Cuisine plays an important part in many peoples’ lives in Hong Kong. Not only is it a showcase of Chinese cuisines with huge regional varieties, but there are also excellent Asian and Western choices. Although Western food is often adapted to local tastes, Hong Kong is a good place for homesick travellers who have had enough of Chinese food. The Michelin guide to Hong Kong is considered to be the benchmark of good restaurants for many Western visitors. That said, for most locals, the Michelin guide is not taken particularly seriously, and Open Rice, which serves as Hong Kong’s equivalent of Yelp, is the go-to directory for restaurant reviews. The downside is that as it primarily caters to Hong Kong locals, most of the reviews are written in Chinese. According to Restaurant magazine, 4 of the best 100 restaurants in the world are in Hong Kong.
Due to its history as part of that region, unsurprisingly, much of the local cuisine in Hong Kong is very similar to that of neighbouring Guangdong. That being said, over a century of British rule means that the British have also left their mark on the local cuisine, with cakes and pastries being fairly popular among locals. Hong Kongers are also somewhat less adventurous than their fellow Cantonese speakers in mainland China, with several exotic ingredients such as dog and cat meat being banned in Hong Kong. It is also possible to find cuisine from practically every part of China, as many famous chefs fled from the mainland to Hong Kong to escape persecution by the communists in the aftermath the Chinese Civil War. In particular, the Hakkas and Teochews have left a significant impact on Hong Kong’s culinary culture, and there is no shortage of good Hakka and Teochew restaurants for those who have grown weary of Cantonese food.
You may meet some local people who haven’t cooked at home for a decade. Locals love to go out to eat since it is much more practical than socializing in crowded spaces at home. A long queue can be a local sport outside many good restaurants during peak hours. Normally, you need to register first, get a ticket and wait for empty seats. Reservations are usually only an option in upmarket restaurants.
Chinese food is generally eaten with chopsticks. However, restaurants serving western food usually provide a knife, fork and spoon. Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as this is reminiscent of incense sticks burning at the temple and has connotations of wishing death on those around you. In addition, chopsticks should not be used to move bowls and plates or make any noise. Dishes in smaller eateries might not come with a serving spoon, although staff will usually provide one if you request.
A few Hong Kong customs to be aware of:
- To thank the person who pours your tea Cantonese style, tap two or three fingers on the table three times. The legend suggests a story involving a Chinese emperor travelling incognito and his loyal subjects wanting to kowtow (bow) to him without blowing their cover — hence the “finger kowtow”.
- If you want more tea in the pot, leave the lid open, and it will be refilled.
- It is not unusual for customers to rinse their plates and utensils with hot tea before starting their meal, and a bowl is often provided for this very purpose. This is due to the fact that cheaper restaurants may often have washing residues on dishes or utensils.
- Except for very expensive places, there is no real dress code in Hong Kong. You will often see people in suits and others in t-shirts in the same restaurant.
Local foods, eating establishments, and costs:
You can usually tell how cheap (or expensive) the food is from the decor of the restaurant (menus are not always displayed outside restaurants). Restaurants in Soho in Central, in 5-star restaurants, or in other high-rent areas are usually more expensive than restaurants that are off the beaten path. It is easy to find places selling mains for well under $80, offering both local and international food. Local fast food chains such as Café de Coral (大家樂), Maxim’s MX (美心) and Fairwood (大快活) offer meals for $30–50, with standardised English menus for easy ordering. Yoshinoya (a Japanese chain) sell Japanese style Gyudon (beef and rice) and Teriyaki-style Chicken (with rice or noodles) for a very reasonable price. Mid-range restaurants generally charge in excess of $100 for mains. At the top end, fine dining restaurants, such as Felix or Aqua, can easily see you leave with a bill in excess of $1500 (including entrées (appetizers), mains, desserts and drinks). If your budget allows for it, Hong Kong is undoubtedly one of, if not the world’s best places to experience Chinese-style fine dining.
Dim sum 點心:
Dim sum (點心), literally means ‘to touch (your) heart’, is possibly the best known Cantonese dish. Served at breakfast and lunch, these delicately prepared morsels of Cantonese cuisine are often served with Chinese tea.
