What is yummy, mouth-watering, and a sight to behold? No, not me, weirdo. I’m talking about Hong Kong street food.
In Hong Kong, the gourmet mecca of Asia, you’ll stumble across hundreds of restaurants and dozens of cuisines on a daily basis. However, one cuisine that many travelers tend to overlook is street food. Sure, street food may be sold everywhere — from street side stalls to the carts of legally-questionable hawkers — yet, you can’t help but wonder: is street food hygienic? What do you order? How do you even order?
Well, let’s start with the daunting question of ‘how’.
How to Order
The hardest part of the process is not in what to say when ordering, but in knowing when to order. Unlike our beloved McDonald’s, street food vendors are a bit chaotic. There’s no specific order or pickup points; you order and get your food from whoever is kind enough to meet your eye contact.
The most common faux pas is ordering before establishing eye contact with a vendor. If they’re not looking at you, then they’re busy, so don’t shout or wave shiny new bills in their faces. Also, make sure you know what you want ahead of time as you will not have time to think and ponder once it’s your turn to order.
Like many local eateries, the English comprehension level of street vendors tend to be rather limited, so you may need to play a little charades in order to, well, order. We’ll teach you some Cantonese words for food, but don’t be afraid to use your fingers and point!
As for what to order, a good rule of thumb is to pick whatever looks most appealing to you and pray it tastes palatable. For your consideration, here are some of the most common street foods you’ll see people ordering.
Curry Fish Balls & Siu Mai
There are two items that all vendors carry, the first being curry fish balls (咖哩魚蛋, ‘ga lei yu daan’, or just say ‘yu daan‘). Made from fish paste and cornstarch, these delicious little balls are simmered in curry sauce, giving it the iconic golden hue.
One popular measurement used among locals to judge fish balls is how ‘daan ah‘ (彈牙, literally meaning ‘bounce tooth’) a ball feel. For whatever reason, it’s commonly believed that a fish ball’s ‘bounciness’ is directly correlated with its quality. The bouncier, the better. So the next you eat a fish ball, be sure to bounce it off the ground first. If it bounces, shout ‘daan ah!‘ (I’m just kidding, please don’t.)
Fish ball are sold in two forms: as skewers of five fish balls ($6HKD), or in cups ($10HKD for small, $20HKD for large).
The second universal item sold by street food vendors is siu mai (燒賣, well, ‘siu mai’).
Unlike the ones you’d find at dim sum, which is made from pork, the street food variety is smaller and typically made from fish. Siu mai’s taste rather plain, which is why you’ll find condiments available for use at the counter. Splash in soy sauce and a dash of chili and you’ll understand why siu mai is such a popular staple. And in case you’re wondering — no, the bright yellow skin is not the result of some failed super-soldier experiment, but simply the addition of eggs.
Like fish balls, siu mai also come in both skewer and cup form.
Pro Tip: You can knock out two birds with one stone by buying both fishballs and siu mai mixed together. Just ask for ‘yu daan siu mai‘!
Deep-Fried Pig Intestine
Next up is a local favorite that maaaaay not sit so well with the Western palate: deep-fried pig intestine (炸大腸, ‘jaa dai cheung‘).
These oddly-colourful pig intestines are fried just long enough so its outside becomes crunchy while its inside remains soft and chewy. They are fried to order, and many vendors will let you pick out the skewers you want.
Trust me when I say that pig intestine sounds a lot grosser than it really is. I’ve seen people flip out, but it’s truly not so bad. Maybe its my Asian side talking, but I actually find pig intestine pretty darn addicting, especially when spiced up with sweet sauce and mustard.
Pig intestines are sold in skewers at around $12HKD.
For the even more adventurous, I give you beef offal (牛雜, ‘ow jap‘).
Beef offal is similar to pig intestine, only with more variety. Along with intestines, other goodies such as tripe, liver, lungs, pancreas, and who-knows-what are simmered in an equally-as-mysterious brown sauce known simply as ‘master stock’. These meats are then cut up and served as a skewer or in a cup. Sweet sauce and mustard can also be added to your liking.
Compared to other street foods, beef offal is a bit of a delicacy — meaning the price is higher as a result ($10 to $30 HKD for a cup). Beef entrails may sound really, really gross, but give it a shot because this is something you will never ever have the patience to prepare at home.
