Chicken Noodle Soup in Hong Kong
We pull up grey plastic chairs and nod to the other diners at our table as the waitress hands us two menus.
Pointing to a photo of a bowl of noodles, we smile apologetically, hoping this translates to a friendly, “Chicken noodle soup and milk tea, please.”
Just hours ago we’d left London with teary goodbyes, 30-pound bags strapped to our backs and one-way tickets in our pockets. Our first walk through Mong Kok, a busy Hong Kong neighborhood, led us here, to a cha chaan teng (tea restaurant) for breakfast.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, these 24-hour diners are all over Hong Kong, serving up affordable comfort food to locals. They came about in the 1950s as Western dishes became more popular, and they serve a unique type of fusion food. As well as traditional noodle soups and stir-fries, their menus are filled with Hong Kong-style Western dishes, like French toast with peanut butter and macaroni-and-spam soup.
With its strip lighting, plastic furniture, and clattering plates in the kitchen, a cha chaan teng is not the place for a leisurely meal. The suited patrons all have their heads down, eyes on their food. Out the door ten minutes after they entered it, breakfast done and off to work. This may not be the best food in Hong Kong, but it’s fast and it’s cheap.
Our food arrives in two minutes. Strong, milky, sweet tea and bowls of light broth with vermicelli noodles, cabbage leaves and a couple of fried chicken wings. Grey mushrooms float to the top. They look bland and unappetizing but have a surprisingly strong, earthy flavor. And, most importantly, they’re easy to eat.
“Um, how do you eat chicken wings with chopsticks?” I whisper across the table to Colin, my partner in crime on this adventure.
“I have no idea.”
The woman next to me glances over as I use my chopsticks to grapple with a chicken wing. A year and a half later, this wouldn’t bother me. But on our first day, jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I decide to just focus on the rest of the dish to avoid embarrassment.
It might have been awkward, we might have sat at the wrong table and not known to rinse our cutlery with the pot of tea and asked for the bill when we should have paid at the cash register, but as we leave our smiles are wide. We are finally here and this is just the beginning.
Read more of Yasmine Awwad’s work here.