What to eat when you’re out on the street
On sticks or in a pot, in a bag or in the hand, Hong Kong street food is a curious mix of the traditional, the intriguing, and the downright weird. From egg custard tarts to curried intestines, no matter how picky or adventurous you are, the streets of Hong Kong are bound to have something to suit your taste. Some of it may smell strange, some of it may look strange, but by God do people love it.
While the Hong Kong street food scene may not be one of mobile carts grilling up a snack-storm wherever they roll up, there is still more than enough variety to keep you busy if you know where to look. Most of the time you need look no further than the crowded street corner with its boiling organs, peculiar fried things, and hungry customers clambering over each other to get at the good stuff. You can check out my Hong Kong Street Food Stalls post for more on these brightly lit purveyors of snackery and where you can find them; this time we are interested in what you can eat.
I’ve tried to make the ten foods that follow representative of the Hong Kong street food scene as a whole. They are ten of the most popular so you should have no problem finding them. The street food heaven/shopping hell of Dundas Street around the end of Sai Yeung Choi Street and Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok would be the first place to look. Causeway Bay would be another.
Cheong Fun in Sweet Sauce
It isn’t difficult to see why Cheong Fun (猪肠粉) translates to ‘pig intestine noodles’ in English. The slippery texture and white, tubular appearance, don’t exactly look the most appetizing of snacks, but cover them in a mixture of sweet sauce, sesame oil and maybe even a sprinkling of sesame seeds on top, and you have yourself something close to heavenly. Not only street food royalty but a dim sum staple too, the sheets of rice noodle mixture are first steamed, rolled, and then usually cut with scissors into your pot or onto a sheet of greaseproof paper to await the saucy desecration of your choosing. There’s no freaky meat in this one, just lovely warm deliciousness that will have you craving for more.
Curry Fish Balls
Is there anything more representative of Hong Kong street food than curry fish balls? Cheap, tasty and covered in so much sauce you can’t actually taste what it’s supposed to be, it’s everything street food should be. A staple in Hong Kong since the 1950s, so lacking in their key ingredient are today’s fish balls, they are close to having to drop the word ‘fish’ from their name. 20%, apparently, is the magic number, and whatever the remaining 80% consists of, it’s probably best that no one actually knows. The most famous Hong Kong fish balls can probably be found on Cheung Chau. The ‘big golden fish balls’ served up on the island, are, as the name suggests, larger than your average fish ball. They are also, thankfully, made from actual real fish. Rejoice!
If ever there was a food and adjective combination that said all there was to say, stinky tofu is it. For many, stinky tofu is the smell of Mong Kok. Head to Dundas Street on any given evening and before you even turn the corner you can smell it – that rancid, sweaty stench, floating over the crowds. As the great Ron Burgundy once said, “It stings the nostrils.” The result of a fermentation process that involves, among other things, milk, fish and meat, and can last up to a couple of months, stinky tofu is actually a lot better tasting than it smells. Though that isn’t saying much. Usually fried in Hong Kong and served with sweet or chilli sauce, stinky tofu is a Hong Kong street food classic. Try it, you might like it.
Another dim sum classic that has made the transition to street food staple, siu mai are pretty ubiquitous in the Hong Kong street food world. Not as carefully crafted as the dim sum variety, street food siu mai are more of a mass produced, heat up and eat kind of affair, but still no less popular for it. Another on-a-stick classic, siu mai generally come with a fish (pictured) or the more traditional pork filling, though when it comes to street eating, it is probably the fish variety that wins the day. Pay $6 or $7 for a skewer of siu mai, splash a bit of chilli oil or curry sauce on it, and away you go.
Squid Tentacles and Pig Intestines
Stinky tofu and fried vegetables are all well and good, but Hong Kong’s street food stalls are perhaps more notorious for the more ‘interesting’ delicacies they serve. While squid may not be amongst the strangest creatures to have been considered worthy of becoming a tasty street snack, there’s something about that bright orange colour, rubbery texture and general tentacleyness that seems a little out of place when hanging out of some pretty girl’s mouth. Then there’s that stuff that looks like rubber tubing that’s never far away that is in fact pig intestines; but dunk it in enough sauce to make it taste as much like what it isn’t as you can, and you’re good to go. It’s maybe more of a challenge than a treat, but again, it seems people can’t get enough.
