Hong Kong Cuisine: At the Intersection of Tradition and Innovation

If you’ve ever been to a Hong Kong-style restaurant, you may have noticed the wide array of Western food choices on their menu.

Hong Kong-style French toast. Image from Migrationology.

French toast in a Cantonese style cafe? Chateaubriand steaks in a Chinese restaurant? Mille-feuilles next to Manchurian sachimas in Cantonese bakeries? What’s with the Western influences in all these places that are supposed to be serving Chinese cuisine?

A good question. A good question indeed.  

The answer, in a nutshell, is colonization.

Just Add Soy Sauce

In 1842, Britain colonized Hong Kong. For the next 156 years, Hong Kong remained under British rule. Undoubtedly, many facets of Hong Kong — including its cuisine — were heavily influenced by Western lifestyles.

As Western dishes became popular among local Hong Kongers, restaurants serving Western inspired dishes made for the Chinese palate began to pop up around Hong Kong. Elite Hong Kongers developed a more cosmopolitan taste and an increasing desire for upscale Western fare. To cater to these changing palates, Cantonese chefs began to experiment with Western food, though their knowledge of Western techniques and flavours was often limited. They tried to adapt Western dishes for Cantonese palates, and as a result, developed a Hong Kong style interpretation of Western cuisine. This style of cuisine was nicknamed soy sauce Western for its inclusion of Cantonese elements, like ox tripe, soy sauce, noodles, and rice. According to Daisann McLane, director of Little Adventures in Hong Kong, soy sauce Western is “a unique expression of Hong Kong people of that time [during the colonization], and their aspirations — cosmopolitanism”.

Tai Ping Koon. Image via Pinterest.

Tai Ping Koon, one of Hong Kong’s most famous soy sauce Western restaurants, opened in 1860 and still has several branches open across Hong Kong. Eating at Tai Ping Koon is like taking a bite of history — from the flavours to the interior decor, Tai Ping Koon is an immortalization of colonial Hong Kong.

Got Milk (Tea)?

The cha chaan teng as we know it today emerged as a result of an increase in manufacturing in Hong Kong during the rise of globalization. While cha chaan tengs existed in the 1920s, they exploded in popularity after the 50s, and are indicative of this point in Hong Kong’s history. White bread, peanut butter, evaporated milk, instant noodles, and other factory produced foods, combined with the rising popularity of Western cuisine and the rushed lunch breaks of factory workers, instigated the rise of cha chaan tengs. These diners were perfect for workers looking for a quick meal; they served simple dishes, like white bread sandwiches with fillings of egg, ham, or corned beef, and condensed milk teas.

Today, cha chaan tengs still serve these age-old staples, alongside other delicious dishes like Hong Kong style French toast, satay flavoured instant noodles, and yuanyang (a Hong Kong style mix of milk tea and coffee). With the rise of cha chaan teng also came the coinage of the term gong sik sai caan (Hong Kong style Western cuisine) to describe the typical fare served at cha chaan tengs.

A typical Hong Kong cha chaan teng. Image from Karen Lao.

During the colonization, the English practice of taking a tea break between lunch and dinner also spread throughout the British colonies. Hong Kongers adopted this mentality, and cha chaan tengs have become a typical spot for locals to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack break. A popular choice (and one of my favourites) is the classic combination of a pineapple bun and a Hong Kong style milk tea.

Fresh Out The (Imported) Oven

While the origin of Hong Kong bakery delicacies is unclear, many everyday staples display clear Western influences. Most notably is the introduction of baked (as in baked in an oven) goods following the British importation of the oven into Hong Kong. Traditionally, Cantonese food is boiled, steamed, or fried, and prior to Hong Kong’s colonization, ovens were uncommon in household kitchens.

Chinese style breads at a Cantonese bakery. Image from Little Cake House.

Despite British influences, Chinese style breads still maintained some aspects of tradition. Chinese (and generally Asian) breads are sweeter, softer, and springier than Western breads due to a higher fat and sugar content. But one of the main differences is the continued use of the tangzhong, or water roux, method. Possibly derived from the Japanese yudane method, the tangzhong method involves combining flour with boiling water to create a tangzhong dough, then adding the cooled tangzhongdough into bread dough. The flour’s absorption of water during the tangzhong cooking process results in a soft, succulent bread.

Western-inspired pastries display at a Cantonese bakery. Image from Little Cake House.

British influences also brought Western inspired pastries into the display cases of local Hong Kong bakeries. Colonial Hong Kong, exposed to Western cuisine, was enamoured by the decorative, intricate design of European cakes and tarts — but the sweet, rich flavours didn’t suit the local palate. To tailor these pastries to the locals, Cantonese bakers modified the recipes and incorporated locally-preferred flavours into their creations. The British also introduced pastry to Hong Kong, which Cantonese bakers incorporated into staple Hong Kong sweets, like banana rolls.

Introducing: Neo-Cantonese

As a multicultural city, Hong Kong food is still influenced by global cuisines. With the influx of recent food trends and international influences, chefs are constantly seeking out new ways to update traditional menus and incorporate modern flavours into nostalgic dishes. However, local chefs don’t allow modernization to override tradition — Eliza Woo, communications manager at Wing Wah Bakery (a popular Cantonese style bakery chain), suggests that the idea of “collective memory” motivates people to conserve tradition. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a stalling of innovation — according to Max Wong Ka-kit, executive director and general manager of Kee Wah Bakery (another popular Cantonese bakery chain):

“Tradition is not a cultural baggage that impedes innovation. That said, innovation for innovation’s sake and abandoning your heritage is not moving forward. It is the loss of your identity. There needs to be a balance between innovation and conservation.”

Max Wong Ka-kit

Kee Wah Bakery brings intrigue to their pastries by experimenting with traditional recipes: they sub mango and cantaloupe flavours into pineapple pastries, lower the sugar content in sachimas and flavour cookies with a variety of teas.

A pork belly bao from Little Bao. Image from Little Bao.

Similarly, chef May Chow experiments with the fusion of traditional and international influences at her restaurants Little Bao and Happy Paradise. At Little Bao, Chow combines the Chinese bao and fuses it with the American burger to create a dish that represents a unique amalgamation of cultural influences. At Happy Paradise, she delves into lesser-known Chinese dishes and puts a personal spin on the recipes, while striving to maintain the integrity of Chinese cooking.

Hong Kong cuisine embraces both traditional and international influences both in historical and modern times — so much so that fusion has become an integral part of Hong Kong culture and cuisine. From the influences of colonization to multiculturalism, Hong Kong food is a taste of tradition and innovation, of history and modernity, of East and West. As Jeremy Pang writes in Hong Kong Diner:

“When it comes to cultural invasion, interaction or occupation, no matter what part of the world it comes from, you can always trace back the history by means of the trail of food it left behind.”

Jeremy Pang, Hong Kong Diner

What’s the history of your local cuisine? What do you think of fusion cuisines and the interaction of global and local influences on food? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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