 of you, I would recommend ordering no more than 2 or 3 dishes as it does end up being a lot of food! Each person normally has a bowl of rice each, but if you don’t eat a lot of rice, you could order 2 bowls between 3 to share and order more later.
Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine
Dim sum is a big part of Chinese culture. Translated into ‘a point or tiny’ (dim) and ‘heart’ (sum), these are plates with small servings of each dish. The main idea behind it is that you take one piece of each dish, so that you can try a bit of everything. When you’re going for dim sum, you would usually refer to the activity as yum cha (or ‘drink tea’) as Chinese tea is a big part of this meal. This is where seafood restaurants are normally open from 5:30 to 6:00am in the morning to serve elderly people who like to get up early to meet with friends for a blether (or chat) and have an early breakfast before the rest of the working world wakes up to start their businesses.
There are a lot of restaurants you can go to for yum cha and dim sum, but one I would recommend for novelty’s sake (although you’re also welcome to try other restaurants too!) is Hello Kitty Chinese Cuisine in Tsim Sha Tsui, a café dedicated to yum cha, sik dim sum (drink tea and eat dim sum). Hello Kitty has always been a big Sanrio character in Hong Kong and one that I grew up liking a lot. I can still remember my first wallet at the age of 5 was a red and white plastic PVC billfold wallet with a snap closure Hello Kitty on the front. I still like the occasional Hello Kitty product, although I’ve had to tone down the obsession due to lack of space for them all!
The décor has a Chinese theme to it (one of the dining areas is also decorated with the fairies of each of the 4 seasons) and every dish has all been tasted and approved by Sanrio before it can be served to customers. Here you can order the usual dishes of ha gao (steamed prawn in a glutinous rice wrapper dumpling), siu mai (steamed pork dumpling) with abalone, cheung fun (which you can order plain or with prawn or beef) and steamed buns as well as other desserts like mango pudding and almond tofu.
Have a look on their site here to see if it would be something you would like to visit. Their menu is also available online, but unfortunately it’s in Chinese.
There are a few areas around Hong Kong that are dedicated to giving customers the freshest seafood for their meals. You can find these at Tuen Mun, Lei Yue Mun or Cheung Chau and Lamma Island. Tuen Mun is in the New Territories and would probably be closest depending on where you’re staying and how far you want to travel. All these areas are easily accessible by public transport (the system is really extensive and efficient), but Tuen Mun was closest for us to take the OH for a seafood meal. Cruel as it sounds, Chinese people like food as fresh as possible and in the past, a lot of poultry was kept alive at markets until they were purchased, but after SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome or the bird flu) hit, keeping live poultry at markets was not considered sanitary and now it’s only seafood that are still displayed.
Seafood suppliers set up their tanks with their offerings across from the restaurant and customers inform the shop staff where they will be eating, how many customers will be dining and what they want to eat, then the staff will make sure the right amount for the whole party is weighed and brought to the restaurant. The waiting staff at the restaurant will take a note of all the seafood ordered and come to your table to ask how you want each dish cooked. The price of the seafood will be charged to the restaurant who will add the cost of preparation to your bill.
A lot of people are surprised that dishes served at takeaway restaurants aren’t at all what Chinese people eat and this is why. When meals are cooked at home, we often have a variety of steamed fish, vegetable, meat and maybe egg dish to share between everyone at the table, but normally eating out with friends and family is an event that involves ordering about 5 or 6 dishes of seafood which is available at the restaurant or ordered, like above, from seafood suppliers to have this prepared.
My sister knew of my attempts to convert to a vegan diet and we were going out for a meal with her boyfriend (who’s vegan), we went to Veggie SF in Central. It’s a great wee place and all dishes are 100% vegetarian with vegan options also available. The owner of the restaurant was very friendly and welcoming and is happy to talk to you about anything from living in San Francisco to veganism. The restaurant is also decorated with knick knacks from 1950s US so it was like being in a sweetie shop, always finding new things to wow over every time you looked somewhere else around the room.
We had a lovely meal and the portions were very generous. The menu is in Chinese and English and all ingredients in the dish are clearly marked. For a restaurant in Central, the prices are quite reasonable (comparable to average Edinburgh restaurant prices) and I would definitely come back here with friends who are vegetarian or vegan. The food was really good and I doubt you would really notice, being a meat eater, if this was lacking from your dish. All the dishes we ordered were very flavoursome and the lack of meat doesn’t detract from the tastinesss of the meal at all.
Seafood and meat play a huge part in a Chinese meal, but I think there is a recognition that there should be more variety for those who don’t eat meat. There are a lot more vegetarian and vegan restaurants cropping up all over Hong Kong that wasn’t there when I was growing up. You can see some of the best vegetarian/vegan restaurants recommended by another blog here.
There are so many restaurants and places to eat that are great in Hong Kong (it’s a country that’s known for the wide availability of restaurants and variety of cuisines) and it’s difficult to capture them all in one blog post! If there are any particular foods or restaurants that you would like to recommend, leave a comment below.