Hong Kong! Former British colony and financial powerhouse, the “Fragrant Harbour” (Heunggong in Cantonese, Xiānggǎng in Mandarin) of the South China Sea is one Chinese
province Special Administrative Region that needs little introduction.
Language nerd alert: Hong Kong uses traditional characters and Cantonese, but many of these dishes are common in Singapore too and thus have local names. If you see tone marks, it’s Mandarin/simplified, if you don’t, it’s Cantonese/traditional. This, too, is unfair since Cantonese is actually even more tonal than Mandarin, people just can’t seem to agree on how to write all 9. 對唔住。
I’ve been to Hong Kong more times than I can count, including at the tail end of the Siberia to Lhasa trip, and have had the chance to explore a fair bit of the city, the mountains and the islands. In terms of classical Chinese cuisine, Hong Kong falls squarely in the Cantonese corner (粤菜 Yuè cài), but what makes eating there so interesting is the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Not only can you get excellent food from every corner of the globe, from French to Indian to Japanese, but 150 years of British colonisation left a deep mark on the city, resulting in its own unique Hong Kong cuisine. So for this episode, I’m going to try to find the essence of Hong Kong in Singapore, and leave “standard” Cantonese cuisine for the Guangdong episode.
Finding food that claims to be from Hong Kong in Singapore is easy, but weeding out the pale imitations and choosing the most representative options is harder. But you can’t cover Hong Kong without dim sum (点心), that justly renowned Cantonese tradition of stuffing your face with an endless series of small bites washed down with tea, so the first pick was easy: Tim Ho Wan (添好運), the “world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant”, and now a multinational dim sum franchise owned by the Philippines’ answer to McDonalds, Jollibee. I’ve been to Tim Ho Wan once before in Sydney, and I remember being distinctly disappointed, apparently a widely shared feeling since the Australian operation went bankrupt shortly afterwards. But the Singapore operation had a better rep, so we queued up for lunch one day at Marina Bay Sands to check it out.
First cab off the rank was their famous Baked Bun with BBQ Pork (酥皮焗叉烧包), a Tim Ho Wan only invention which takes dim sum staple char siew bau (BBQ pork buns) and gives it a sweet, crunchy crust not unlike a Japanese melon pan (which contains no actual melon, it’s named for the appearance). The kids liked it, but both adults found it just too sugary.
The other three dishes in Tim Ho Wan’s pantheon of Four Heavenly Kings of Dim Sum (四大天王点心) are Pan Fried Carrot Cake (香煎萝卜糕), Steamed Egg Cake (香滑马来糕) and Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver (黄沙猪润肠). This carrot cake has nothing to do with the Western dish: it’s a Singaporean mistranslation of white radish (daikon) cake, since carrots are called “red radish” (红萝卜) in Hokkien. This can be gloopy and greasy, but the ones here were quite nice, freshly made with bits of bacon and just enough radish taste. The Steamed Egg Cake, literally a “Malay cake” in Chinese, was a new acquaintance akin to a moist sponge cake, very light and airy with a distinct but not overpowering cane sugar kick. Pig’s liver was, regrettably, off the menu so we got the char siew version instead, which was OK, but not really different to the chee cheong fun at any Singaporean hawker center. We rounded things off with a few siew mai dumplings (OK), tofu skin wraps both fried (excellent) and steamed (mediocre), a lor mai kai glutinous chicken rice (good), and finally some osmanthus jelly with goji berries for dessert. Total damage: $90 for 4.
Now my expectations for ambience and service are usually pretty low, but we couldn’t help but compare this to our usual Michelin-starred chain standby Din Tai Fung, whose prices are in the same ballpark but which manages to feel like a restaurant instead of a food court. At DTF, tea is served in a pot instead of plastic cups, portions are more generous, and everything just tastes fresher and better. Alternatively, at our local hawker, Tai Heng Handmade Dim Sum does dim sum of an (IMHO) equal if not superior quality for less than half the price. I don’t think we’ll be back.
