HONG KONG – From the East to the West, from Cantonese Dim Sum to Japanese ramen to Mexican burritos – Hong Kong the ‘Food Paradise’ gathers all the best cuisines from around the world.
But beyond their deliciousness, these local snacks tell the stories of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong-style French Toast:
Two fluffy pieces of white bread dipped in eggs, deep-fried to golden brown, with a small square of butter resting nicely on the peanut-butter filled bed of toast and drizzling maple syrup. Hmm yum, authentic French toast – or is it?
Despite being one of the most common and historical dishes in Cha Chan Teng (茶餐廳; “tea restaurant”), the Hong Kong-style French toast in fact came from the imperial kitchen during the British colonial era. Hence its local name “Western toast” (西多士), which literally means ‘toast from the West.’
The colonial period started with the occupation of Hong Kong Island after the Opium War in 1841. Hong Kong was a colony and dependent territory of the British Empire from then onwards until July 1, 1997, when the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom back to the People’s Republic of China.
Hong Kong was re-established as a special administrative region of China under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” to maintain its government and economic structure for a period of 50 years.
‘Western toast’ is not only a staple afternoon snack for Hong Kong people, but also a symbolic trait of colonial infiltration that shapes the culture of Hong Kong.
Cultural values about marriage and political resistance
Unlike the typical three-layer fondant wedding cake surrounded by white lace in the West, bridal pastries (gaa³ neoi⁵ beng² 嫁女餅) in Hong Kong are a lot more humble and simplistic.
The traditional wife cake (lou⁵ po⁴ beng² 老婆餅) is the most famous. The wife cake, also known as the sweetheart cake, features a thin flaky crust with a sweet, gooey filling of candied winter melon and almond paste.
Traditionally, the groom’s family would hand out bridal pastries to win over the bride’s family.
This showcases the normative conduct and dynamics between the groom and the bride, where the bride is expected to be reserved and the groom to take up the duty to provide for the family.
This also reflects how trust from the bride’s family is placed in the groom in traditional Chinese marriages.
Stepping out of its Chinese bridal identity, wife cake has also emerged as a symbol of political resistance in recent years.
Yuen Long, a northern district in Hong Kong famous for bakeries that specialize in wife cakes, was a central part of the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019.
Apart from its fame for sweetheart cakes, Yuen Long is known for another darker, bitter reason – its notoriety for being a hub for local gangsters known as ‘the triad.’
On July 21, 2019, ‘the triad,’ dressed in white T-shirts, rampaged the Yuen Long MTR train station, attacking passengers indiscriminately.
From elderly to pregnant women to children, passengers fled and called the police as soon as they saw ‘the triad’ coming towards them with baseball bats and metal rods.
But what turned the sweetheart cake factory into a bitter focal point for the protests was the police inaction to this onslaught of violence by ‘the triad.’ The shockingly late arrival of the police and their indifferent attitude to the brutality antagonized protesters and their hatred towards the police.
The tension grew when a formal request for a protest was rejected by the police. Determined to resist police brutality, protesters proposed large-scale ‘day trips’ to Yuen Long with the main attraction as ‘shopping for wife cakes’ as an excuse to occupy the district.
The mob attack, known as the ‘721 incident,’ not only marked a turning point for the protests against police brutality, but also helped Hong Kong protesters gain support internationally as well. The wife cake became a symbol of defiant Hong Kong protestors, as the gravity of eating a wife cake reminds them of that dark night in July.
Imitation Shark Fin Soup:
Hong Kong evolves from a tiny fishing village to a bustling city
Despite being one of Asia’s most dynamic cities, Hong Kong actually began as a small fishing village. In fact, Hong Kong was just a small fishing village for many years until the British rule in 1841.
Imitation shark fin soup, another street snack commonly found in local food stalls, is closely related to the city’s historic fishing industry.
The ‘shark fin soup’ sold by street hawkers does not actually contain shark fins. Instead, it contains cheap ingredients like vegetables and eggs, alongside various types of noodles to imitate the texture of shark fins.
The real shark fin soup is considered as an extravagant delicacy in Chinese culture, often reserved for guests in celebrations and banquets.
The high price for shark fin soup communicates wealth and prestige and reflects how the Chinese flex their wealth through luxurious cuisines.
But the general public and even the fishermen who collected the shark fins never get to have a taste of shark fin as they couldn’t afford it. And that is how the imitation shark fin emerged.
Street vendors collected the broken parts of shark fin discarded by high-end restaurants and cooked them with low-end ingredients like mushrooms, beaten eggs and seaweed.
Although it lacks authentic flavor, its popularity rose, especially among the poor. Although poverty has much improved since the ‘60s, many Hongkongers still enjoy imitation shark fin soup.
Despite its inauthentic origin, imitation shark fin soup has in fact become one of the most authentic local treats.
While these everyday treats in Hong Kong may be overlooked in the city’s hectic lifestyle, their significance is not to be forgotten by Hongkongers.
Joanne Yau is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.