In a city that never sleeps, fuel is required for the bellies that never sleep. When it is sam1 siu1 je6 zing6 (深宵夜靜) — “the depth of the quiet night” — Hong Kong makes sure there is some noise and flavour to satisfy the hungry among us with siu1 je6 (宵夜).
Literally meaning “deep night” or “spending the night,” siu1 je6 is what you eat to keep you going until breakfast or whenever the dim sum carts start rolling out. While in some cultures we may talk about three square meals a day, for the Cantonese the day often revolves around five meals: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and the midnight snack, served anytime between 10pm to 4am. After all, sixteen waking hours a day is surely not enough to consume all the goodies Cantonese cuisine has to offer.
In some places, you may find late night offers of kebabs, paella, Korean fried chicken or Nutella crepes, but in this city, you’ll more likely come across soothing bowls of congee (rice porridge known in Cantonese as zuk1 粥), hot rice noodles with beef brisket, caramelised roasted pork with green vegetables, wonton noodles or a plate of baak6 cit3 gai1 (白切雞) – marinated poached chicken. For the indecisive there is ce1 zai1 min6 (車仔麵): cart noodles. Choose your noodle base, your toppings and avoid the offal (unless you like offal!).
For those with a sweet tooth, there is tong4 seoi2 (糖水), literally “sugar water,” an umbrella term for a whole series of desserts, usually creamy, smooth and never dry. Take your pick from tofu pudding sprinkled with red sugar, steamed milk custard with ginger, almond “tea,” walnut soup, sago pudding with mango, glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste or a velvet bain-marie‘d egg custard.
If you are in search of something different, there is always ciu4 zau1 daa1 laang5 (潮州打冷), the cold cuts and small dishes from the Chaozhou or Teochew region, known more commonly in Hong Kong as Chiu Chow. A popular option since the 1950s, laang5 (冷) was a way of referring to someone from Chaozhou, meaning “people” in their dialect. More like late-night tapas, these savoury dishes include the much-loved marinated goose, salt-and-pepper tofu, iced crab and oyster congee.
Hungry yet? Tonight may just be the night to roam the quiet streets in search of that perfect midnight snack to while the hours away.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.