Plates are lifted off the kitchen window and slammed onto tight tables; hot drinks are swooshed around, overflowing onto white saucers; piles of still-damp chopsticks are rammed into their plastic holders. There is a rhythm and order to all this action as food is delivered swiftly and efficiently to hungry customers. This is rush hour in one of Hong Kong’s culinary institutions, the tea restaurant, most commonly known as a cha chaan teng (caa4 caan1 teng1 茶餐廳).
To the untrained eye, it may not be clear where to look first. Hand-written menus line the walls, listing various specials of the days, promoting lunch sets and afternoon tea sets that often lack any translation into English. Despite its origins as a provider of Canto-Western cuisine, the tea restaurant’s target customer has never been the Westerner, but the city’s local population. Cha chaan teng have been fuelling Hong Kong’s masses since the late 1940s and really came into their own in the 1950s and 60s.
Just before and after the Second World War, Western-style restaurants run by Chinese or Europeans who had been living in China began to open in Hong Kong. The well-known Tai Ping Koon from Guangzhou was one of the first restaurants to bridge the cultural gap between Hong Kong and the West by offering Western food with Chinese seasoning to suit the local palate. The Russian-influenced Queen’s Café from Shanghai continued this trend and brought to life what is often referred to as “soy sauce Western food” (si6 jau4 sai1 caan1 豉油西餐). These restaurants occupied a middle ground between local Chinese restaurants and upmarket European establishments, bringing us Swiss sauce chicken wings (made with soy sauce, sugar and ginger), Swiss-style beef rice noodles, black pepper pork chop rice, Portuguese baked chicken rice and soft sweet bread rolls with butter.
Even though the economy boomed in the 1960s and created more and more affluent customers for these restaurants, the majority of the population could not afford to eat there frequently. With Hong Kong’s trademark ingenuity and flexibility, more and more restaurants and tea stalls began to adapt their menus to serve increasingly adventurous palates. Many of the tea stalls located by the docks began serving food to their customers who worked labour-intensive jobs, ones who needed large portions and sustenance. Gradually, an indigenous comfort food was created by catering to the needs of hungry factory workers – and so the cha chaan teng was born.
This indigenous comfort food was a mix of all the cuisines that influenced Hong Kong: English pastries, European-style cuts of meat, pasta, spam, Russian borscht, Southeast Asian curries – all accompanied by generous portions of rice, noodles and local seasoning. Nowadays, larger and more modern cha chaan teng serve Japanese and Korean-inspired plates, too. Most dishes are served with a spoon and fork, forgoing the Western knife and Chinese chopsticks. (Try eating a pork chop without the help of a knife or your hands and then you can call yourself a local.) Unlike the Cantonese tradition of sharing plates of food at the centre of the table, tea restaurant menus tend to offer Western-style complete meals on an individual plate – protein, vegetables and ample carbohydrates. Unlike Western restaurants, however, they often require the customer to share their table with others, something called “stacking tables” (dap3 toi4 撘枱).
The tea restaurant is an emblem of casualness. The tables are often topped with a sheet of glass, under which menus are placed to save time for waiters and customers. Time is of the essence in this busy city and most dishes are served within five minutes of ordering. The plastic containers for cutlery, toothpicks and paper napkins are generally provided by drink companies looking for some direct advertisement, such as Horlicks, Ovaltine and Ribena. Forget fancy lighting, heavy curtains or plush cushions: the tea restaurant is all plastic and tiles, easy to clean in the hot and humid summer.
Some say that the name tea restaurant comes from the tradition of serving a glass of weak tea (cing1 caa4 清茶) as soon as the customer sits down. This was inspired by the practice Western restaurants had of serving a glass of water to customers. Serving tea instead gave them an identity of their own and better suited local habits of drinking warm beverages. Nowadays, anyone who has been to a tea restaurant knows that the obligatory tea to not miss out on is the celebrated Hong Kong-style milk tea.
Inspired by the British habit of drinking black tea with milk, Hong Kong-style milk tea is an indulgence spiked with evaporated milk or condensed milk. Over the years, tea restaurants have even developed their own language, a form of short cuts for common orders. To sound like a pro, you can ask for a cold milk tea without ice by saying “zau2 bing1” – literally “leave ice” (走冰). If you are trying to keep it light, say “fei1 saa1 zau2 naai1” — “fly sugar leave milk” (飛砂走奶) — for no sugar, no milk. After picking your beverage of choice, go for one of the lunch specials and if the generous portion still doesn’t satisfy, feel free to ask for “gaa1 dai2” — “add bottom” (加底) — for extra rice or noodles.
