A guide to eating out in Hong Kong

The Chinese care about food with a passion that perhaps only the French can rival, and Hong Kong's residents are no exception. With a vast range of regional specialities, fusion dishes and international fare making it onto Hong Kong’s menu, here’s what you need to know
Assorted Chinese food set. Photo: Shutterstock
Assorted Chinese food set. Photo: Shutterstock

Places to eat in Hong Kong are extensive: find the best below. Photo: Shutterstock


For the Chinese, eating is a pleasure imbued with philosophical profundities: even the dead are offered food and wine to make their journey more peaceful. Restaurants are a place for family and social gatherings. Eating out is one of the main forms of socialising, and the Chinese usually eat in large groups. If Chinese hosts invite you to a restaurant, put yourself in their hands; they will try to order according to their impression of your tastes.

Chefs have a demanding clientele. All Chinese consider themselves gourmets and demand not only the best flavours but colour, texture and presentation to enhance the pleasure of the food. A real Chinese meal is orchestrated, and must contain a harmonious progression from sweet to sour, crunchy to tender. A Chinese banquet is a triumph of the well-rounded art of food.

You will find restaurants serving food from all over China, Asia and the world. The long-established Indian community means there are many excellent Indian restaurants; Thai and Vietnamese cuisine is well represented; and Hong Kong’s love of Japanese and Korean culture means there are some great places for sushi and Korean barbeques. Among the most popular international cuisines are Italian, French, Middle Eastern, Mexican and American-style steakhouses, and there are plenty of international and local fast-food and coffee-shop chains. Swiss, Austrian, Burmese, Ukrainian and African restaurants are some of the more unusual finds here. Vegetarians do not have an easy time in Cantonese restaurants as most Chinese chefs use chicken or other meat stock routinely in otherwise vegetarian dishes, but there are a growing number of dedicated vegetarian restaurants.

Meal times

Most hotels serve a breakfast buffet of Chinese and Western food from about 7 to 10am. At lunchtime business people pack the restaurants from 1 to 2pm. Dinner is between 7.30 and 9.30pm, but restaurants are flexible – many are open from early in the morning until midnight without a break.

A traditional Chinese breakfast consists of congee, a rice gruel or porridge to which almost anything can be added. At backstreet breakfast stalls you will also see the early risers digging into noodle soup with chunks of vegetable or pork.

Regional cuisines

Chinese food comes in half a dozen principal styles, all very different. In Hong Kong every major school of Chinese cooking is represented; restaurants have inherited recipes and brilliant cooks from all parts of China.

Cantonese

For visitors, this is probably the most familiar Chinese cuisine, as so many Cantonese emigrated, opened restaurants and introduced new tastes to diners in the West. Cantonese food is either steamed or stir-fried, cooking methods that capture the flavour of the ingredients as well as the colour and vitamins. A vast range of ingredients is used, and the flavours are many and often delicately understated.

A Cantonese seafood dinner often includes fresh fish steamed with ginger, spring onions and soy sauce, with a touch of garlic. Prawns steamed with garlic, clams with black bean sauce and scallops cooked with garlic are all popular choices. A green vegetable such as choi sum, bok choi or broccoli with garlic or oyster sauce is a good accompaniment. Soup is usually served towards the end of the meal – sweetcorn and crabmeat soup is one of the most popular. Steamed white rice is normally served with a Cantonese meal.


Bird nest soup: a controversial but popular dish in Hong Kong. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Chiu Chow

This regional cuisine from the Swatow region of southeast China excels in novel seasonings and rich sauces. Chefs also pride themselves on their amazing vegetable carvings that are part of every Chiu Chow banquet. Before and after dinner you will be presented with tiny cups of a strong and bitter tea, known as Iron Buddha.

Two very expensive Chiu Chow delicacies are shark’s fin and birds’ nest soup (but note that sharks have become endangered because of over-fishing). A typical dish is minced pigeon: the pigeon meat is minced and fried with herbs, and eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves. In Chiu Chow restaurants congee is often served instead of rice.