After that Michelin star disappointment, it was time to visit a distinctly non-famous Hong Kong joint, namely Wong Chiew (皇潮, “Imperial Teochew”) off Sembawang Rd near Springleaf. Neh’mind the atas name, this casual eating house is so ulu it always has red junglefowl, Singapore’s wild ancestral chickens, running through it, and I suspect army boys from the nearby bases come here more for the $8.50-for-3 Tigers beer promos than the food: as you can see, even the letters on their signboard are drunk. They used to open 24 hours until COVID spiked that, but they’re still open 6 AM to 1 AM, perfect for the tail end of my long Mandai Rd bike runs past the zoo.
The menu is enormous and has Hakka yong tau foo, rice porridge (congee/juk), roast meats, lots of seafood, zi char (family-style eating) favorites and much more. My default breakfast, though, is the dry wonton mee (雲吞麵, “swallowing clouds noodles”), served here with plump house-made wonton dumplings, delicious fatty chunks of char siu (叉烧) barbecued pork cooked in the big oven in the back, and a bowl of chicken stock with a big ol’ chunk of daikon radish. It’s hard to cook the thin, eggy yòumiàn (幼面) noodles just right, al dente but not too chewy, and in Singapore the noodles tend to get overpowered by chilli to boot, but here the sauce is mild and generous and instead of sambal belacan you get sweet, vinegary green pickled chillies served on the side like God intended. The handmade dim sum here is also on point, and I have a particular soft spot for their siu mai (燒賣), made from coarsely chopped pork, a generous whole shrimp in each dumpling, and a sprinkling of fish roe on top. If you want something even more substantial, get the Char Siew Roast Meat Rice, which pairs up the char siu with siu yuk (燒肉) pork belly that reminds me of proper Finnish Christmas salted ham, with a crispy skin and salt soaked into the fatty meat. Add in a drink and you’ll still escape for less than $10, under half the price of Tim Ho Wan, and it even feels like Hong Kong because the service is borderline-rude brusque yet efficient. Authentically HK? Eh, probably not. Delicious? Oh yes. Oi Michelin, give that star to someone who deserves it!
The second uniquely Hong Kong institution I wanted to explore is the cha chaan teng (茶餐厅), serving a uniquely Hong Kong mishmash of Western and Chinese food that would have frou-frou fusion places recoil in horror. Typical dishes include macaroni soup with Spam, Coca-Cola boiled with ginger, and unusual riffs on toast.
Now back in Hong Kong, these are essentially greasy-spoon diners that open late and serve food that’s fast, easy and cheap
like your mom, but a few have grown famous enough to branch overseas. One of these, Tsui Wah (翠華, “Emerald Brilliance”), now has four branches across Singapore, so on a random Saturday I dropped into their rather swish riverfront Clarke Quay outlet for a midmorning snack. Eight minutes after opening at 10:30 AM, there was already a queue — how were they going to tiptoe the awkward line of going upmarket without losing what made them famous in the first place?
The canonical drink at a cha chaan teng is milk tea (奶茶), brewed to teeth-shattering strength (3 teaspoons per cup, brewed for 6 minutes is not uncommon), topped off with evaporated milk, and served with sugar on the side. (Add tapioca balls and ice, and you get Taiwanese bubble tea.) The end result is essentially the same as my standard Singaporean coffeeshop order of teh C kosong, meaning tasty enough, but $3.50++ instead of the usual $1 and change. To go with it I tried their famous Crispy Bun With Condensed Milk ($4), which is pretty much just that: a baked bun slathered with butter and sweet condensed milk, perfectly designed to shred and burn the roof of your mouth if you’re a greedy pig like me who attempts to eat it without letting it cool down a bit first.
