Native Hong Kongers and savvy travelers know that some of the best food, the kind you crave at 3pm or 3am, is not found at elaborate banquet halls or pricey fusion establishments. The best food is the kind Hong Kongers would make for themselves, if they only had the time. The city’s noodle shops and coffee chops, called cha chaan tengs, provide the backbone of comfort food for people who are always on the move, but still like to duck into a place to relax and eat for a while.
Daisanne McLane has a good article in this week’s New York Times on cha chaan tengs. These basic hole-in-the-walls, usually outfitted with formica tables and worn booths or plastic chairs, provide a kind of comforting nostalgia for the food and an old way of life. The menu usually consists of both Cantonese staples like beef brisket noodles and holdovers from HK’s colonial days, like toast slathered with thickened sweet condensed milk. Wonton soup, another cha chaan teng staple, is something I could eat every other day and not get sick of. (If you can’t make it to Hong Kong or have a good Cantonese restaurant in your town, see my recipe on making your own wontons.)
McLane also notes that the "pièce de resistance" is the milk tea (nai cha), black tea mixed with condensed milk. Nai cha is to Hong Kongers what cappuccinos are to Italians, except it can be drunken any time of the day. Earlier in this blog I had also written about a type of nai cha that is strained through ladies stockings, something that I have never seen anywhere outside Hong Kong.
On this last trip I was able to indulge in delicoius wonton soups and nai cha at various cha chaan tengs around town. Though I don’t recall the exact place names and locations, it doesn’t matter: it’s hard to get a bad simple meal in Hong Kong. With so many cha chaan tengs, seemingly at least a few on every block, shop owners know that if quality dips, people just go elsewhere. To pick a good cha chaan teng, just walk around town and find one with a lot of patrons.
One dish that you can find a lot of in HK but rarely a good version is Hainan Chicken Rice. One of the "national dishes" of Singapore, chicken rice rarely gets the same treatment here; the chicken is often a little too dry, the rice a little too bland. But after some research online, I found a place that received praise from locals and Singaporeans. Sergeant Chicken Rice, located at the Food Republic court in Tai Koo Shing’s Cityplaza, serves both the traditional boiled chicken and a roasted version. I got a set meal that included the chicken and rice, broth, and a side of gai lan (Chinese flowering broccoli) topped with oyster sauce. The chilli sauce accompaniment was a bit watery for my taste. However, the chicken was very succulent and went well with the flavorful but not too oily rice.
Sergeant Chicken Rice
4/F at Food Republic, Cityplaza One
14 Taikoo Wan Road
Tai Koo Shing, Hong Kong