Six dishes that most represent Hong Kong

Image created by Oiwan Lam

A recent study conducted by the Centre for Youth Studies of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups (HKFYG) showcased young people’s picks for the dishes that most represented Hong Kong cuisine. The winners are egg tart (16.5 percent), pineapple bun(15.2 percent), egg waffle(13.5 percent), milk tea (11.5 percent), siu mai (8.8 percent), and curry fishball (6 percent). All the picks are everyday snacks, and Cantonese localized versions of European and other Asian dishes.  

Egg tart

Egg tarts by See-ming Lee's Flickr. CC: AT

Hong Kong-style egg tart was listed by the Hong Kong government as the city’s intangible cultural heritage item in 2014. Many people believe that the egg tart dim sum was inspired by the English custard tart and brought to Hong Kong by Cantonese chefs in the 1920s. To reduce the cost, local chefs replace butter with lard for the tart crust and egg custard with steamed egg for filling. As a result, the crust has a crispy texture, and the sweet egg filling is smoother. More importantly, these tweaks have transformed the dish from a luxury snack into a common snack for ordinary households since the 1960s. 

Speaking of egg tarts, many who lived under British colonial rule before 1997 still remember the last governor, Chris Patten’s love of the city’s egg tarts.

The last colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, visited his favourite egg tart bakery on his 2005 trip to the city. Screenshot from AP's YouTube Channel.

Pineapple buns

Pineapple buns were also included in the Hong Kong list of intangible cultural heritage items in 2014. While the item is called a pineapple bun, the name only depicts its appearance, as it does not contain any pineapple. The bun was inspired by the traditional Mexican pastry known as a concha, which is composed of a sweet bread roll and a crunchy topping composed of flour, butter and sugar. 

Pineapple bun with a piece of butter. Image from Johnson Wang's Flickr. CC: AT-SA.

The most authentic way to enjoy a pineapple bun in Hong Kong is to put a thick slice of cold butter inside a hot bun and eat it with a cup of milk tea in a local tea shop.

As the pineapple bun is so embedded into the life experience of local Hongkongers, it was used to symbolize the childhood experience of the 1970s generation in a popular animation: McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004).

Egg waffle (Gai daan jai)

The ingredients of egg waffles somewhat resemble classic waffles. The uniqueness of Hong Kong-style egg waffles is the cooking mould, which creates a bubble pattern on the waffle.

Egg waffles. Image from Kaba's Flickr. CC: AT-NC-SA.

Egg waffles became popular in Hong Kong during the post-WWII era. There are two contradictory explanations for the bubble-patterned shape. One is that the original version of egg waffles contained no or little egg in the batter, as eggs were expensive in the 1950s. The mould was used to create an illusion of the missing ingredients. The other explanation, on the contrary, argues that the ingredients of the egg waffles originally came from broken eggs in the market; the mould was to turn the broken eggs back into their original shape.

Now, egg waffles are among the most popular street snacks in Hong Kong. They come in a variety of flavours, such as green tea and strawberry, and are topped with ice cream.

Silk-stocking milk tea

Hong Kong-style milk tea. Image by Angeimoarm from Wikipedia under under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Hong Kong-style milk tea or silk-stocking milk tea is an altered version of English breakfast tea. It uses a mix of black tea from Sri Lankan Ceylon and Chinese Pu'er, with a special filter technique using a sackcloth bag (which resembles a silk stocking) to keep the tea thick and smooth. The filtered tea is then mixed with either condensed milk or filled milk (milk saturated with oil) to add a creamy taste to the tea.

The milk tea-making technique was registered as an intangible cultural heritage practice under the domain of “traditional craftsmanship” in 2017. 

Fish paste Siu Mai. Image by DKIMAJGIM 882 from Wikipedia under CC: AT-SA 4.0 International.

Siu Mai or Shumai

Shumai is originally a Mongolian cuisine from Hohhot, currently the capital city of China’s inner Mongolia, that spread across the mainland during the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongolian Shumai features a thin pastry pouch stuffed with lamb, while the southern Chinese version of Siu Mai is filled with pork. The Cantonese variants add shrimp, mushrooms, and other ingredients to the wonton wrappers. The most popular variant in Hong Kong is fish paste Siu Mai, one of the most popular street snacks because of its low price.

Curry fish ball

Curry fish ball is another popular grassroots street food. It was originally a Chaozhou cuisine but emerged in post-war Hong Kong as a popular snack. The first generation of fish balls in the 1950s were made from leftover fish from the market. To make the fish taste better, the hawkers removed the fish meat and turned it into a fish paste, then added extra flavour and deep-fried the fish balls in oil.

Curry Fishball. Image by Wing11803 from Wikipedia under CC: AT-SA 4.0 International.

Later, the fish balls were produced en masse at factories, and street food vendors developed their own secret sauce to attract customers. The most popular sauce is a localized version of Indian curry, sometimes mixed with Indonesian satay sauce (a sauce made from peanuts, chilis, soy sauce, and garlic), coconut milk, or chocolate. 

As fish balls are one of the cheapest snacks in Hong Kong, they have become a common symbol of the city. During the Lunar New Year break in 2016, a riot occurred in Mongkok in reaction to the government crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers. One of the most chanted slogans was, “I want to eat fish balls.” The violent clashes between protesters and police officers were later crowned the “Fishball Revolution.

Below is political cartoonist Badiucao's work on the Fishball incident.

Hong Kong was on fire the whole night. A fishball escalated into a bullet fire from the police officer. The sound of gunfire marks the split of Hong Kong society. People want changes, and a trigger will make that happen.

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