Pro Tip: If you’re new in town and have yet to adapt to the hygiene standards of Hong Kong, maybe give entrails a pass for now.
Noodles in a bag, eaten with two skewers in place of chopsticks (probably because stalls are cheap to afford real chopsticks). Of all the street foods in Hong Kong, cold noodles (冷面, ‘laan meen‘) is the one that’s going to make you look most like a peasant.
Appearances aside, cold noodles is fantastic. Your choice of toppings and pre-cooked noodles — all of which cost a flat rate of $2 to $4HKD per baggie — are tossed together and mixed with garlic, sweet sauce, and chili. The result is this beautiful creation:
I’ve been made fun of over cold noodles as some locals apparently view it as a poor man’s meal replacement rather than a snack — but whatever, man! Don’t let anyone peer pressure you out of the glory of cold noodles.
Cold noodles are generally not sold by regular street food vendors, so you’ll have to keep an eye peeled for stalls with refrigerators of noodles. One popular option is 百味食品 (no English name, believe it or not), with one location on the ground floor of Argyle Centre in Mong Kok, and a second in front of CTMA Centre (also Mong Kok).
Pro Tip: I didn’t know this for the longest time, but you can actually order multiple bags of noodles as each portion is rather small. I like to go for 2 bags of noodles and 3 toppings, which runs me a cool $20.
Now and again, you’re going to come across a strangely pungent scent that’s going to make you speed up in an attempt to outrun its reach. No, not your friend’s sweaty feet – it’s stinky tofu (臭豆腐, ‘chou dou fu‘).
Marinated in a brine containing more ingredients than I care to name, the tofu is left to ferment and fried to order. According to locals, the worse the tofu smells, the better it tastes.
Speaking from limited experience, it doesn’t taste bad – in fact, it doesn’t taste like much at all. I recall being fairly underwhelmed when I first tried it. The trickiest part is being able to get past its smell.
Due to its long preparation process, stinky tofu is also slightly more expensive than its street food companions, usually costing $10 HKD a cube. Stinky tofu can also benefit from a squirt of sweet sauce, mustard, and/or chili.
Everyone loves a good egg waffle (雞蛋仔, ‘gai daan jai‘). If you haven’t had one yet, you are missing out. Go and get one. Now.
Egg waffles are typically made-to-order as it’s as simple as pouring pancake batter into specially-molded pans. Done right, it results in crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bubbles that you can peel right off. Some stores have gotten experimental and now serve egg waffles in various flavors, such as taro, chocolate, or sesame, but the original is still the king.
A bag of egg waffle costs around $15HKD. To know if a street food vendor serves bubble waffles, check for the pictured circular pancake pans.
Pro Tip: Green tea flavor sounds flawless on paper but tends to disappoint. Source: guy who has been burned too many times, aka me.
Wherever bubble waffles are sold, you’ll also find grid cake (格仔餅, ‘gat jai bang‘).
Grid cake is the same waffle we all know and love, but with a twist — it’s fold in half and jam-packed with butter, peanut butter, syrup, and condensed milk. In other words, it’s sweet-tooth heaven.
Like egg waffles, grid cakes are also sold for around $15HKD.
Fried Chestnuts, Sweet Potatoes & Quail Eggs
It’s simple, it’s tasty, and it’s damn hard to find.
Fried chestnuts (炒栗子, ‘chow lut jee‘) is our most elusive street food yet as it’s only available during the winter. When the time comes, you’ll find hawkers set up across the streets of Kowloon, roasting these babies away in a giant wok. Aside from sugar, no other spices or sauces are used to fry the chestnuts, making these also the healthiest street food in our guide.
Beside the wok of chestnuts, you’ll see roasted sweet potatoes (烤番薯, ‘hao fan shh‘) and salt-baked quail eggs (鹽焗鵪鶉蛋, ‘yeem goh um chung daan‘), both of which are also worth trying.
Chestnuts are sold for about $20HKD per pound. Similarly, sweet potatoes range from $15 to $20 per potato. Quail eggs, on the other hand, will run you $20 for a strangely arbitrary amount of 16 eggs.
And that wraps up our Almost Everything You Need To Know About Hong Kong Street Food guide. Have you gone out to try beef offal yet? Did I miss any major street foods? Chat with us in the comments!
Featured image: flick/hjwest