Wayne Kwong considers the relationship between local Hong Kong food and Western culture.
Being an international metropolis, Hong Kong is never short of cuisines from all different parts of the globe. It is not uncommon for a Hongkonger to have Chinese dim sum for breakfast, Japanese sushi for lunch, and Italian pasta for dinner. In this way, the Hongkonger is able to travel around the world via their palates even though we’re all still in the grip of a global pandemic.
But even with such a great collection of foreign flavours and sensations awaiting to be savored, local delights still occupy a special place in the heart of the Hongkonger. That said, the western cuisine that was introduced to the culinary landscape of Hong Kong through colonialism has no doubt has its influence. In the following, I will explore how local cuisine in Hong Kong interacts with that of the west.
Soy Sauce Western Cuisine – Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Hawaiian pizza
Referring to cuisines based on western dishes but with notable influence from local food culture, Hong Kong-style Western Cuisine is usually served in Hong Kong-style cafés (Cha Chaan Teng) at a very fair price. In this genre of cuisine, European recipes are altered to better suit the palates of locals by incorporating ingredients and flavours with which Hongkongers are familiar (perhaps because some western ingredients are simply not available to the common cook). This has resulted in a unique mix of characteristics that symbolizes the unique cultural composition of Hong Kong itself.
Some classics of the genre include the Hong Kong-style Borscht Soup, which is cooked with tomatoes instead of beetroot. In this genre of cuisine, steak or other cuts of meat are marinated in a soy sauce dominated combination of condiments, which explains the genre’s nickname: Soy Sauce Western Cuisine.
This merging of cultures in cuisines is explored by Alllison James in her essay “Cooking The Books: Global or Local Identities in Contemporary British Food Cultures?” (1996). In the essay, James identifies and analyses contemporary trends in cuisine in the British context. Here, she proposes the idea of “food creolization” – that which Ashley and others have defined in Food and Cultural Studies as “a form of cultural blending in which a mix of ingredients, styles and influences come together in a single meal” (2004). In her analysis, James argues that the trend is a reflection of the spirit of presenting low cost and convenient food choices for consumers, something she says is a long-existing element in British culinary culture.
While the notion of cost-effectiveness does contribute to the birth of Hong Kong-style Western Cuisine, James’s observation on such trends can be applied to creolized food in the Hong Kong context – a merging of local and western culinary cultures that has a clear connection to the (post-)colonial history of Hong Kong.
The gastronomic subversion of colonial hierarchy
Given the colonial history of Hong Kong, British culture and the English language are often perceived as ‘superior’ to local culture and its language: Cantonese. The hierarchy between the two may not always be explicit, but it nonetheless continues to manifest itself through various social formations. For example, traditionally Hong Kong parents prefer schools that use English as the medium of instruction to those that use Chinese, with the effect that society tends to reward those who can use English with a higher social status. Anyone who has tried filing a complaint to a Hong Kong company in Cantonese rather than English would understand what I mean here.
In a broader sense, this notion of colonial superiority is projected on anything of western origin. In the case of cuisine, a plate of traditional Italian carbonara (without cream of course – a version of the dish with the addition of cream and a poached egg is also popular in Hong Kong) is a lot more likely to get the spotlight it deserves on social media than a bowl of won ton noodles. Both are sublime dishes that take dedication and techniques to perfect. The price tag of the former is also very likely to be higher than that of the latter.
However, local culinary delights are exactly what subvert this colonial hierarchy. In the process of localizing foreign recipes brought by the colonizers, the two vastly different culinary cultures are reinterpreted and then blended without one overshadowing or dominating the other. The traditional serve of a cut of meat in the form of a fillet in western cuisine is here accompanied by rice (the Chinese choice of carbohydrates) and a sauce made of Chinese condiments instead of gravy. And Italian macaroni is here served in a broth along with Chinese BBQ pork, replacing the Chinese noodles. The mixing of a piece of meat butchered in the western culinary tradition with Chinese condiments, and the presentation of Italian carbohydrates in a traditional Chinese dish not only create unique flavours but also erase the boundaries between the two intersecting culinary cultures. This is how the Soy Sauce Western Cuisine we Hongkongers grow to love is born.
