Guide to Cha Chaan Teng Food and Lingo
Hong Kong, which translates directly to “fragrant harbour”, is famous for its spectacular view. Even though the name now comes with a touch of irony – the Victoria Harbour isn’t too fragrant these days – we still can’t think of many things better than admiring the skyline with a drink in hand! Like any venue with a view to die for, the drinks don’t come cheap. But hey, they say that you only live once. A visit to any one of these places will make you see the city from a different angle. Check out these bars each offering glorious panoramas of the harbour and beyond.
In our city, you’ll find a cha chaan teng – local diners – on almost every corner you turn. Hongkongers grow up with the quintessential comfort foods found at these no-frills eateries, which are served at lightning speed.
Cha chaan teng can find its origins in post-WWII Hong Kong, where the colony became increasingly influenced by western culture. Western foods with a Hong Kong touch started finding their ways into bing sut (“ice room”), the predecessor of cha chaan teng which traditionally served iced drinks and snacks. Bing sut eventually evolved into cha chaan teng, casual dining establishments that combine elements of western dining with Hong Kong flavours. As a result, the food you’ll find at a cha chaan teng has a unique, east-meets-west taste that became the hallmark of local food culture.
If you’ve never been to one of these local establishments before, it can seem overwhelming. Diners are encouraged to order and eat pretty quickly, and the waitstaff don’t miss a beat. If you happen to be a non-Cantonese speaker, that represents another level of difficulty. But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to enjoy the delicious foods on offer at a cha chaan teng; here, we’ll detailing Cantonese words for classic cha chaan teng food that you should order – plus some tips for good measure. Check out a list of recommended cha chaan tengs at the end of the page.
Cha chaan teng, “tea restaurant”
First and foremost, a cha chaan teng literally means “tea restaurant”. Obviously, tea is an important component of the cha chaan teng, so make sure you order one to go with your dishes.
Nai cha, “milk tea”
Hong Kong-style milk tea is unlike any other variety of tea in the world. The creation is rooted in the black tea served during afternoon tea during the British colonial period. Hong Kong took the idea and made it the city’s own with the addition of condensed milk and evaporated milk, creating a thick, deliciously creamy consistency. Add dong before nai cha if you want it served cold.
Yin yeung, “a pair of mandarin ducks”
This drink is named after mandarin ducks, which in traditional Chinese cultural symbolises conjugal love. Altogether now: awww. The drink is actually a mix of tea and coffee, but don’t knock it until you try it. This unique creation mixes the two drinks together, resulting in an unusual combination that is sure to give you a caffeine hit. It’s sweet for the most part, with a very subtle bitter aftertaste.
Bo lo bao, “pineapple bun”
The name pineapple bun is slightly deceiving – the pastry itself doesn’t contain any fruit. The bun is so named because it resembles like a pineapple; it’s made with a mouth-watering light custard top crust and and sweet bread dough under it. It’s best eaten with a thick chunk of butter sandwiched in the middle and washed down with Hong Kong-style milk tea. Your body won’t like you for it – but your tastebuds surely will.
Sai dor see, “western toast”
Colloquially known as “western toast” in Cantonese, Hong Kong-style French toast is really something else. It’s basically two slices of deep-fried bread, coated in egg, served with copious amounts of butter when brought to the table, and drizzled in golden syrup by you, the diner, at the table. It is an incredibly sweet treat that tastes just as heavenly at breakfast, lunch, a post-dinner dessert, or during midnight munchies – basically any time of the day.
At a cha chaan teng, it’s all about speed, so it’s no wonder that staffers often use their own quick-fire lingo, which have infiltrated Cantonese vocabulary over the years. Try one of these at a cha chaan teng, and you’re guaranteed to be on the receiving end of some impressed looks.
Fei saa zau nai, “fly sand, walk milk”
Saa, “sand”, is slang for sugar and nai is milk. Use this when you order a coffee without sugar or milk.
Zau bing, “walk ice”
This means a drink without ice.
Hang gaai, “go out to the streets”
This means your order is for takeaway.
As you walk in, hold up your fingers indicating the number of diners your group has and gesture this towards a server. This will make everyone’s lives much easier.
During busier times, don’t be surprised to be seated with strangers. It’s all part of the cha chaan teng experience. FYI, if you’re ever wondering why you and your dining companion have been seated next to each other, awkwardly facing another couple – this is because when one of the parties is ready to leave, you won’t have to faff around letting people in and out, but leave in one fell swoop. See? Everything is about speed.
After the meal, you pay at the counter. Don’t forget to grab the slip containing your orders, which will generally be full of illegible handwriting and tucked away on your table somewhere.
You don’t need to tip at a cha chaan teng. In fact, sometimes, it is an unwelcome gesture. Staffers who work at the till also work at breakneck pace, so don’t stand there rummaging in your wallet – have your cash ready.
At your meal at a cha chaan teng, don’t expect world-class service. This is not always the case, but more often than not, cha chaan teng staff are impatient folks, looking to turn around tables as fast as they can. Welcome to Hong Kong!
Practice What You Learned
These legendary cha chaan teng are institutions that you should definitely pay a visit to.
A tad pricey these days after a complete revamp of its interiors, but Tsui Wah remains a mainstay nonetheless. Its flagship Central branch is open 24 hours.
Various outlets including 15-19 Wellington Street, Central, (852) 2525 6338
Mido Cafe has been around since the 1950s, keeping old-school details like tiled walls in tact. It was featured in iconic film The World of Suzie Wong among other productions and is incredibly popular with nostalgia-seekers and Instagram-addicted foodies. Its signature baked pork chop rice is a must-try.
63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei, (852) 2384 6402
Australian Dairy Company
Cha chaan teng Australian Dairy Company is famous for its eggs and milk/custard offerings. This illustrious establishment constantly sees queues extending all the way down the street, so time your visit wisely and hopefully you’ll get to dig into its legendary scrambled eggs.
47 Parkes Street, Jordan, (852) 2730 1356
Andrea Lo is a freelance journalist and translator based in Hong Kong. After cutting her teeth in the industry as a staff writer at a lifestyle magazine, she embraced the freelance life in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. She spends her time exploring the best of Hong Kong’s dining and nightlife scene, trialling new fitness trends, and travelling to exotic locales – all in the name of “research”.