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Exploring Hong Kong History Through its Food

hong-kong-food-history-dim-sum

Dim Sum is a staple in every Cantonese diet. Referred to as “yum cha”, which literally means to drink tea, dim sum brings together friends and family, and even business associates.

Kate Springer writes: Shops open and close in the blink of an eye. Skyscrapers spring up out of nowhere. The skyline never remains the same for long.

Unlike cities with old bones — like London and Paris — there aren’t as many tangible artifacts in this Asian metropolis of 8 million people.

The most reliable Hong Kong history comes not in museums or architecture, but rather, in the form of food.

“If you want to experience Hong Kong of the 1960s, you really have to look at food because it’s mainly the food that has survived intact,” says Daisann McLane, who runs food concierge and experiential tour company Little Adventures in Hong Kong.

The group’s food and culture walks take travelers into the delicious underbelly of Cantonese life — uncovering everything from cafes and bakeries to markets and tea shops.

Preserved in time

Hong Kong's preserved fish was once a lucrative industry.Before Hong Kong was a British colony, a manufacturing city or a buzzing finance capital, the territory was primarily inhabited by fishermen.

Hong Kong’s preserved fish was once a lucrative industry.Before Hong Kong was a British colony, a manufacturing city or a buzzing finance capital, the territory was primarily inhabited by fishermen.

In its earliest days, before it became known as “Hong Kong,” the territory was a strategic port for European and Asian sailors — not to mention pirates — often used as a rest stop on long voyages.

The dried fish found in Hong Kong, and the surrounding region, was extremely valuable.

[Read the full story here, at CNN.com]

In a pre-refrigeration age, haam yu served as a kitchen staple, offering sustenance to sailors on long voyages and an accessible source of protein for Chinese villagers.

“Whenever I see the dried fish hanging by the side of the road — the dried fish on the red ribbons — those were one of the original products of Hong Kong island and the Pearl River Delta region,” says McLane.

wings-hong-kong-food-history-swiss-wings

Soy Sauce Western: Dubbed ‘Swiss wings’, these chicken wings are a staple on most Soy Sauce Western menus.

“The age of sailing wouldn’t have been possible without these dried foods to keep people alive during long voyages.”

The deep-rooted industry is still omnipresent today, especially in the dried food streets in Sai Ying Pun where travelers go to get a whiff of the past.

Where to find it: To visit Hong Kong’s dried seafood trade, travelers can explore Tai O fishing village on Lantau Island or simply stroll the lanes of Sai Ying Pun, around Des Voeux Road West, Queen Street and Centre Street, where shops overflow with dried mushrooms, whole fish, sea cucumbers, goji berries and more.

Cafe society 

Milk tea is a staple in Hong Kong's cha chaan teng diners.

Milk tea is a staple in Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng diners.

By the mid 1950s, a lot had changed in Hong Kong.

The British having planted their flag in 1841, colonialism was well under way.

After World War II, Chinese immigrants poured into Hong Kong, fleeing the communist takeover and the Great Leap Forward famines of the 50s and early 60s.

As Hong Kong recovered from the war, it turned to manufacturing — which ushered the city into an era of development and productivity.

Factories boomed and the population swelled, just as globalization was taking hold around the world.

Coupled with an influx of factory-produced foods like white bread, peanut butter, evaporated milk and instant noodles, the factory created a unique culinary experience that encapsulates this era: the cha chaan teng diner.

“The modern Hong Kong we see today has its origins in post 50s Hong Kong,” says McLane. “And one of the major changes we see is the explosion of popularity of the Hong Kong coffee shop, the cha chaan teng. Although there were cha chaan tengs as far back the 1920s, they really came into their own in post-war Hong Kong, and are specific to that historical moment.”

Hong Kong-style French toast usually incorporates two slices of butter-soaked bread, a layer of peanut butter, and super sweet maple syrup.

Hong Kong-style French toast usually incorporates two slices of butter-soaked bread, a layer of peanut butter, and super sweet maple syrup.

“The rhythms of the factory imposed themselves on the eating culture, so you had to have fast food for these people who only had a short break for lunch,” says McLane.

At the time, you could find a cha chaan teng on every corner, serving simple white bread sandwiches, pork chops, and milk teas as the go-to snacks.

Still today, the menus are chock-full of delicious cultural amalgamations like egg tarts, Hong Kong-style French toast, and yuanyang milk tea — a mix of strong black tea and coffee.

“You can sit in a cha chaan teng and have peanut butter and condensed milk on toast, and a milk tea, and from there you can go through 75 years of Hong Kong history.”

A saucy experience

A flashback to the early days at Tai Ping Koon Restaurant. Often overlooked but essential to the Hong Kong culinary experience is Soy Sauce Western cuisine -- immortalized in Wong Kar-wai's famous film

A flashback to the early days at Tai Ping Koon Restaurant.

Often overlooked but essential to the Hong Kong culinary experience is Soy Sauce Western cuisine — immortalized in Wong Kar-wai’s famous film “In the Mood for Love.”

“The elite of Hong Kong had traveled around Europe and to the UK. They came back to Hong Kong with a more cosmopolitan taste for things like steak, and wanted to eat things that reminded them of their trips,” says McLane… (read more)

Little Bao gets creative with traditional Chinese sandwiches.

Little Bao gets creative with traditional Chinese sandwiches.

via CNN.com

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