Monday, December 27, 2010

Eating Hong Kong: Good Food Fast, Not Fast Food

Everything in Hong Kong moves fast: the elderly walk fast, escalators run fast, and people eat fast.  But grabbing something to eat quickly in Hong Kong doesn't mean stopping off at McDonald's or KFC. More often than not, going for a quick bite means stopping off at a cha tzan tang (literally, "tea cafe") or getting a fan hup ("rice box").

One of the oldest cha tzan tangs still in operation is Lan Fong Yuen, a literal hole in the wall located in an alley under the Mid-level Escalators.  In the olden days, the "restaurant" would only be able to serve two patrons at a time, on those wooden stools you see on top of the green bench in the photo above.  Nowadays, you can still eat your meals on those stools, but the cafe has extended behind the old storefront to accommodate more diners.  Note, though, that this is not the kind of place where you comfortably chill with your laptop for hours.  You sit down at whatever seat is available, sharing the table with whomever else happens to fit there, and you stay only as long as it takes you to order, eat, and get the hell out.

The menu at a classic cha tzan tang is pretty standard: various kinds of sandwiches, including savories like egg and cheese and sweets like French toast (I have "kaya," or coconut jam, toast above); macaroni in soup with egg or Spam; and limited meat choices like "Portuguese" pork cutlets served in a crispy bun.  Drinks include Coke with lemon (sometimes served hot), iced tea, Horlicks, or coffee with condensed milk.

The most typical drink, though, is tea (iced or hot) with evaporated milk and lots of sugar, otherwise known as "Hong Kong-style" milk tea or "pantyhose" tea.  Lan Fong Yuen claims to have invented "pantyhose" tea, so named because the filter used to brew the tea (always Lipton, always looseleaf) looks a lot like pantyhose.  As the video above (courtesy of Wokwithnana) shows, brewing a good cup of pantyhose tea is a practiced art/tradition.  When in the U.S., I always crave milk tea, and I can never get a cup that tastes authentic.

While a cha tzan tang is where you'd go for a snack, to get a proper meal fast, you'd grab a fan hup at a roast place.  There's practically one of these roast places on every corner -- you'll know these restaurants by the roast chicken, barbecue pork, and other roasted goodies hanging in the front window -- but the very best one is Tai Hing.

If instead of taking your meal to go in a fan hup, you choose to eat in, seating is no more comfortable and the service is no less brusque here than at the cha tzan tangs.  You sit down at whatever seat is available, again sharing a table when necessary.  You reach into the drawer on the side of the table to fetch a pair of chopsticks and a spoon, which you wash in the cup of weak tea that the server rudely shoves at you.

Then you wait . . . for scarcely a minute . . . before a plate of awesomeness appears before you, like this plate of barbecue pork (cha siu) and crispy suckling pig (siu yok).  At Tai Hing, you generally choose one type of starch (rice or glass noodles called lai fun) and pair it with two or three types of roasted meats.

And you finish your meal with -- what else? -- Hong Kong-style milk tea, for which Tai Hing has won awards.  (Tai Hing is so serious about the taste of its tea that it never adds ice to the tea itself, but rather sets the cup in ice to keep it cool.)

I could use a large cup of that tea right now.

What do you crave when looking for "fast food"?


Claire December 28, 2010 at 1:12 AM  

Oh, now you've made me hungry. Barbeque pork is one of my weaknesses. I'm so lucky I live in a part of Melbourne with a huge Chinese population, otherwise I'd be in trouble.

I'm curious about the chopsticks that you wash in weak tea. Are they other people's dirty chopsticks that have been left there? Is that hygienic?

Mrs. Hot Cocoa December 28, 2010 at 2:34 AM  

@ Claire: ooh, I'd love to tour Melbourne with you as my guide! As for the chopstix, no they're not used, but since everyone is rifling through the drawers for utensils (which probably weren't that well washed to begin with), it just seems more hygienic to do a quick dunk.

Claire December 28, 2010 at 4:08 AM  

Ahh, that makes sense then!

Katie December 28, 2010 at 8:16 PM  

I am so fascinated by all of these yummy eats! I want to go!

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