From a distance, the food truck at the corner of Colindale Avenue looks just like any other halal cart: a vehicle in hues of red and orange, plastered with bright images of rice platters, chicken biryani, and salads. Look closer and you’ll find a smiling Hong Kong couple behind the counter, doling out boxes of squiggly egg noodles drenched in oyster sauce and covered with an array of toppings such as marinated beef tripe and stewed radish. This is Jeng Chinese Noodles, a humble venture by two Hong Kongers who are bringing cart noodles (ce1 zai2 min6 車仔麵) to London.
In November 2022, Daniel Cheung was working as a salesperson at the Seahorse Furniture store in Colindale when he noticed that the kebab cart parked outside rarely opened for business. The idea soon came to him of taking over the stall and selling Hong Kong-style cart noodles to the growing diaspora population in the area. Cheung contacted the owners of the truck and rented it out from them, under the condition that he would not change the décor. So Cheung printed out large A4-sized papers and pasted them over the initial stand; even the sign for Jeng Chinese Noodles is barely discernible. Despite this, business is booming, and the cart has found a devoted clientele in the North London suburb.
More than two decades ago, Cheung had run a small food business in a Braemar Hill mall, making pizza and selling lunch boxes to the student population in the North Point area. He then trained with the Vidal Sassoon Academy in England, and worked as a hairdresser in Hong Kong. But food is his one great passion; many of his friends are chefs, and they would often experiment in the kitchen and assess their culinary creations. On weekends, his favourite pastime is walking through wet markets and shopping for produce. For him, Jeng Chinese Noodles means offering homely, everyday food at affordable prices. A serving of noodles with three toppings costs seven pounds, and other snacks such as fried chicken wings and fried wontons are priced at six.
“Our customers sometimes ask us, if you’re selling the food at these low prices, do you manage to make any money? Of course we do, but the satisfaction comes from when they return and tell us that they enjoyed it,” says Cheung. “When I came to the UK two years ago, one of the greatest challenges is eating well. Even if you are willing to pay, it doesn’t mean that you’d be able to eat your favourite food.”
Many Hongkongers arriving in London will understand what Cheung means. Those first few months can be lean: the only inexpensive takeaway is chicken shops and fast food, and there was no easy access to any of the things a person in Hong Kong takes for granted, such as boxes of rice with two sides, or good noodles. Most of London’s southern Chinese culinary offerings tend to be on the high-end scale, and even dim sum and roast meat often fetch a bill of up to £20. Then there are the grassroots food items I could not find even if I am ready to spend money, such as ham in macaroni soup. Hong Kongers I know here have since learned to make their own versions of food they crave, such as TamJai minced meat.
Cheung, too, had been driven by a simple desire to serve up the food that he missed most from back home: street food staples such as zin1 joeng6 saam1 bou2 (煎釀三寶, “three fried stuffed treasures”) and imitation shark’s fin soup, as well as cart noodles with a wide offering of ingredients, from beef tendons to duck blood. Jeng Chinese Noodles also offers Hong Kong restaurant classics that are popular amongst the office worker crowd, including lemongrass pork chop with rice, and egg foo yung shrimp rice.
Cheung is adamant about adhering to Hong Kong food traditions: he pounds the dace fish paste for the saam1 bou2 himself, and insists on having the traditional dried flounder powder in the wonton soup, which he ships over from Hong Kong. While Cheung focuses on sourcing quality ingredients and cooking, his wife, Carol, meticulously cleans the pig intestines and runs the cart alongside him. “She’s very kind – sometimes if an elderly person comes over and doesn’t have enough money, she’d tell me to go after them and give them food.”
Jeng Chinese Noodles is a return to roots in terms of how the noodle dish was initially served: from a cart. In the 1950s in Hong Kong, customers could pick a noodle and their desired combination of ingredients from a street vendor, but even though the name has been retained, following policies in the 1970s to limit hawkers, these days cart noodles are eaten at restaurants. Cheung recalls that when he was a child, he would still see cart noodle vendors at public housing estates. “Many cart noodle vendors then didn’t have money for a physical store,” he says. “It was five or six dollars for a few toppings, and the ingredients tend to be on the cheap side – but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be delicious. For instance, chicken wing tips can be made tasty, it just depends on how you cook them.”
Jeng Chinese Noodles is not yet on social media, but thanks to word of mouth amongst the Colindale kaifong and a boost from Hong Kong YouTubers, the cart noodle stall now attracts customers who drive down all the way from Birmingham. “There are even patrons who came here from the United States – they flew here to see the Hins Cheung concert, and stopped by for cart noodles. They said they hadn’t eaten this in over a decade.” One customer from Hong Kong told Cheung that he had been sick of eating “Western food” for a year, and that the existence of the cart noodle stand was a motivating factor for their decision to move to Colindale.
Cheung’s family was brought to the United Kingdom by their daughter, who had wanted to study abroad, and is now in her first year of A-Levels. Like many Hong Kong families, they took advantage of the British National Overseas scheme, but finances are tight considering his daughter’s upcoming university’s fees. The shop is open from noon to nine every evening, and Cheung has not had a day off since the stall started operating six months ago. Aside from learning how to acquire a food licence, Cheung also had to study the strict hygiene requirements, with enforcement officers sometimes conducting spot checks. But he is buoyed by the support of the Colindale residents, who sometimes bring them home-cooked food or discounted Vitasoy lemon tea. The returning customers have made a Whatsapp group for Jeng Chinese Noodles so they could make orders on the chat, and even helped to set up their address with Google Maps.
The upcoming challenge for Jeng Chinese Noodles is sustainability. As a small business, the pair sometimes struggles to cope with demand; after the YouTube influencers made videos about them, the queue reached a 1.5 hour waiting time, and Cheung did not return home until four in the morning. Cheung and his wife have now hired part-time staff to help them run the stall, and are looking to one day open up a restaurant in the area. The adverse weather conditions in London often affect their business, and Cheung doesn’t want their customers to have to wait in the rain or scurry back to their car to eat on a cold winter’s day. “I hope we can continue to do this for a long time.”