Tea restaurants are constantly reinventing themselves, coming up with new dishes and combinations to offer each day, but there are several classics that are here to stay. The mark of a good tea restaurant is good value for generous meal sets; the mark of an excellent tea restaurant is the perfect caramel colour of milk tea and the perfect French toast (sai1 do1 si6 西多士, literally “Western toast”). The local version of French toast is not for the faint-hearted; in fact, we recommend you share it with friends. Peanut butter is smeared between two slices of white bread which are then pressed together, dipped in egg batter and wok-fried before being topped with golden syrup, an extra pat of butter and some condensed milk. Made well, it should be crispy on the outside and melt-in-your mouth gooey on the inside. With more and more people being health conscious, orders of French toast are less common than before, but this heart attack special is too good to retire.
For those not looking to delight their sweet tooth, there are savoury toasts. Ham and cheese toast, ham and egg toast – and nobody handles an egg like a Cantonese cook. You will get thick layers of creamy eggs that blend just right with the heavily processed ham and soft white bread. For another classic mix of East meets West, there is macaroni in broth with fried egg and sausage or instant noodles with fried egg and spam. These basics are so fundamental to any tea restaurant that sometimes they are not even on the menu – but there are always most definitely there. You just need to ask.
If you are ready to sample what is perhaps the most representative of Hong Kong’s unique Eurasian culinary heritage, you only need to head to a cha chaan teng with two things in mind: be hungry and be quick. In turn, you will be respected for that and served accordingly.
Where to Eat
Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園
2 Gage Street, Central, +852 2544 3895
Open Monday-Saturday, 7:00-18:00
One of the oldest tea restaurants in the city, Lan Fong Yuen remains a favourite for their above par milk tea and signature dishes. A must try is the crispy chicken steak with instant noodles and green onion sauce, moist, tender and savoury with an optional fried egg. For the sweet tooth, there is the indulgent condensed milk butter bun or their kaya coconut French toast. At rush hour in its Central location, the queue may be intimidating, but the staff makes sure it moves along quickly.
Capital Café 華星冰室
Shop B1, G/F, Kwong Sang Hong Building, 6 Heard Street, Wan Chai
Open daily, 7:00-23:00
A neighbourhood favourite that opened fairly recently, Capital Café in Wan Chai churns out the usual local favourites such as scrambled eggs and ham on toast or pork chop buns and a slurptastic char siu and spaghetti in broth. They also serve the curiously named “principal toast” (校長多士) which is a Cantonese spin on cheese and black truffles on toast.
Tsui Wah Restaurant 翠華集團
15-19 Wellington Street, Central, +852 2525 6338
Open daily, 7:00-1:00
Tsui Wah has been around long enough to prove their staying power. Hungry customers flock there for the signature Hainanese chicken rice, fishball noodles, and pineapple bun with butter. They have a takeaway bakery on the side as well where you can get creamy egg tarts and rich chicken pies.
Australian Dairy Company 澳洲牛奶公司
47 Parkes Street, Jordan, +852 2730 1356
Open Friday-Wednesday, 7:30-23:00, closed Thursday
If you are looking for pure comfort in food, not environment, this oldie in Jordan is a perennial local favourite. Most come here for the scrambled eggs and ham macaroni and their most famously unique steamed milk custard, hot, gingery and sweet.
If you’re in Hong Kong, there is definitely a cha chaan teng near you. Just look for the characters 茶餐廳. It just might become your local favourite.
The new concept
Shop 103, 1/F, Shui On Centre, 6-8 Harbour Road, Wan Chai +852 2528 1391
Open Monday-Friday, 11:30-21:30, Saturday 12:00-21:00, closed Sunday
On the menu of this not quite tea restaurant is a modern interpretation of classic comfort food and Hong Kong inspired cocktails. Opened by young entrepreneur Adrian Lo, Kasa brings you updated tea restaurant classics with Western-style service. Known for their arancini inspired by clay pot rice, served with with a Hong Kong-style scotch egg and molten duck yolk custard lava cake, this is where you go for cocktails like the Iron-Crutch Li, made with whisky and Chinese wujiapi herb, or the Immortal Woman, with huadiao wine, lemon juice and ginger ale.