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In Chinese culture “Eating comes first" is a well-known saying, and it is no different in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers emphasize eating, therefore lots of different restaurants can be found. From Dai Pai Dong (Licensed food stalls) to local Cha Chaan Teng (Hong-Kong-styled restaurants), Hong Kong's restaurant culture is in many ways unique to Hong Kong.
Dai Pai Dong originated after World War 2, when there were many unemployed people in Hong Kong, causing the Hong Kong government to grant licenses for operating food stalls.
It was well-received by Hong Kong people, especially from the 1950s to 1970s. At that time they were not able to afford the high rent, so operating small food stalls on the streets was their only choice. This kind of food stall did not have enough space for customers, so fold-away wooden tables and chairs were placed next to the food stall.
It is a featured of low-income Hong Kong culture, since the usual locations are in alleyways and the proprietors are often slovenly dressed. Thus the environment of Dai Pai Dong is not visually attractive. However, due to the cheap price and the commoners' dining style, it is much loved by low-class citizens. The food in the Dai Pai Dong is quite unlike at the Cha Chaan Teng (see below). There are mostly Chinese-flavor dishes cooked in a big wok, hence the stir-fly taste is one of the selling points.
You can find traditional Dai Pai Dong stalls now in Sheung Wan area, and in the famous Temple Street Night Market, some Dai Pai Dong stalls are good enough to recommend too.
Ice houses are generally considered to be the predecessor of Cha Chaan Teng. In the 1960s to 1980s, Western culture was starting to influence Hong Kong, and Western food was served.
Ice houses gradually developed to serve the common poor people who could not afford the expensive restaurants. Snacks were served instead of main dishes, such as ice cream, red bean sundaes, coffee, milk shakes, and sandwiches. Ice houses have become part of local people's daily life. Air-conditioning was not common at that time, so many Hong Kongers ate in ice houses for a few hours to enjoy the cool environment. As Hong Kong gets very hot in the summer, ice houses were very popular.
Only few ice houses are left in Hong Kong, and the following has over 50 years of history:
Cha Chaan Teng are a kind of Hong-Kong-styled teahouse. They reflect how creative Hong Kong people are. For example, Hong-Kong-styled milk tea is a popular drink served in Cha Chaan Teng. It is made of black tea with evaporated milk. The chef would use a sackcloth bag to filter the tea leaves. As a result it is smoother and the flavor is stronger. It became a unique Hong Kong tea phenomenon. It has the renowned name “silk-stocking milk tea” because the milk tea is very smooth similar to the texture of a silk-stocking.
Apart from that, Hong Kong’s unique culture of east meets west is shown. In Cha Chaan Teng you can find a wide range of local dishes, such as fish ball noodles, as well as semi-Western dishes with rice and other food on top, like curry chicken rice and "Western" fried rice, due to the strong influence of Western culture brought by the British colonists.
Cha Chann Teng emphasizes efficiency: It is like a fast food shop that serves dishes quickly, which matches the hurried lifestyle in Hong Kong, and the customers usually eat fast as well, especially during rush hours.
In Cha Chaan Teng lower-class people, such as workers from construction sites, are one of the most frequent types of customers, due to the fact that Cha Chaan Teng are time-saving, low price, and big portion servers.
Visually they are not attractive, but that does not stop the middle-class or even rich people coming to enjoy their breakfast, lunch, or dinner, because Cha Chaan Teng is an established culture for Hong Kong people, therefore going there became a habit for many before they became better off. Hong Kong local restaurants have witnessed and survived the history of Hong Kong, especially the struggling economic conditions of the Hong Kong low wage era (the 50s and 60s).
Restaurants are significant for Hong Kong people because they serve as a perfect social gathering place. Local people enjoy meal in groups with friends and family. They can exchange greetings and chat with each other. Classmates gatherings share things that happened in school. Colleagues share work-related stories. Basically, restaurant-going strengthens the social communication between people.
It seems that Hong Kong local restaurants are not the top priority for the foreigners that they are for locals. Probably the main reason is that the menu is all in Chinese characters. However, traveling to Hong Kong without trying one of the local Cha Chaan Teng would be a big shame.