Beijing (Peking)

The Chinese emperors made Beijing the gourmet centre of the country, and Hong Kong’s Peking restaurants still present truly imperial banquets (ordered in advance) with everything from nuts to soup, in that order. Northern food tends to be richer than Cantonese food. Don’t miss one of the world’s most delicious eating experiences, Peking duck. The duck is honey-coated before roasting and is cut at the table. The celebrants put chunks of the crisp skin along with spring onions and a sweet sauce onto delicate pancakes, which are then rolled up and devoured. The rest of the meat is then taken away to be stir-fried with other ingredients and served as a separate dish.

Wheat, not rice, is the staple in northern China. Peking restaurants serve noodles and various kinds of bread, and also specialise in delicious dumplings, stuffed with meat or vegetables.

Shanghai

Shanghai food is an amalgam of a number of Chinese cuisines from surrounding cities. It tends to be more diverse and complicated as well as more thoroughly cooked than Cantonese. Chilli peppers, garlic and ginger are used in moderation. Freshwater hairy crab, imported from Shanghai in autumn, is steamed and eaten with the hands. Cold dishes are more popular too, and one essential dish is xiao long bao, a Chinese-style bun filled with a mixture of minced pork, ginger, spring onion and a spoonful of soup. Shanghai diners usually prefer noodles to rice.


A firm favourite is Peking Duck: duck served with cucumber, spring onion and hoisin sauce, wrapped in pancakes. Photo: Shutterstock


Beggar’s chicken

Some Beijing and Shanghai restaurants also serve a dish known as ‘beggar’s chicken’ thought to originate in Hangzhou. According to legend, the inventor was a beggar who stole a chicken but had no way to cook it. After tossing in some salt and onion, he covered the entire bird in a shell of mud, then roasted it on a fire. When the mud was baked dry he smashed the coating, the feathers came off with the clay and all the juicy tenderness of the bird remained. The recipe has become more sophisticated as mushrooms, pickled cabbage, shredded pork, bamboo shoots and wine are added to the stuffing. Now the chicken is served in clay at the table, and smashed on the spot.

Sichuan 

This food from southwestern China is chilli-laden and spicy. It produces such sharp, hot flavours that it first takes your breath away, then awakens your palate. Once the fiery shock of the garlic-enhanced chilli peppers has subsided, you can distinguish the many other elements in unlikely coexistence – bitter, sweet, fruity, tart and sour.

Smoked duck, Sichuan style, is marinated in rice wine, with ginger and an array of spices, then steamed before being smoked over a specially composed wood fire. Equally delicious is deep-fried beef with vegetables, a dish in which the meat and most of the other ingredients – carrots, celery, peppers, garlic – are shredded and slowly fried over a low flame.

Hakka

The name Hakka means ‘guest people’, referring to their migration to this region from northern China many centuries ago. Hakka cuisine involves the use of simple ingredients, especially versatile bean curd. Look for an ingenious dish called salted chicken; a coating of salt contains and increases the flavours while the bird is being baked.

Dim sum 

Late breakfast or lunch can consist of tea and dim sum, the small snacks that add up to a delicious and filling meal. Servers wander from table to table chanting the Cantonese names of the foods contained in bamboo steamers on their trays or carts. Choose whatever looks interesting – from spring rolls to spare ribs and dozens of different varieties of dumplings, including siu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), har gau (delicate steamed shrimp dumplings), and cha siu bau (little barbequed pork buns).


Dim sum in a typical bamboo steamer: a must-try food experience during your time in Hong Kong. Photo: Shutterstock


Drinks 

Since the beginning of the 21st century the Chinese have taken to drinking wine with enthusiasm. Red wines are the most popular, with French Bordeaux possessing the most cachet, but wine from elsewhere in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas is widely available. In an attempt to encourage more lucrative wine auctions to be held in the city, tax on wine was abolished in 2008, so prices are reasonable.