Dim Sum comes in countless variations with a huge price range from $8 to more than $100 per order. Common items include steamed shrimp dumplings (蝦餃 har gau), pork dumplings (燒賣 siu mai), barbecued pork buns (叉燒包 char siu bau), and Hong Kong egg tarts (蛋撻 dan tat), the first two being obligatory for local diners whenever they eat dim sum. Expect more choice in upmarket restaurants. One pot of tea with two dishes, called yak chung liang gin is a typical serving for breakfast.
Siu Mei 燒味:
Siu mei a general name for roast meats made in a Hong Kong style, including roasted crispy pork belly (燒肉 siu yuk), barbecued pork (叉燒 char siu), roast duck (燒鴨 siu aap) or soy sauce chicken (豉油雞 si yau gai). With the addition of a slightly crispy honey sauce layer, the final taste is of char siu a unique, deep barbecue flavour. Rice with roasted pork, roasted duck, pork with a crisp crackling, or Fragrant Queen’s chicken (香妃雞), are common dishes that are enduring favourites for many, including local superstars.It is recommended to taste the roasted pork with rice in ‘Sun-Can’ of PolyU.
Cantonese congee (粥 juk) is a thin porridge made with rice boiled in water. Served at breakfast, lunch or supper, the best version is as soft as ‘floss’, it takes up to 10 hours to cook the porridge to reach this quality. Congee is usually eaten with savoury Chinese doughnuts (油炸檜 yau char kway) and steamed rice pastry (腸粉 cheong fun) which often has a meat or vegetable filling.
Hong Kong has several restaurant chains that specialise in congee, but none of them have earned the word-of-mouth respect from local gourmets. The best congee places are usually in older districts, often owned by elderly people who are patient enough to spend hours making the best floss congee.
When asked what food makes Hong Kong people feel home, wonton noodles (雲吞麵) is one of the favourite answers. Wonton are dumplings usually made from minced prawn but may contain small amounts of pork.
Rice pastry is also a popular dish from southern China. Found particularly in Teochew and Hokkien areas in China, its popularity is widespread throughout east Asia. In Hong Kong, it is usually served in soup with beef and fish balls and sometimes with deep-fried crispy fish skins.
Tong Sui 糖水:
A popular Cantonese dessert is a sweet soup called tong sui (糖水, literally sugar water). Popular versions are usually made with black sesame paste (芝麻糊), walnuts (核桃糊) or sago (西米露) which are usually sticky in texture. Other traditional ones include red bean paste (紅豆沙), green bean paste (綠豆沙) and tofu pudding (豆腐花). Lo ye (撈野) is a similar dish. Juice is put into a ultra-cold pan to make an ice paste, it is usually served with fresh fruit and sago.
Tea cafes & tea time 下午茶:
A uniquely Hong Kong-style eatery starting to make waves elsewhere in Asia is the cha chaan teng (茶餐廳), literally “tea cafe”, but offering fusion fast food that happily mixes Western and Eastern fare: innovations include noodles with Spam, stir-fried spaghetti and baked rice with cheese. Usually a wide selection of drinks is also available, almost always including the popular tea-and-coffee mix yuenyeung (鴛鴦), and perhaps more oddities (to the Western palate) like boiled Coke with ginger or iced coffee with lemon. Orders are usually recorded on a chit at your table and you pay at the cashier as you leave.
Showing signs of British colonial influence, tea time (Ha m cha) plays an important role in Hong Kong’s stressful office life. Usually starting at 2PM to 3PM, a typical tea set goes with a cup of ‘silk-stocking’ tea, egg tarts and sandwiches with either minced beef, egg or ham, but without vegetables and cheese.
Similar to Malaysian ‘teh tarik’, Hong Kong’s variation shares a similar taste. The key difference is that a sackcloth bag is used to filter the tea leaves and the tea-dyed sackcloth resembles silk stockings, giving the name ‘silk-stocking milk tea’. Milk tea, to some Hong Kong people, is an important indicator on the quality of a restaurant. If a restaurant fails to serve reasonably good milk tea, locals might be very harsh with their criticism. Yuanyang is also a popular drink mixed with milk tea and coffee.
A signal to tell you teatime has come is a small queue lining up in bakery to buy egg tarts (a teatime snack with outer pastry crust and filled with egg custard). Don’t attempt to make a fool of yourself by telling people that the egg tart was brought to Hong Kong by the British – many locals are assertive in claiming sovereignty over their egg tarts. When a long-established egg tart shop in Central was closed due to skyrocketing rental payments, it became the SAR’s main news and many people came to help the owners look for a new place.
