The Greasy Spoon; Hong Kong Style

Posted By | Posted On Oct 30, 2011

In a world of celebrity chefs, five star restaurants and culinary themed “reality TV”, most of us from time to time wax nostalgic about the greasy spoons of our childhood. Even the Food Network has a program devoted to discovering the best diners, drive-ins and dives. If you happen to have grown up in Hong Kong, then your fondest memories would most likely involve an institution known as the Cha Chaan Teng.

Far from being just another “restaurant”, the Cha Chaan Teng enjoys a special place in the hearts (and stomachs) of Hong Kong residents when it comes to comfort food heaven.

A typical Cha Chaan Teng is a melting pot of sorts, born during Hong Kong’s post-war industrial boom. Originally providing a place to grab a quick bite on the cheap between factory shifts, the Cha Chaan Teng was the Horn and Hardart, or Chock full of Nuts of Asia, with Cantonese cooks running the kitchen. Hong Kong residents had been exposed to Western food since early Colonial times, but before the invention of the Cha Chaan Teng, Western-style establishments were places that only the wealthy could afford to frequent. Now, suddenly there was a place where if you wanted something exotic for breakfast, say, French Toast, or, if a bit later in the day you had a hankering for spaghetti, you could find those items on a the menu along with congee, or Chinese-style noodle dishes.

A typical Cha Chaan Teng meal begins with weak black tea, more water than anything else. Most customers don’t even drink this tea, but rather use it to wash off their utensils. The beverage of choice is Milk Tea, known as Naai Cha in Cantonese. Milk tea is made with black tea and evaporated milk, and sweetened with sugar. The drink is boiled an strained traditionally through a woman’s silk stocking, although nowadays, it is more common to use a piece of cheesecloth. If Milk Tea is not to you liking, there is always Lemon Tea, usually made with a Lipton type Tea bag, and garnished with several slices of lemon.

But perhaps the defining drink of the typical Cha Chaan Teng is the Yun Yeung, named after the male and female Mandarin Duck, a species that mates for life. A Yun Yeung is half coffee and half tea, and, surprisingly not as awful as it sounds.

Although open for breakfast, lunch and diner, most Hong Kong Chinese use the Cha Chaan Teng to satisfy those hunger pangs between meals. Perhaps a fried pork chop, liberally seasoned with black pepper, and placed atop a mound of limp spaghetti, cooked way beyond “al dente” might do the trick. Or maybe a chicken fillet served over white rice, the whole drowned in a slightly sweet tomato sauce. If neither of those quite fills the bill, consider adding a side order of creamed corn.

When you get the check, don’t expect to be able to read it, even if you are literate in Chinese script. Cha Chaan Teng waiters have developed their own specialized shorthand. Lemon Tea, for example, is rendered simply as 0T.

So beloved is this unique and quirky institution, in 2007 the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, passed a proposal to recognize the Cha Chaan Teng by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”.

If you can’t get to Hong Kong this year, you can enjoy a taste of Cha Chaan Teng culture right here in Boston’s Chinatown at one of the restaurants listed below. Happy eating!

Great Taste Bakery and Restaurant
61-63 Beach Street

China Pearl Best Café
11 Tyler Street

written by Jim Becker, Chinatown Guide

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