Appetite whetted, I returned with reinforcements for a more substantial meal at their Orchard branch, somewhat bizarrely hidden inside the multistory Courts household appliance emporium at Heeren, and ordered a random selection off their Signature Dishes menu. Borscht (羅宋湯) Hong Kong style mutates this pan-Slavic beetfest into a cabbage and tomato soup with a touch of chilli, served with a thick slice of buttered toast, both of which got the thumbs up from the jury. Tsui Wah’s Jumbo Hot Dogs come with a big old wiener, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato in an un-American crusty bun. Somewhat disturbingly, unlike (say) the Japanese hotto doggu, hot dogs are rendered literally into Chinese as 熱狗, which is doubly incongruous since 狗 (gǒu) is commonly used as an insult, as in the “running dogs” (走狗 zǒugǒu) of imperialism etc. 资本主义的热狗万岁! May the hot dogs of capitalism live ten thousand years!
More food arrived. I expected the Signature Pork Chop Bun (豬扒包) to be breaded and fried schnitzel-style, but no, we got a pretty dry slab of lean grilled pork with lettuce and pickles in another crusty-dry bun, sauced with what to me tasted exactly like American-style Thousand Island salad dressing: “weird”, was the judgement of culinary youth panel. Last and least, the Swiss Chicken Wings (瑞士鸡翼), an iconic HK dish slathered in sweet soy and of no known connection to Switzerland — if anything, they were the only identifiably Chinese-tasting in my entire order today — were cold and kinda chewy.
The most interesting new acquaintance, though, was yuenyeung (鸳鸯), an only-in-HK mix of milky coffee and tea which I must shamefully confess to never trying before. I’d also always thought this was the Cantonese reading of yin-yang (阴阳), but no, the name actually means “mandarin ducks”, famed in Chinese legend because the multicolored, flashy males look so different from the drab grey females, but the two go so well together that they mate for life. Now I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but this was downright delish, a complex interplay of notes of both that tasted better than the sum of its parts. I’m a convert. They may have taken heed of the random review complaining about the brew being too weak, though, since the cuppa I had was brewed so strong my hands were still shaking hours later, which also reminded me why I’m not a coffee drinker.
Last but not least, I wanted to sample some Hong Kong street food. Singapore has no real street food, since all hawkers were corralled into centres years ago, but the franchise behind Tim Ho Wan has also decided to concoct a new brand, Joy Luck Teahouse (歡樂冰室), to bring HK street food into the air-conditioned basements of Singaporean shopping malls. “Teahouse” here is bing sutt (冰室), literally “ice room”, which are supposed to be the now largely extinct small cafes that were direct predecessors to cha chaan tengs, but Joy Lucks don’t even have seating, it’s takeaway only. One outlet lurks in the psychedelic food pit four levels under ground at Ion Orchard, so in the mood for a snack, I dialed up some curry fishballs (咖哩魚蛋) franchised from Kowloon brand Tak Hing (德興). $4.80 gets you a coffee cup with 6 fishballs slathered with a mild, Japanese-curry-ish sauce, and while I was kinda skeptical these were actually pretty nice, especially when eaten while piping hot. Singaporeans love fishballs and they love curry, so why isn’t this sold everywhere yet?
Other offerings include milk tea, egg tarts (see Macau for more on that topic), and pineapple buns, the last of these being Hong Kong’s twist on the Japanese melon pan, both named after the appearance of the crust and neither actually containing any fruit. If that’s not enough, you can literally turn around and walk into the flagships of Hong Kong cookie makers Kee Wah or lao po bing masters Hang Heung, offering crusty pastries stuffed with winter melon paste. And then there’s the fabulously cheesy fake HK-by-night neon show of Legendary Hong Kong (Mongkok Street) at Jurong Point, various purveyors of baked cheese rice (pour one out for Malaysian chain Hong Kong Kim Gary), egg waffles that looks like delicious giant bubble wrap and more. Crikey! At this point, all I can do is channel Chris Patten and admit defeat, send this telegram, and sail off into the sunset. God save the Queen.