The Chinese have been making wine from 4,000 years and some mainland producers have entered into partnerships with foreign companies. The popular brand Dynasty is working with Remy Cointreau and is showing promise.

Other than wine made with grapes, rice wine and wheat-based wines are notorious for their alcoholic power. Mao Tai is a breath-taking case in point.

Tsingtao beer from China has a hearty European taste. You’ll also find a large selection of European and American brands, some of them brewed locally under licence.

The Chinese have been drinking tea for many centuries as a thirst-quencher, general reviver, and ceremonial beverage. Tea in China is drunk without sugar or milk, although ‘English-style’ tea is available. It’s worth making the effort to learn to appreciate the many varieties of tea and their histories. For a caffeine-free alternative, ask for hot chrysanthemum tea, brewed from the dried petals of the flower.

Practice with chopsticks 

You’ll lose face – and fun – if you don’t learn to use chopsticks to eat your food in Hong Kong. There’s no reason to feel self-conscious – the Chinese are tolerant when it comes to table manners.

Begin by settling the bottom stick firmly at the conjunction of the thumb and forefinger, balancing it against the first joint of the ring finger. The second stick pivots around the fulcrum made by the tip of the thumb and the inside of the forefinger.

Remember not to lay your chopsticks across each other, and never place them across the rice bowl, but rest them on the holder provided or against a plate.

Knives and forks are supplied in most restaurants. If it’s any consolation, many Chinese don’t feel quite at home with them either.


Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong. Photo: Shutterstock


Places to eat in Hong Kong:

In Kowloon: Dragon Seal
Address: International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon
Website: www.dragonsealhk.com

Located on the 101st floor of the ICC, this place has fabulous views of the harbour and city. The classic dim sum dishes with a modern twist are tasteful and well-prepared.

In Central Hong Kong: Masala
Address: 10 Mercer Street, Sheung Wan
Tel: 2581 9777

Close to Sheung Wan MTR, between Bonham Strand and Jervois Street, this tiny restaurant is worth seeking out for its extensive choice of Indian dishes at very reasonable prices. Modern décor and friendly, helpful service add to the experience. Favourites include bhindi masala, fish madres, tarka dhal and tandoori chicken; the set menus offer remarkable value; enjoy with the reasonably priced Australian wine, a cold Kingfisher or lassi.

In The Peak: Café Deco
Address: 1/F and 2/F Peak Galleria, 118 Peak Road
Website: www.cafedecogroup.com

Set at the top of Hong Kong Island for more than a decade, Café Deco’s open kitchen prepares international cuisine to please all tastes from steaks and seafood to made-to-share platters of Italian, Indian, Thai and Japanese favourites. Book ahead and be sure to request tables with the best views of Hong Kong.

In Wan Chai: Fook Lam Moon
Address: 35–45 Johnston Road
Website: www.fooklammoon-grp.com

One of the top Cantonese restaurants in the city. Seafood is the speciality. Also at 53–9 Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.

In Causeway Bay: Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine
Address: 10/F World Trade Centre, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2881 9966

This long-standing vegetarian restaurant has moved from a back street to a lively shopping mall near Causeway Bay MTR, and now has views of the harbour. Extensive choice of dishes including Buddhist-style meat ‘look alike’ dishes and Shanghainese classics like xiao long bao. The vegetable soup and fried noodles are especially delectable.

In Aberdeen: Jumbo Floating Restaurant 
Address: Aberdeen Harbour
Website: www.jumbo.com.hk

This huge floating restaurant with fantastic décor has long been a tourist attraction. The fare includes seafood and other Cantonese dishes. It is certainly overrated, but it’s a popular experience. There’s a free shuttle boat from the Aberdeen promenade.

In Macau: Clube Militar de Macau 
Address: Av. Da Praia Grande 795
Tel: 853 2871 4000

The atmospheric dining hall of the 1870 Clube Militar de Macau, with its high ceilings and arched windows, is a rare glimpse into the past. The extensive menu offers excellent Portuguese cuisine.

 

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