A cha chaan teng (茶餐廳 caa4 caan1 teng1) is one of those places etched into every Hongkongers’ daily life. Whenever we feel hungry, we just go down to one of these cafés for some yummy but affordable food. Here are a few popular items on the menu for those of you who want to give them a try.
Toast is available at almost every cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. A good toast is crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. There are also many different condiments you can spread on toast, such as:
Another famous kind of toast is French toast (法蘭西多士 faat3 laan1 sai1 do1 si2, or more commonly 西多士); but I am not talking about the French toast from Europe, oh no, I am talking about Hong Kong French toast. Simply spread some peanut butter or jam on two slices of bread, dip them in a batter of milk and egg, deep fry them until they become golden, top with butter and syrup, then serve! Some cha chaan teng even have their own special recipes of toast!
Soup Noodles or Macaroni
Instant noodles (公仔麵 gung1 zai2 min6), rice vermicelli (米粉 mai5 fan2), rice noodles (米線 mai5 sin3), macaroni (通粉 tung1 fan2), or spaghetti (意粉 ji3 fan2) in soup are served with either one to two sides. There are always certain dishes that you will not order in a restaurant unless it is at a specific time. For example, I bet nobody would order a steak in pepper sauce at 7 a.m., right? However, you could order soup noodles at any time of the day and nobody would think it was weird.
The noodles come with sides such as luncheon meat, sausages, or a fried egg. However, satay beef and spiced pork cubes are the most popular. Some people also usually like the noodles and soup to be rather spicy.
Milk Tea (奶茶 naai5 caa4)
This silky-smooth drink gives you the slight bitterness of tea and the sweetness of milk. Being a former British colony, it is no surprise that milk tea found its way to Hong Kong. In Britain, while tea is sometimes served separately with milk, in Hong Kong it has always been mixed together. Here, the tea is usually Ceylon tea, but the milk is not regular milk, it is evaporated milk. A packet of sugar is also given to you, or added to it already if served cold, to sweeten the taste.
For those of you with a sweet tooth, there is another type of milk tea called 茶走 (caa4 zau2). As I mentioned, normal milk tea uses evaporated milk, whereas 茶走 uses condensed milk instead. That is why you do not need extra sugar, a cup of 茶走 is often sweet enough.
Another must-try in every cha chaan teng is yuenyeung 鴛鴦 (jyun1 joeng1). Basically, this is coffee and milk tea mixed together. As with milk tea, you can have a sweeter version by ordering 鴦走 (joeng1 zau2), which replaces the evaporated milk with condensed milk. Both milk tea and yuenyeung are mainstays of Hong Kong culture.
Ovaltine and Horlicks
These two malted milk drinks are very popular among children. I remember when I was growing up, every time I would go into a cha chaa teng, I would always ask for a cup of Ovaltine or Horlicks. Even today, I still enjoy them. The creamy taste is just so nostalgic.
Ovaltine (阿華田 o1 waa4 tin4) originated in Switzerland where it was called Ovomaltine (from the Latin word for egg, ‘ovum’, and malt). Exported to Britain in 1909, a misspelling of the name led to it being shortened to Ovaltine. From there, the brand made its way to Hong Kong when it was still a colony. The chocolatey taste that comes from the mixture of malt extract, whey, and cocoa is why every child asks for a cup of Ovaltine whenever their parents take them to a cha chaan teng. Afterall, who does not like chocolate?
Horlicks (好立克 hou2 lap6 hak1), on the other hand, comes from Chicago. Originally sold as ‘infant food’, it quickly developed into a powdered meal replacement drink mix. Yet again, Horlicks later found its way to Hong Kong via Britain. Despite lacking chocolate, the drink’s blend of wheat flour, malt extract, and malted barley is still popular among children because of its creaminess.
A Few Things to Know Before Going…
Cha chaan teng are not the classiest restaurants around. They are something between a family restaurant and a fast food shop. When the place is crowded, there is a fair chance that you will have to 搭枱 (daap3 toi4), which means to share a table with strangers. Otherwise, just enjoy yourself like you do in any other café.
Another interesting thing you might notice is how people put their forks, spoons, and chopsticks in a cup of water provided by the waiter. Do not worry, this is just a Hong Kong quirk. Restaurants do wash the cutlery, but we tend to rinse them off once more, even if we know it does not make them any cleaner!
(Illustration by Pearl Law)