Tasting the history of Hong Kong

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Hong Kong is a city for food lovers. From humble food stalls to Michelin guide restaurants, this metropolis is a gastronomic haven enriched by culinary history. Through the influence of colonial occupation and immigration, many renowned Hong Kong dishes host influences from abroad, fusing Western and Asian cooking techniques, ingredients and traditions together.

By exploring the origin of three of Hong Kong’s most famous national foods and drinks, we see the important relationship between food and history, celebrating the diverse flavours of Hong Kong and how the movement of people and cultures shaped the city’s food scene.

Egg Tart

A personal favourite, the egg tart is something you will find in every bakery (if you’re lucky enough to get there before they’re all sold out!). Whilst sounding rather off-putting, don’t let its misleading name trick you. With a pastry casing and custard filling, egg tarts provide a perfect ratio of sweet to savoury.

At first glance you may mistake an egg tart for a Portuguese pastel de nata, causing the common misconception that egg tarts have Portuguese influence. However, their similar look is merely a coincidence. Rather, the egg tart is a sweet treat enriched in colonial history, hosting both British and Cantonese origins.

The egg tart is derived from the English custard tart, which was brought to Southern China by the British in the 1920s. Cantonese chefs would observe how these custard tarts were made by their English counterparts, slowly adapting the recipe over time to better suit Chinese ingredients and taste. Whilst the English tarts used custard powder, this was not commonly found or used in China. Too expensive to import, Cantonese chefs had to modify the recipe, using egg, milk and sugar to make the filling instead. The pastry was also changed. Rather than using short crust pastry, Cantonese chefs opted for the more familiar flaky pastry, which they already used for dim sum dishes. Once perfected, these newly adapted tarts were consumed in masses by the Hong Kong working class population and have continued being enjoyed ever since!

Milk Tea

Hong Kong’s most famous and loved beverage! After your first sip, you come to realise why milk tea is so popular amongst locals and tourists. The rich, silky flavours come from only two ingredients: black tea and milk. Sounds simple? Not quite. Whilst containing few ingredients, the delightfulness of this tea is credited to its complex making process, requiring patience and precision. It is fair to say, attempting to make milk tea is no easy feat.

Milk tea is a product of Britain’s colonisation in Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. English tea was originally only for the wealthy, and served exclusively in Hong Kong’s Western hotels and high-end restaurants. However, after the Second World War, English tea became more localised, accessible to locals and adapted to better suit Hong Kong tastes.

Regular milk was replaced with evaporated milk for extra sweetness, and a stronger blend of tea leaves was used to better energise Hong Kong labourers who worked long hours and needed a stronger caffeine hit. One aspect that didn’t change was the continued use of Ceylon tea, which is still the predominant tea leaf used in milk tea. Brought to Hong Kong from Britain’s colonial tea plantations in Sri Lanka, this tea went from being exclusively drunk by white settlers to being drunk by every household in Hong Kong. To this day, Ceylon tea is still the most commonly drunk tea in Sri Lanka, resulting in Hong Kong and Sri Lanka sharing a similar flavour in both their favourite beverages! Affordable, accessible and delicious, milk tea became a comfort drink for many Hong Kongers, making it not just a trending beverage, but a timeless staple.

Pineapple Bun

Ironically, despite its name, the pineapple bun does not contain any pineapple. Instead, it is the bun’s yellow colour and sugary crust which resembles the outer skin of the fruit that influenced the name. A generous stick of butter is sandwiched in the middle of the bun, offering a satisfying saltiness to contrast the bun’s sweetness. It is fair to say, this bun is undeniably one of the unhealthiest (thus, most delicious) snacks you can find in Hong Kong.

The pineapple bun has an illustrious Mexican and Chinese history. Many Chinese citizens who moved to Mexico between 1890-1910 were forced to relocate after receiving deportation orders from the US government in the late 1930s. Attracted to the familiarity of the Western culture they experienced in Mexico; many chose to settle in Hong Kong. In an attempt to bring a bit of Mexico to their new home, the Mexican bun, concha, was introduced to the streets of Hong Kong. However, its popularity didn’t quite take off.

To satisfy the tastes of Hong Kong’s Western settlers, the concha bun was adapted into a more European-style pastry. The bun was no longer steamed or eaten for breakfast. Instead, it was baked to give a more Western taste that could be enjoyed with their afternoon tea. However, due to its popularity and affordability, local Hong Kongers were also able to enjoy the pineapple bun, resulting in nearly 3,000 rolls produced a day during the 1940s-1960s. Therefore, by drawing inspiration from the Mexican bun and adapting to Western taste preferences and cooking methods, the pineapple bun was born.

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