Food in Hong Kong – Hong Kong

Food in Hong Kong
Hong Kong

Food is such a central part of Chinese culture that it merits a whole book on the subject, certainly more than I can cover briefly here. Hong Kong is definitely a place where people live to eat (there were over 10,400 restaurants counted a few years ago), and the enjoyment taken in food and a widespread sophisticated and discriminating appreciation for it is palpable. The attention paid to the presentation of food, however, can sometimes be quite cursory, so don’t be put off by appearances.

Food is what brings people together – family, colleagues, friends – and for most people who live in small apartments in the city, a restaurant is the preferred place for meeting socially. It’s less common than in the West for friends and colleagues to invite you over to their place to eat.

There isn’t really much etiquette involved with eating Chinese food, but there is a lot of symbolism. Chopsticks stuck vertically into rice should be avoided as it reminds people of incense sticks and death; chopsticks held very high up are thought to signify travelling far from home (again, not good).

Food is often eaten because it sounds good. Pig’s tongue (lei) sounds like a word meaning ‘profit’, so it’s supposed to be lucky for those starting up a business; fat choi, a black stringy moss (now endangered) which often serves as a garnish to green vegetables or is cooked in soup, sounds the same as a word meaning ‘make wealth’, so is gobbled up by everyone during the Lunar New Year, when eating auspicious-sounding food starts the year off on a positive note. There used to be a tradition practised by bosses who had to lay off staff at this time of the year (considered very unfortunate, when everyone else is celebrating) which involved a cooked chicken. At the office dinner, the boss would point the head of the bird towards the employee who was going to lose his job. It delicately dispensed with the need for words.

At times, English translations of food names on menus can be maddeningly unspecific. ‘Dumpling’ seems to cover over a hundred varieties of food, all having very different flavours, textures and appearances. A certain amount of experimentation will be necessary. ‘Rice cake fried with pork and cabbage’ is altogether savoury; ‘barbecue pork bun’ will appear on the table as a white, sweetened pork donut, steamed.

Dishes are often christened with fabulous or preposterous names, impossible to decipher. ‘Dragon, Tiger, Phoenix’, available just over the border in Shenzhen, is one such example. This is dressed up snake, cat and chicken.

Precious little goes to waste in Chinese restaurants. The extremities, innards, tendons and gelatinous parts of fish, fowl or beast are often prized because of their texture and their ability to soak up piquant sauces. Fish eyes, pig’s ears, nose and tail, goose web and head, chicken’s heart and feet are all dished up. Many foods are believed to be good for the health, such as snake bile and ox blood (served in chunks and cooked in a hotpot).

Local Hong Kong Delicacies

Below is a sampler of some common Hong Kong delicacies.

Dim sum
Dim sum (or ‘little bits of heart’) are a cherished feature of Hong Kong cuisine and rightly so. Siu mai (steamed mince and prawn dumplings decorated with bright orange crab eggs), har gau (steamed prawn dumplings), cheung fen (soft white rice flour rolls sloshed with soy), luo buo gau (fried squares of turnip, pork and mushroom mash), char siu bao (sweet pork stuffed in the center of a white steamed bun) are standards of the lunch-time institution of yum cha (‘drink tea’) and are served at Cantonese restaurants all over Hong Kong. Eaten briskly with colleagues on weekday lunch-times or lingered over with family at the weekend, several hundred types of dim sum fry and steam their way onto tables from eleven o’clock in the morning till past three in the afternoon. The noise generated by customers in a big restaurant can be deafening.

Tucking into dim sum at the Metropole
Tucking into dim sum at the Metropole
In some places, the serving ladies still push trolleys around from which you make your selection, whilst in other restaurants the waitress brings food to your table. Trolley ladies can be found at Maxim’s Palace (2/F, Low Block, City Hall) and The Metropole (4/F United Centre, Admiralty – watch your bag as thieves are known to operate there). You select a dish from the trolley and the serving lady stamps your order card. When there are no trolleys, you first mark up your order sheet (which also shows the price of each item – low, medium, high, special price) and then give the order sheet to the waitress who brings the dishes, often in bamboo steamers, to your table. The only problem with this is that most Chinese restaurants do not have English translations of dim sum menus. A nice pictorial guide to many of the most famous dim sum is Dim Sum: A Pocket Guide by Kit Shan Li (Chronicle Books).

Sauces and dips served with dim sum include soy sauce, vinegar (garnished with thin strips of ginger), chilli oil, XO sauce (oil flavoured with chilli and seafood), chilli sauce, sweet sauce and mustard sauce (especially good with roast pork). Tea is usually drunk as an accompaniment – sao mei, bo lei and tik guan yum being among the most popular with local Hong Kongers. Lift the tea-pot lid to the side when you want a hot water refill.

Beside the dim sum (which usually come in 3 or 4 strips or items per helping), it’s common to order other side dishes such as a roast meat plate (pork, goose, duck and eel are common) and one of the many fried rice, congee, or fried noodle dishes (fried rice with dried scallop and egg white is tasty). Chinese also commonly order a plate of blanched choi sum green stalky vegetables, served with oyster sauce.

There is usually a small selection of desserts served after dim sum. Mango pudding in a lagoon of evaporated milk, sweet red bean soup flavoured with sun-dried tangerine peel, mini-egg tarts with the centers almost-runny and sesame or peanut balls in sweet soup (tong yun) are amongst the most popular.

Expect to pay about HK$130-160 per head for a meal of dim sum, depending on what is ordered. An excellent restaurant for dim sum is Victoria City (5/F, Citic Tower, Admiralty), which has a splendid view of the harbour.


Article from Living and Working in Hong Kong by Rachel Wright. Rachel Wright-Yamauchi has published several articles on education for the South China Morning Post. Living and Working in Hong Kong is her first book. She spent the past six and a half years in Hong Kong before recently moving to Los Angeles. She has also lived and worked in Beijing and Nagoya. She welcomes freelance writing commissions on travel, lifestyle and culture. Contact her at rachelwright@verizon.net.

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