Localization of alcoholic beverages in Hong Kong
Besides what we eat, colonial hierarchy also reflects itself in what we drink. Unlike European countries with a traditional history of brewing and distilling alcoholic beverages either as a medicinal remedy or a beverage for pleasure, the local creation of alcoholic beverages in Hong Kong has been limited to the occasional infusion of traditional herbs or animals (mainly snakes) into Chinese spirits (again, to form medicinal tonics – those mostly found in traditional Chinese medicine clinics or eateries serving snakes). From casual nightcaps to luxury drinks, the scene of alcoholic beverages in Hong Kong is heavily dominated by western products. Ranging from pubs and taverns to wine and spirit bars, a variety of venues serve a wide spectrum of western alcoholic beverages for different occasions. They are also the go-to choice of alcoholic beverages to accompany cuisines, even those that are not of western origins. It is common for high-class restaurants serving Chinese cuisine to provide guests with pairings of western red and white wines, and patrons of Dai Pai Dong (open-air food stalls which serve local cuisines in Hong Kong) to order a bottle of beer alongside their dish of local style stir-fry. The non-existence of locally crafted alcoholic beverages fit for daily consumption has created something of a “cultural vacuum” in this part of the world. With years of presence in the culinary scene, the status of western booze as the de facto alcoholic beverage of choice in Hong Kong cuisine is institutionalized into the society and hence an abiding legacy of colonialism.
Although we may have already taken western boozes’ dominance in our cuisine as granted, the throne is not void of pretenders. In recent years, there has been a bloom of locally crafted alcoholic drinks in Hong Kong, from beer to spirits including gin and liqueurs. A very common trend among these budding products is the employment of ingredients representative of the local culture as a homage to its origin. For example, the first locally distilled gin in Hong Kong features an array of botanicals common in Hong Kong cuisines, including tea leaves, aged tangerine peels and goji berries. Similarly, craft beer breweries in Hong Kong have been inventing flavoured ales inspired by local delights such as Haw Flakes (small and sweet biscuits made of hawthorns) and preserved lemons (lemons marinated with salt used in drinks provided in Cha Chaan Tengs). Cocktail bars in Hong Kong have also begun to utilize local ingredients in their creations. While these examples are still fundamentally products of western culture, they introduce a local flavour into the culinary culture Hong Kong.
Hong Kong cuisine around the globe
While Soy Sauce Western Cuisine has mainly stayed within the territory of Hong Kong, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a global phenomenon through which Hong Kong’s culinary culture is getting the attention it deserves. The locally crafted gin mentioned above has been nominated, and received, international recognition for its quality. In addition, a cocktail bar in Hong Kong that actively incorporates local ingredients in their creations has been hailed as one of the best cocktail bars in Asia for years.
As renowned as these Hong Kong beverages are, the prime example of Hong Kong shining on the global stage of food and drink has to be the infamous Bubble Waffle. While sharing the name and the main ingredients of the beloved Belgian dish, these egg-shaped waffles were given birth to in Hong Kong. Aside from the fact that the treat emerged in the 1950s as a snack served by street vendors, the exact origin of the Bubble Waffle is hazy. A popular theory is that the waffles were created simply to use damaged eggs – the eggs being worked into a batter before being poured into an egg-shaped mold. Ever since then, the humble Bubble Waffle has been one of Hong Kong’s go-to street snacks.
With its crispy exterior and fluffy interior, the Bubble Waffle has not only gained the love of HongKongers but also many from around the world. Brought to foreign countries by entrepreneurs who had tasted and loved the snack, the treat is now sold in a wide number of countries around the world, countries as diverse as the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and Poland. In 2018, a restaurant serving Bubble Waffle was officially invited to offer this Hong Kong delicacy in the Super Bowl final in the United States…
Compared with Soy Sauce Western Cuisine, the example of how the Bubble Waffle thrives overseas demonstrates an example of the continual creolization of cuisines. While these foods originally came to subvert colonial hierarchies, the fact that these foods are now making a global impact means that they are transcending such a history. If, as suggested by Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism (1995), identity can be represented by “the mundane attachment, the gentle, comfortable sense of belonging, which is low key, taken for granted, but immensely sustaining,” then the Bubble Waffle is just such an object. I would gladly have a dish of chicken fillet in soy sauce with rice for dinner, paired with a dry martini made of a locally crafted gin in Hong Kong (perhaps save the Bubble Waffle for another day) and call this seemingly absurd pairing of food representative of myself.
Wayne Kwong completed his master degree in English Studies at the University of Hong Kong and is currently working at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is interested in postcolonial literature, Hong Kong literature in English and food studies.