Hong Kong: The Snacker’s Paradise

I had a pretty simple itinerary for my weekend in Hong Kong: I wanted to relax; I wanted to see some new things; and I wanted to eat good food. There are plenty of high-end fine-dining restaurants here, but my gastronomic interests lay at the other end of the spectrum—snacks. Hong Kong might be the best place on earth to sample a wide variety of local snacks, none of them costing more than US$4 and most of them not found elsewhere (or, the versions found elsewhere aren’t nearly as tasty). Shanghai snacks are good; Hong Kong’s are far better. Sorry, Shanghai.

Like any scholar worth her salt (mmm, salt), I did my research ahead of time and found this list, “What to Eat in Hong Kong: 21 Foods That’ll Rock Your World,” to serve as my guide. I haven’t made it to all twenty-one in the past two days, and I won’t—I already know that I strongly dislike #10 (meats on sticks), and don’t have the time to go to Po Lin Monastery for #17 (vegetarian set meal). There are other items on the list that I didn’t find, but my culinary tour wound up including some snacks not singled out, and some junk food not available on the mainland, so I still sampled more than a dozen different things.

The snacking project worked out really well on Saturday morning, because my friend Denise went along with me to the Tai Po Market area and we split everything. Only eating half of each snack meant that we could try a lot of different foods! After that I was on my own, so I had to slow down. Several of the snacks came from small food stalls that have one or two specialties, while some others I got at the two cha chaan teng (茶餐廳), or diners, I visited. Cha chaan teng are wonderful examples of how East meets West in Hong Kong: they serve dumplings and noodles and other Chinese specialties, but also offer Campbell’s soup and lots of Spam (I ate neither). The two cha chaan teng I ate at only had Chinese-character menus, and no pictures, so they’d be difficult to navigate if you don’t read Chinese, but I was able to manage okay by myself by pointing to things on the menu and then confirming when the waitress said the name of the item in English.

Inside a cha chaan teng in the Tai Po Market neighborhood
Inside a cha chaan teng in the Tai Po Market neighborhood

So, here’s a chronological list of all the Hong Kong snacks I sampled and what I thought of each. I got everything in the Tai Po Market area of the New Territories. If I know the name in Mandarin, I use it; if I don’t, I don’t (basically the only Cantonese I know is cha chaan teng, but all of these dishes are pronounced differently in Cantonese). In parentheses at the end, I note whether the snack came from a food stall, cha chaan teng (CCT), or elsewhere. Photos of everything are available here.

  • Rice-paper rolls with sesame sauce: I expected these to be chewy and gluey, but they were surprisingly delicate. If you’ve tried and disliked nian gao in Korean restaurants on the mainland, as I have, give these a go—they’re much less dense. (Stall)
  • Doufu hua 豆腐花: Silky tofu, served either warm or cold, with a sauce of your choosing poured on top. Denise and I got black sesame sauce, but they also offered peanut, almond, condensed milk, and a couple of others. Delicious, and as Denise pointed out, a pretty virtuous dessert. (Stall)
  • Cubes of jelly: Something lighter to cleanse our palates. I preferred the almond jelly, but our three-pack also included cubes of tea-flavored ones. (Random restaurant that had to-go boxes of jellies in the window)
  • Danta 蛋撻: Portuguese egg tart. I’ve had more than my share of these on the mainland—even KFC sells them—but the Hong Kong ones are far less oily and have a flaky (probably lard-based) crust. Sharing an egg tart meant that Denise and I each got two bites; I went back on Sunday to get one all to myself. (Bakery—they’re all over, and they all sell danta)
  • Shrimp wonton soup with noodles: This has been one of my favorite Chinese dishes since I first ate it at Sang Kee Peking Duck House in Philadelphia more than a decade ago. The bowls of soup here are, mercifully, about half the size of those served at Sang Kee, which means they’re just about perfect for a quick lunch on a day filled with snacking. At HK$25 (US$3.22), the most expensive thing I ate all weekend. (CCT)
  • Ningmeng kele 檸檬可樂: Hot Coke with slices of lemon and ginger. Pretty much the only thing I could taste was ginger. It grew on me, but I’m not sure I’d order it again. (CCT)
  • Chang fen 腸粉: Rice-paper rolls with barbecued pork inside, drizzled with soy sauce. If the restaurant makes them too far in advance, they can get dry and chewy; the diner we ate at specializes in chang fen and makes them fresh for each order. A great side dish to split, but I probably couldn’t eat an entire plate on my own—they’re a little on the bland side. (CCT)
  • Steamed brown sugar jelly with red beans: There has to be a shorter name than that! This was an impulse purchase as we walked through a food market near the Tai Po train station. It was an impulse I kind of wish I hadn’t followed; there’s nothing wrong with this dessert, but I would have been happier if I’d chosen something more interesting instead. (Stall)
  • Schweppe’s Cream Soda: For some reason, this is sold everywhere. I’m not complaining—I like cream soda just fine—but I’m not sure why it’s such a big deal in HK. (7-Eleven)
  • Cadbury Dairy Milk bar: Also popular. (7-Eleven)
  • Pizza-flavored potato chips: There are far more interesting flavors of potato chips to be found in Hong Kong, but I decided to play it safe. After a third of the bag, I’d had more than enough. (7-Eleven)
  • “Eggette” waffle: I had expected this to be heavy and filling, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was light and crispy instead. It’s not a funnel cake, but not a bad substitute, either. (stall)
  • McDonald’s black sesame pearl sundae: Purchased entirely so I could fulfill my goal of trying a local specialty in each McDonald’s territory I visit. It was … fine, I guess. (McDonald’s)
  • Nai cha 奶茶: Milk tea—black tea with evaporated or condensed milk. Basically the official drink of Hong Kong. I’ve tried it hot; I’ve tried it cold; I’d rather have coffee any day of the week. (CCT)
  • Toasted roll with margarine and sweetened condensed milk: Carbs, fat, and sugar—little wonder that this was the most amazing thing I ate all weekend. And the waitress was delighted to see how much I enjoyed it; she kept coming by my table and asking, “Tastes good?” Yes. Tastes good indeed. (CCT)
  • Blue Girl beer: One of the most popular beers in Hong Kong; don’t ask me to explain why. A pale, watery brew, just like Tsingtao, Yanjing, or any other anonymous Chinese beer. I don’t like heavy beers, but Blue Girl is too weak even for my tastes. (7-Eleven)
  • Crispy M&Ms: My favorite M&Ms, discontinued in the U.S. several years ago and not usually sold in mainland China. (7-Eleven)
Winner of the "best snack of the weekend" award
Winner of the “best snack of the weekend” award

Needless to say, I’m going on a diet as soon as I get back to Shanghai.

(Though I did actually offset all this snacking with two long hikes along heritage trails that have been mapped out by the government here—more about those in my next LA Review of Books China Blog post.)

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