The first night I moved to Hong Kong, I ordered delivery Korean fried chicken and ate it in my room. I cowered inside the bedroom of my serviced apartment, brought a steaming bag of food to the bedroom, lifted the lid of my spicy Korean fried chicken, and ate my first meal of Hong Kong out of cardboard boxes sitting in my bed.
That’s right. I went through the effort of creating an account on Deliveroo in a city with one of the highest density of restaurants in the world, because I was too nervous to venture outside of my room. I was literally terror-struck at the idea of eating and not knowing how to order, how much to tip, or how to be alone.
That was over two and a half years ago.
There’s no feeling quite like the feeling of freezing up when your meal is about to come to an end in a foreign country. You just know things are different here than back at home.
Do they tip here? How much?
Do I ask for the check or pay at the register?
Are they going to come by and drop the check or do I have to ask? How do I ask? Should I air-mime “writing” for the check – that’s universal, right? Or, is that just something I do and everyone is too nice to tell me to my face that that’s not actually A Thing?
Hong Kong has a diverse and richly varied food scene. If you want, you can eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant (of which there are over 80 in Hong Kong!), complete with open kitchens or white tablecloths and tweezered rose petals. There are plenty of French and Italian restaurants – complete with French and Italian service etiquette.
But those aren’t the restaurants that I’m writing about right now. I’m writing about your local cha caan teng: an extremely localized and fast-paced type of Hong Kong diner, serving affordable and eclectic meals to the population en masse.
I’ve lived in Hong Kong for over two years, but eating at one can still intimidate me. This is almost definitely because I have been coddled by plenty of elbow space, toothy smiles, and chirpy greetings in the USA.
Offsetting the intimidation, however, is your Google know-how. You should (most of the time), know more or less what exactly you’ll be eating as you sit down to one. Each cha caan teng usually specializes in a certain type of food – whether that’s a fluffy and buttery pineapple bun, a bowl of fall-apart-tender beef brisket noodles, or a plate of roast duck over rice with paper-thin skin. A quick glance at Google Reviews should show you exactly what you need to know. And if you have a lot of dietary restrictions, this isn’t the place the rattle them off (and not the place to risk getting sick!).
There are, however, certain aspects of Hong Kong dining that should make your experience at one go more smoothly. Here’s the roundup:
Prepare for a (Fairly Reasonable) Wait
The most popular cha caan tengs (Australian Dairy Company and Kau Kee spring to mind) almost always have a line forming 30 minutes before they open. Even though they can look intimidating at best and absolutely hellish at worst, the business models of cha caan tengs are built upon pure function and efficiency, so they move pretty quickly. Once the line’s moved enough so that you begin to approach the entrance, you’ll be asked how many people are in your party (it’s a good idea to have everyone present – they most likely won’t seat you if you’re not). Hold up your fingers and then wait until they call you in.
Tables, that is. In Hong Kong, you sit where there are seats. Remember when I said I was spoiled by space in America? Say goodbye to personal space.
Try not to recoil as the staff points you in the direction of a table of 6 seats already filled with 2 couples and a single dude, who scoot over politely to make room for you. One of my favorite amusements is dining alone and being seated at the designated singles’ table, where a round tabletop consisting only of solo diners showcase a series of people hunched over – heads in their phones – thumbs tapping away, heaps of rice and meat and bowls of hot soup steam wafting to their noses.
The protocol? You certainly can make friends, but I haven’t seen it done. Sit down and ignore your tablemates.
Wave Them Down
The unavoidably obvious thing is the sheer activity in a cha caan teng – the lines snake around corners, people shout orders out loud across the room, cleavers slam through bone and gristle with loud THWACKs. The staff have no time for you and they won’t come over unless you make firm eye contact with a wave. Water? Wave and ask. Menu? Wave and ask. Bill? Wave and ask (that is, sometimes. I get to this at a later point on this list). No one will come over with an overly gratuitous smile and ask “And how are we doing over here? Still working on that?”
If it looks like you’re done, they might whisk away your plate before you’re even ready – in which case, good luck getting your food to stay on the table.
Soak the Utensils Before You Eat
At some local cha caan tengs, you’ll be provided with a plastic jug of tea and a big empty bowl.
Rinse all of your utensils – the chopsticks, the spoon, the plate, the bowl, using the tea. There’s no real method to doing this, but you can watch others doing it around you if you’re not sure about doing it “right” (there is no right).
It may be kind of a hygiene thing (I mean, I’d personally still eat out of that bowl without rinsing it, but then again, I am also the person whom an ex boyfriend told me long ago that I “needed to up my hygiene standards” Needless to say that person is no longer in my life), but personally, it seems more of a cultural “it’s just what you do” thing for Hong Kong dining in cha caan tengs.
Bring Your Own Napkins
The more divey the spot, the less likely it will be that they’ll provide napkins free of charge. In Hong Kong, little packs of Tempo napkins are sold everywhere – in convenience stores like 7-Eleven, in grocery stores, and in some cha caan tengs (at a small extra charge of 50 cents or so). You won’t find neatly folded napkins at any of these tables. Bring your own to wipe your hands after sinking your teeth into a saucey soy-sauce chicken wing.
Leave When You’re Done
Eat and get out. Hong Kong is a city of long office hours, shops open until midnight, and instant gratification. You got your food in 5 minutes. Now leave as soon as you’re finished. Cha caan tengs are not places to have 2-hour conversations about Sean who now has a baby or Jessica who looks so different now.
Most have the social awareness to let the environment tell them what to do and leave even when they don’t know this implicit Hong Kong rule. Those that don’t – get glared out by the staff. I’ve personally never been told to leave by a staff member, but the line of hungry people outside should do more to get your butt of the stool and your feet moving towards the door.
Pay At the End
Right after you place your order, you might notice a staff member making several illegible scribbles and slam it on your table. This is your order. Usually it’s just a series of numbers (the prices).
At the end of your meal, take the slip of paper with your cash – cha caan tengs are almost always cash-only – and bring it to the cashier who sits near the front door. This is how you pay. Leave a tip of a few dollars if you want to, but it certainly isn’t common or expected.