There are only a few routines that define daily life in Hong Kong like a visit to your favourite cha chaan teng. These well-loved eateries – chàhchāantēng is Cantonese for “tea restaurant” – proliferated in the 1950s to cater for a new wave of urban workers seeking affordable places to refuel around the city.
They’re best known for retro-inflected décor (formica tables, pastel-pink booths) and comfort food that blends Cantonese techniques with Western influences. Think milk tea, noodles topped with Spam and scrambled eggs served with a side of prawns.
The formula is a nod to Hong Kong’s 156 years of British occupation, as well as the colonial presence of Western restaurants that were once less than willing to accommodate Chinese diners. Unsurprisingly, the cha chaan teng’s democratic nature – along with its breezy service and wonderfully offbeat menu – has outlived decades of food trends. It still speaks to the way Hong Kong locals like to eat.
Howin Chui agrees with this sentiment. Last October, Chui along with three business partners started Kowloon Cafe, a love letter to the cha chaan tengs of his childhood, in Sydney’s Chinatown. The wildly popular eatery is part of his mission to bring Cantonese dining culture back to the CBD.
“Whenever [my partners] and I go back to Hong Kong, the first thing we do is visit a cha chaan teng because we know that there is milk tea and we can [enjoy] a variety of food,” says Chui, whose parents ran Tang Dynasty, one of Sydney’s first Cantonese restaurants in Hurstville for 25 years.
“In Hong Kong, Tsui Wah is the big cha chaan teng franchise. “But I like to visit the local ones – where you can order pineapple buns or even dim sum. Cantonese food has been missing in the Sydney CBD because we have more people here from mainland China. Mandarin food is spicier, with saltier flavours. We wanted to make Kowloon Cafe as authentic as possible.”
‘Authentic’ can be a dangerous word to describe food – a cultural form that is alive, constantly changing. At first Kowloon Cafe could be a scene from a Wong Kar-Wai movie. You enter a laneway off Dixon Street. You can settle in a brown-leather booth and browse a lengthy menu that includes dishes with cryptic names like “Braised Tofu and Pork with Rice – Men’s Romance” and “Super Thick Scrambled Egg Sandwich.” There’s mood lighting, neon signage and a glass cabinet heaving with egg tarts and outrageously fluffy pineapple buns. But the steady stream of customers – grandparents, groups of friends convening after work, fashion bloggers wielding smartphones – proves that Kowloon Cafe is a reflection of modern-day Sydney as much as it’s an ode to Hong Kong.
“Whenever [my partners] and I go back to Hong Kong, the first thing we do is visit a cha chaan teng."
Here, every dish, which is chosen and vetted for flavour by a committee of diners, is the handiwork of chef Wai Wong. Chui recommends the pineapple bun, the scrambled egg with shallots and the tomato soup with macaroni, a freshly made version that’s a Hong Kong favourite.
“The scrambled eggs are really fluffy,” he says. “The tomato soup is served with a pork chop and [we’ve worked hard] to get the balance of sweet and sour.”
But if there’s any dish that captures the spirit of Kowloon Cafe, it’s the French toast. This golden-brown marvel is made from whole loaves of bread, filled with condensed milk or peanut butter and served with lashings of honey and maple syrup.
“Hong Kong has always been very Westernised – if you want Asian food, you can order the stir-fry, or you can try the French Toast,” he says.
“The cool thing about cha chaan tengs is that my friends can come three times in one week – one day, they can have fried rice, tomorrow they can order soup, the next they can eat a pineapple bun. They are an everyday thing.”
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A few unconventional elements are the secret to this fragrant French toast's appeal - crunchy peanut butter, plum jam and five-spice.