I woke up to a chilly morning. The cold weather made me wish I could stay in bed, but it was time for breakfast with my aunt.
My tired, puffy eyes refused to open, and when they finally did, I was blinded by a blanket of whiteness outside the windows—the thick fog obscured the view of the IFC Mall in Central, many miles away.
Silence hung in the morning air, as the traffic was sparse up here in the mountain; a striking contrast to the busier streets in Hong Kong, where traffic lights tick loudly and where cars fly pass each other. I washed up as quickly as my half-asleep body would, dressed up in a hurry and left the house with my aunt. In my half-awake state, we arrived at the nearest café and found a table at a quiet corner.
The complicated traditional Chinese characters on the menu stared at me.
“What do you recommend?” I asked my aunt, without really looking through the menu, for fear that I would take too long to understand the menu and to make a decision; Hong Kong people’s desire for speed in everything leaves me sweating over a simple thing like taking time to decide on what I want to eat.
“This, or maybe that.” She pointed at the menu.
“I will have that then.”
I gave myself no time to really think of what I wanted to eat.
The café was relatively empty at this hour, but it took some few minutes before the waiter came over to take our orders.
My aunt referred to the menu and placed our orders.
“O.K. What about the drinks?”
“2 glasses of iced milk tea. Less sweet, mm goi.”
Hong Kong-style milk tea is representative of a cha chaan teng experience in Hong Kong, and having a meal in a Hong Kong without a cup of milk tea makes it an incomplete dining experience. Also known as the pantyhose milk tea, the Hong Kong-style milk tea originated in the 1950s, during the British colonial rule over Hong Kong. It is made with evaporated or condensed milk instead of ordinary milk, and the tea leaves are filtered with a sackcloth bag, so that the tea is smoother. While the tradition of tea drinking is not new to China and Hong Kong, Western-style tea (with milk) was introduced to Hong Kong by the early British colonial administrators. Some say that the Hong Kong-style milk tea came about because the less well-to-do locals back then could not afford expensive Western-style tea with milk, so they created a cheaper alternative—the pantyhose milk tea—by filtering the tea leaves and by adding condensed milk, which makes the tea much sweeter and smoother. It’s also said that the founder of Lan Fong Yuen, Lam Muk Hor, fathered this iconic drink. It comes as no surprise that this delicious drink is now an icon of the Hong Kong food culture; the taste is unforgettable.
We dipped our utensils into a cup of hot tea, and then wiped them clean with serviettes. (Read: Cha Chaan Teng culture in Hong Kong) It didn’t take long before the waiter came back with our breakfast: a set meal each, which consists a bowl of congee and a small plate of cheong fun (rice noodle rolls). I had originally imagined myself wolfing down my breakfast the moment it arrived. But the truth was that it was too hot to do so, so I took my time to cool my bowl of congee and ate it slowly, while I left my plate of cheong fun aside to cool.
“Why are you not eating your cheong fun?” My aunt asked, all of a sudden.
Surprised by the question, I replied, “Because I am having my congee?”
I raised my intonation at her seemingly out-of-the-norm question.
“You are supposed to have them together.”
It did not matter to me; I like keeping the two dishes separate, finishing one before the other. But what was so surprising about having the two dishes separately, that she had to ask? Was the way I eat a stark contrast to what Hong Kong-ers are used to? Perhaps. After all, a Chinese meal is often about having a few (side) dishes to go with rice or noodles, and eating them concurrently. But congee with cheong fun? It definitely feels like two separate main dishes to me.
We continued the breakfast in silence, and I savoured the thick congee before I had my plate of cheong fun—it is delicious, whether you have them concurrently or not. Then, I took my own sweet time to finish up my glass of iced milk tea, because it was a beautiful morning and a great start to bigger adventures.
Why hurry, when taking one’s own sweet time to finish a great breakfast is one of the greatest joys anyone could have?
When we were finally done with our meal, we conveniently paid for it with an Octopus card; no fumbling with small change, just a quick and automated payment—scan and go.
Reality check: I am in Hong Kong. And speed is everything.
Where to Eat
Congee (rice porridge) and noodles are often served together in Hong Kong, and if you’re craving for some the next time you’re in the city, here are some shops to look out for:
Sang Kee Congee Shop (生記粥品專家), 7-9 Burd Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island
Wai Kee Congee Shop (威記粥店), 82 Stanley Street, Central, Hong Kong Island
Wong Chi Kei (黃枝記), 15B Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong Island
Note: Not all shops accept Octopus cards.