Organs in a Pot
And then there are the organs – a bubbling brown vat of entrails, innards, offal, or whatever you choose to call that stuff, out of which is scooped your prize. There’ll be stomach lining in there for sure. There may also be something that looks like lung and very probably is. But for the most part, whatever it is they’ve got stewing away, will largely be beyond recognition. Still, waste not want not, and if you are killing a cow because you fancy a steak, it’s to the credit of Chinese cuisine that to do away with the less glamorous parts would be considered wasteful beyond comprehension. Thus it is that Daisy’s entrails are scooped out of their boiling brown broth, cut up with scissors into a polystyrene tub, and mixed with peppers, some kind of radish, and a whole lot of sauce, to make the case for one of the bolder choices on the Hong Kong street food menu.
Roasted Sweet Potato & Chestnuts
You know it’s getting towards winter when the sweet potato and chestnut hawkers hit the Hong Kong streets. Usually around October time, those strange little carts – half wooden potato baker, half steel chestnut roaster – will suddenly appear as if sent on mass to go forth and roast. Street food doesn’t get simpler than a sweet potato, roasted whole and served so hot that you can’t eat or hold it for ten minutes without suffering third degree burns – the yellow spud flesh steaming on what for Hong Kongers seems like an almost polar sub-20oC winter’s morning. The chestnuts, likewise, are slow-roasted in a cauldron of hot cinders. You can also find those little spotted eggs on occasion too. With no sauce and not a frying pan in sight, it’s perhaps the healthiest Hong Kong street food choice in town.
Hong Kong street food is not all strange meat and savouriness of course. Egg waffles or egg balls (gai dan jai) have been a feature of Hong Kong street life since the 1950s and are still one of the most popular Hong Kong street snacks. Ideally fluffy on the inside, freshly grilled and not too crispy, each vendor claims their own secret recipe, but essentially, the waffles are made from a kind of pancake batter poured into a specially shaped mould and heated until done. Aside from the traditional yellow egg balls, chocolate, strawberry, sesame and other flavours can now be found at some of the larger stalls, though as ever, original is always best. If you’re in Tai O, make sure you find the Tai O egg ball man, still grilling his egg balls in the traditional way over his charcoal fired stone oven. They’re tasty too.
Okay, so it isn’t pictured on the street in this instance, but the pineapple bun (bo lo bao) is such a Hong Kong classic, it’s hard not to run into it somewhere along the line during a typical day in the city. Usually found outside restaurants and cafes tempting people to satisfy their craving for something hot, sweet and ready to go, the pineapple bun is essentially not much more than a sweet white bun with a crispy crust on top. But there’s just something about that soft, fluffy inside, steaming when you tear it open as you try and save the crust from crumbling to the floor, that has kept it in the hearts and gracious mouths of Hong Kongers for decades. Often enjoyed as a quick breakfast or tea time snack, there’s nothing actually pineappley about the taste. It’s the crispy top that is said to give it its pineapple appearance. The cafe version generally has the added extra of a cheeky slice of butter that melts deliciously into the bread. But the street variety is just as much a melt-in-your-mouth delight as it’s indoor cousin. Amazing!
All the way from Europe via Macau, and a favourite of Hong Kong’s last British governor Chris Patten, the egg tart (dan tat) is a legacy of Hong Kong’s colonial days that, unlike Fat Pang himself, seems destined to stay. Egg tarts are said to have been introduced to Hong Kong in the 1940s, derived from the Portuguese variety popular in neighbouring Macau. Unlike its Macanese counterpart, however, the Hong Kong version generally tends to come without the browned top and not always of the puff pastry variety, but that filling is still the same hot wobbly yellowness that keeps Hong Kong’s sweet toothed street eaters coming back for more. As with the pineapple bun, they can often be seen temptingly displayed outside bakeries and restaurants, daring passersby to ignore their eggy charms. I’m making it my mission of today to hunt them down and have my fill.