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Hong Kong is home to some of the world’s best dining establishments. With 62 Michelin Star restaurants, there is brilliant high end dining to be found in the city. But that’s not the experience I like to seek out when traveling (okay, maybe once in awhile for a special occasion). Instead, I much rather look for the hole in the wall, where the locals go to eat. That is exactly what we did, but I soon found out there’s a bit of a learning curve to it.
I grew up in a Cantonese household. The things I ate as a child are aligned with much of the Hong Kong diet. Vancouver also has the great fortune of having a large Chinese population allowing easy access to cheap and tasty Chinese food. While I knew what I was getting myself into in terms of food and the dishes, but I really had not much frame of reference for the actual experience itself.
I should preface this by saying that these notes don’t apply to all restaurants. There are many places that follow the typical western restaurant experience and you won’t have to worry about any of this, but on the off chance you wander into a more traditional Hong Kong restaurant, you’ll be prepared and won’t be left shocked (and confused) by the whole experience.
In this post, I’m mostly talking about small restaurants, usually specializing in one thing. The space is small and most people just go to eat something tasty and move on with their days. You can also get a similar experience in Hong Kong’s cha chaang tang’s or Hong Kong Cafés. So here goes:
1. Order fast, eat quick & get out
All the rumours are true – there is no such thing as service in most Hong Kong restaurants. Restaurants expect you to know what you want to eat, to slurp it down quickly and then move on. The faster they turn tables, the more money they can make, at least so goes the thinking. Some restaurants will have a line out the door. Use this time to check out the menu so you know what you want. The last thing you want is an annoyed Chinese lady clucking her tongue at you because you don’t know what you want.
2. Be prepared to share tables
In an effort to maximize restaurant space, many places will ask you to share tables. They’ll ask you how many people and when theres space for your whole party, you pull up a stool with others. It’s a little awkward at first. Space is at a premium and you’ll probably end up knocking elbows with your neighbours.
3. Most places specialize in one thing
There are a lot of really small shops throughout Hong Kong who only specialize in one thing. If you want beef brisket noodles, you go to Kau Kee. If you want BBQ goose, head to Yat Lok. Shrimp roe noodles? Then you visit Lau Sum Kee. These places do one thing only and they do it well. It’s the only way they’re able to survive for so long. So go there and get what they specialize in.
4. Pay at the door and use cash
After you place your order, your order receipt will appear at your table, typically slipped between the table and the glass put on top of it. When you’re done, you don’t need to ask for the bill. Just take the slip of paper and pay at the door. There’s usually a person sitting behind the cashier (you can see the lady in the photo above). Also, make sure you have cash on hand. The vast majority of restaurants will only accept cash.
5. Chopsticks and other utensils to the side
You’ve ordered and your food comes to your table at lightening speeds. But where are all the utensils? They’re all in a built in drawer to the side and under the table. Open it and you’ll find chopsticks and anything else you may need. You really don’t need to talk to anyone.
However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the waitress will drop off a large soup bowl of hot water full of your bowls and chopsticks. Use this as an opportunity to rinse off your own cutlery before using it.
6. Bring your own napkins
Most restaurants don’t offer you napkins or if they do, they charge you for it. Be prepared and carry your own (you’ll probably need it for the washroom anyways). You can also use these napkins to wipe down your utensils and bowls before eating.
7. Squat toilets
Speaking of washrooms, most traditional places don’t have a western toilet or even a toilet at all. You’re much more likely to find a squat wet toilet and whether or not there is toilet paper is a toss up. Either hold it or go find a McDonald’s or tough it out. But if you do go use a squat toilet, it really isn’t all that bad. Bring your own paper just in case though!
8. Expect bones
Unlike most of western cuisine, much of Chinese cooking is on the bone. The belief is the bone gives extra flavour and the best parts of the meat are sucked right off the bone. I have memories of fighting for the boney bits of meat as a child. So don’t be shy and get in there. There’s no such thing as being polite (unless you’re in a fancy restaurant and in that case revert back to normal).
9. What service?
As previously mentioned, there really is no service. No one will come by to ask you how your meal is or if there is anything else that they can get you. The wait staff will leave you alone unless you need something from them.
10. Have an open mind
As cheesy as it may sound, dining out in Hong Kong means having an open mind. There are things sold and being eaten that are just strange to the western palate. I grew up around most of these dishes so I don’t mind most of the stranger aspects of the southern China diet, but it can get a little intimidating for those who didn’t grow up eating chicken feet or pork blood. The experience in itself can be uncomfortable and unnerving with tiny tables and so many people squished around them.
Dining out in Hong Kong can be an intimidating experience, especially if you don’t know what to expect. Hopefully with these times you’ll have a better idea of how to prepare yourself. Embrace the craziness and enjoy yourself. The food is definitely worth it!
Have you eaten in Hong Kong? Did you find it strange?