For those who wish to have an authentic British high tea experience, the colonial Peninsula Hotel is one of the best places in Asia to do so.
To stuff your stomach in a grassroots Chaa Chan Teng (茶餐廳) (local tea restaurant), expect to pay $10–20 for milk, tea or coffee, $8–10 for a toast, and $25–50 for a dish of rice with meats. Wonton noodles generally cost $20–30.
The cheapest food is in the popular street stalls. Most of the people working there do not speak much English and there is no English on the menu. However if you could manage to communicate, street-style eating is an excellent way to experience local food. Point, use fingers (or Cantonese numbers) and smile. They’re usually willing to help. Local specialities include curry fish meat balls (咖喱魚蛋), fake shark fin soup (碗仔翅) made with beans and vermicelli noodles, egg waffle (雞蛋仔), fried three filled treasures (煎釀三寶, vegetable filled with fish meat), fried intestines on a stick, fried squid or octopus and various meats on sticks (such as satay style chicken).
Most major fast food eateries are popular in Hong Kong and have reasonable prices. McDonald’s sells a Happy Meal set for $20–25.
Seafood is very popular and is widely available. The best places to eat seafood include Sai Kung, Sam Shing, Po Doi O and Lau Fau Shan in the New Territories and Hong Kong’s islands, particularly Lamma and Cheung Chau, are abound with seafood restaurants. Seafood is not cheap. Prices range from $200 per head for a very basic dinner, to $300–500 for better choices and much more for the best on offer.
Expect to find a mismatch between the high prices for the food and the quality of the restaurant. Sometimes the best food is served in the most basic eateries where tables maybe covered in cheap plastic covers rather than a more formal tablecloth. Often, Cantonese people value the food more than the decor. If one of your travelling companions does not like seafood, don’t panic, many seafood restaurants have extensive menus that cater for all tastes. A number of seafood restaurants specialise in high quality roast chicken that is especially flavoursome. Many exotic delicacies like abalone, conch and bamboo clam can be found for sale in many seafood restaurants but you might want to avoid endangered species such as shark and juvenile fish.
While Hong Kong has long banned dog and cat meat and has strict rules on importing many meats of wild animals, snake meat is commonly seen in winter in different restaurants that bear the name “Snake King”. Served in a sticky soup, it is believed to warm your body.
There’s an ongoing debate over the consumption of shark fin in Hong Kong, which is the biggest importer of this exotic cuisine. Commonly served at wedding parties and other important dining events, shark fin is served in a carefully prepared stew usually at $80 per bowl to $1000. The consumption of shark fin is a controversial topic and the Hong Kong WWF is campaigning against consumption of this.
Besides exotic meats, you will also see chicken feet, pig’s noses and ears, lungs, stomachs, duck’s heads, various types of intestines, livers, kidneys, black pudding (blood jelly) and duck’s tongues on the Chinese dining tables.
Due to the large number of foreign residents in Hong Kong, there are many restaurants that serve authentic international cuisine at all price levels. This includes various types of Japanese, Thai, Indian, American and European foods. These can often be found in, though not restricted to, entertainment districts such as Lan Kwai Fong, Soho or Knutsford Terrace. Of these, Soho is probably the best for eating as Lan Kwai Fong is primarily saturated with bars and clubs. Top chefs are often invited or try to make their way to work in Hong Kong.
Home-dining is catching on to be a very popular trend in Hong Kong. BonAppetour is a great way to discover local chefs who would love to have you over for an evening dinner. It’s a great way to make friends over home-made food, and company.
Barbecue (BBQ) meals are a popular local pastime. Many areas feature free public barbecue pits where everybody roasts their own food, usually with long barbeque forks. It’s not just sausages and burgers – the locals enjoy cooking a variety of things at BBQ parties, such as fish, beef meatballs, pork meatballs, chicken wings, and so on. A good spot is the Southern Hong Kong Island, where almost every beach is equipped with many free BBQ spots. Just stop by a supermarket and buy food, drinks and BBQ equipment. The best spots are Shek O (under the trees at the left hand side of the beach) and Big Wave Bay.
