Whatever else you end up telling people about your time in Hong Kong, one thing’s for certain: you won’t be complaining about the food. You’re in one of the world’s great food cities here, with the sheer range of Cantonese cuisine, from street dumpings to high-end seafood joints, complemented by food from every region of China and a long-established, thriving network of restaurants from every corner of the earth. This is what you get when you take a port city and add 150 years as an economic draw, a far-flung British colony, an international melting pot and a fine indigenous tradition of excellent food.
You’ll also surely find yourself eating out much more often in Hong Kong than you did back home. Outside the high-end and the Western restaurants, prices aren’t bad at all, and you can eat great food that doesn’t cost you too much more than if you cooked it yourself. Factor in small kitchens, the lure of the delicious food smells wafting out of restaurants and the good-natured crowds gathering to sit outside at their favourite streetside joints, and most nights you probably won’t want to miss out on the action. At lunchtime, expect the office debate over where to eat to start shortly after you get to work.
In terms of Cantonese food, the most famous tradition is yum cha (literally ‘drink tea’), generally a lunch or afternoon experience. You’ll be offered a wide range (sometimes hundreds) of dim sum to choose from, with various menu deals at various prices depending on how hungry you are, and including one of the many types of hot and cold tea. You can also order items individually, and the result is often a range of confusing menus. There are also great breakfast and afternoon buffet options at cha chaan teng places – you’ll find one on ever corner, selling simple, tasty dishes that often blend local and Western influences to become Hong Kong’s own, such as toasted egg sandwiches.
The city is also rife with hole-in-the-wall chains offering freshly-squeezed fruit, sweet teas, snacks, desserts and delicacies to suit any palate or mood. Street stalls offer dim sum, tofu, kebabs, barbecued meat… the list goes on. Western-style cafés linger on corners for when you just want to collapse into familiar fare, tea houses are available to you when you need an afternoon pick-me-up of a more local kind. And Hong Kong has of course not escaped the global reach of the Starbucks empire either.
International cuisine has just as much range, with both high-end and more affordable options available for Italian, French, Spanish, Thai and so on. The city in particular has a great range of Indian subcontinental food, from lively Wan Chai restaurants to Chungking Mansions street vendors, a legacy of the long tradition of people moving from one colony to another back in the British days. You can get up every day and decide what kind of food is right for your mood – whatever it is, it won’t be far from your door.
For when you do want to cook yourself, there are wet markets galore, with fresh vegetable and fruit, and butchers hanging their grisly wares out for inspection. These places are where locals do their shopping, and there’s no reason not to follow their lead – hygiene and food supply may not be up to antiseptic Western norms, but this is the daily fare of the city and as long as you wash whatever you buy when you get home you’ll be fine. You can also practise your bargaining and Cantonese numbers. The prices in local supermarkets are generally about the same, so if the wet market experience doesn’t appeal to you, just skip it.
There’s no shortage of good supermarkets and specialised food shops as well, with the ones catering particularly to foreigners tending to have both an excellent selection and commensurately higher prices. Of course, there’s a fair chance your domestic helper will be doing a fair bit of the cooking, and you can work out the best shopping approach for her to take together, probably combining wet markets and supermarkets. When you just want a sandwich or a pastry, that’s easy to find too; and delivery is a phone call or online order away, either through individual restaurants or one of the delivery networks with scores of places on offer.
When it comes to getting a handle on your choices, try the Zagat Hong Kong guide or the Word of Mouth guide – both are available both online and offline. You should also consult Time Out Hong Kong or HK Magazine as usual for listings and to keep up with the latest openings and closings. Your starting point online should be Open Rice for listings and crowd-sourced reviews. Other good websites include:
Hungry Go Where
Eat Drink Hong Kong
You probably get the point by now. We’re not saying you should forget the gym and commit to busting your belt the moment you get here; but we are saying that this may not be the place to commit to a longevity diet of grains and seeds. In Hong Kong, food is culture and culture is food – embrace the culture.
Food is a social experience here, not just a simple matter of refuelling, and you should always expect meals with friends or business dinners to go on longer than you expect. Hong Kong is still a business city to its bones though, so while lunch can be a lingering experience, on work days expect to eat fast and move on quickly for the most part.
You’ll find dining etiquette pretty relaxed – locals take great pleasure in their food, slurping noodles, lip smacking as they drink tea and relishing every bite. You really don’t have to worry about chopstick mistakes or eating things in the wrong order. When dining with locals, don’t think about splitting the bill – someone will be the host, and they will pay. Your job is to return the favour some time. When there isn’t a clear host in group situations, the battle begins, with people grabbing the bill while others grapple to get it off them, waitresses being presented with multiple credit cards as if being besieged by suitors, and general loud and happy argument. As a foreigner, you won’t win, so don’t even try. However, if you’re determined, you can always try the stealth approach and pay the bill by pretending to go to the restroom and settling instead. This will be greeted with dismay when discovered, and much admired.
People tend to start heading out for lunch around 11:30am during the working week, and dinner is early, with the rush usually starting shortly after 6pm. Anywhere middle- or high-end, and certainly any international restaurant, will take debit and credit cards. Smaller places may not, so check in advance and have some cash on you. Tipping is not expected, but be aware that a ten percent service charge is almost always added to the bill as a matter of course. Be aware that even though tea often arrives at your table automatically without being ordered, you’ll still be charged for it.