The magical, inarguable appeal of Hong Kong-style diners.
By Lucas Sin as told to Emily Ng
This interview first appeared in IYKYK: And If Not, Now You Do, a limited-release deluxe print zine about foods you may not know about—or if you do know, to get excited about all over again. The premiere issue’s theme is cha chaan teng, or Hong Kong-style diner food, featuring a collection of art, recipes, interviews, and more. Already on its second printing one month after release, IYKYK is still available to order now, and a portion sales benefit Welcome to Chinatown to support Chinatown businesses.
Lucas Sin worked in restaurants in Hong Kong, Japan, Seattle, and New York before opening Junzi Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut. The fast-casual Chinese restaurant mini-chain later expanded to four more locations in New York, one of which transformed into American-Chinese restaurant Nice Day.
Cha chaan teng is the most important food to me of all time. I can’t stress that enough. I cannot tell you what my first experience of cha chaan teng was because I was probably an infant and it’s in my blood. When I was fucking starving as a 12 year old in church I just looked forward to eating cha chaan teng in Tsuen Wan outside of the church. This was the comfort food that I would turn to.
It’s worth mentioning my favorite cha chaan teng in the world is the Australia Dairy Company. All my friends in Hong Kong think I’m stupid because I like this place so much. It’s really an institution and has been around for a long, long time. I know for a fact that they don’t make the best scrambled eggs. They don’t make the best macaroni soup. But I like it a lot. It’s maybe 30 or 40 tables, and it’s staffed by 20 dudes. In the morning you line up for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, but by the time you walk through those doors you can put a timer on for 60 seconds and your order will be taken and the food will come out to you. They serve only this breakfast set to every single person who comes through those doors. It’s consistently excellent. I also like what the restaurant symbolizes because it’s a Hong Kong-style restaurant staffed by Chinese people that’s called the Australia Dairy Company and serves cuisine that is an approximation of European or British teahouses. It’s so emblematic of what Hong Kong stands for.
So much of cha chaan teng is based off of canned preserved goods like Knorr’s cream of chicken soup and MaLing or whatever the industrial Spam is that’s extra salty and circular instead of rectangular. If you don’t have those items, it’s kind of like opening a diner on the other side of the world without Heinz ketchup.
Cha chaan tengs are the best embodiment of Hong Kong-style Western cuisine. The food is like, “If I can’t get the fancy sauce, I’ll use ketchup. If I can’t use fancy cheese, I’ll use low-moisture mozzarella. I’ll make up my own way of making tea where I add a huge amount of milk to it instead of the way the Brits preferred it.” At the end of the day it comes from Hong Kong people wanting to approximate the luxury or the upper class-ness of Westerners in Hong Kong.
At cha chaan tengs, you have your own order, the very same way how Americans have their own diner order. I think cha chaan tengs should actually be called Hong Kong diners. They’re not tea houses. They have an insanely wide menu, but it’s actually only five things with different textures and forms. Hong Kong-style diners always have fairly uncomfortable furniture, and I don’t have a technical term for this, but it’s like paisley-adjacent patterns on foamy chairs with steel construction, and the floor is always a little slippery, for whatever reason.
I’ve thought a lot about cha chaan teng, especially during this pandemic because in a time of crisis, when you’re stressed and stuff, you reach for comfort food. I think there is an interesting West-meets-East intersectionality to cha chaan teng, and that type of cuisine resonates with people. It’s about super simple recipes that are treated with respect and cooked thoughtfully. It’s an amazing amalgamation of everything I care about, from culinary technique to comfort food to aesthetics, but also, more importantly, Hong Kong people reclaiming their colonial history and making something delicious out of it.
Favorite Cha Chaan Teng in NYC – M Star Cafe
Favorite Cha Chaan Teng in the world – Australia Dairy Company in HK
Photo: MengWen Cao.