Wet markets are still prevalent. Freshness is a key ingredient to all Chinese food, so frozen meat and vegetables are frowned upon, and most markets display freshly butchered beef and pork (with entrails), live fish in markets, and more exotic shellfish, frogs, turtles and sea snails. Local people often go to the market everyday to buy fresh ingredients, just like the restaurants.
Cooked food centres:
Cooked food centres are often found in the same building as some of the indoor wet markets. Tables that used to be on the street have been swept into sterile concrete buildings. Inside, the atmosphere is like a food court without the frills. Cooked food centres provide economic solutions to diners, but you might need to take along a Cantonese speaker, or be brave.
Supermarkets include Wellcome and Park N Shop. Speciality supermarkets catering to Western and Japanese tastes include City Super and Great. 24 hour convenience stores 7-Eleven and Circle K can be found almost anywhere in urban areas.
As many people in Hong Kong’s Indian community are Hindu or Muslim, your best bet for religious diets that fall into those categories are restaurants that serve those communities. The Islamic Trust is Hong Kong’s halal certification body, and Muslims visitors can contact them for more information about halal food in Hong Kong. Due to the small size of Hong Kong’s Jewish community, kosher food is rare, though the web-site of the Ohel Leah Synagogue has information on where kosher food can be found.
Vegetarians should look for specialist vegetarian restaurants that primarily serve devout Buddhists. Some Buddhist temples may also sell vegetarian food during the weekends or various Buddhist festivals. As Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food does not usually make use of eggs or dairy products, it is almost always suitable for vegans.
People with allergies will have difficulty in Hong Kong, as awareness of common allergies is poor. Gluten-free diets in particular are very hard to come by as coeliac disease is very rare in Hong Kong, and much of Hong Kong’s local cuisine makes heavy use of soy sauce. Dairy is somewhat more common in Hong Kong than in mainland China due to the stronger British influence, but nevertheless does not feature very prominently in traditional Cantonese cuisine, so lactose-intolerant people should not have any major issues finding something suitable for them.
As with the rest of China, tea is a popular beverage in Hong Kong, and is served at practically every eatery. Chinese teas are the most commonly served, though many places also serve English-style milk tea. In summer ‘Ice Lemon Tea’ is a common option that is rather bitter and needs some sugar to counter this.
Some Chinese people do drink a lot but generally speaking there are many neighbourhoods in Hong Kong without much in the way of a bar or pub. Drinking alcohol with food is acceptable, but there is no expectation to order alcohol with your meal in any restaurant. A number of popular restaurants do not sell alcohol because of a licence restriction.
Lan Kwai Fong (Central), Wanchai and Knutsford Terrace (Kowloon) are the three main drinking areas where locals, expats and tourists mingle together. Here you will certainly find a party atmosphere, and can expect to see many ‘merry’ expats in these areas. LKF and Wan Chai are particularly rowdy yet fun places to party. The minimum age for drinking in a bar is 18 years. There is usually a requirement for young adults to prove their age, especially when going to a nightclub. The accepted ID in clubs is either your passport or a Hong Kong ID card. Photocopies are rarely accepted due to minors using fake documents.
Some clubs in Lan Kwai Fong have imposed a dress code on customers and tourists are of no exception. As a general rule, shorts or pants that are above knee length should be avoided.
Drinking out in Hong Kong can be expensive. Beer usually starts from $50 for a pint and more in a bar popular among expats. However, away from the tourist trail, some Chinese restaurants may have a beer promotion aimed at meeting the needs of groups of diners. In cooked food centres, usually found at the wet markets, young women are often employed to promote a particular brand of beer. Convenience stores and supermarkets sell a reasonable range of drinks. The 7-Eleven in Lan Kwai Fong is a very popular ‘bar’ for party-animals on a budget.
During Wednesdays and Thursdays Ladies night applies in some bars in Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong, which in most cases means that women can enter bars and clubs for free, and in some rare cases also get their drinks paid for the night. At weekends, several bars and clubs in these areas also have an ‘open bar’ for some of the night, which means you can drink as much as you like.
San Miguel (Cantonese name: Seng Lik), Tsing Tao (Ching Dou), Carlsberg (Ga Si Bak), Blue Girl(Lam Mui), Heineken(Hei Lik) and Sol are popular in the town. There is no longer any tax on wine or beer in Hong Kong.