Earlier this week we launched a ’zine called IYKYK dedicated to Cha Chaan Tengs, Hong Kong-style cafes that are also found in major cities across the world with sizable Cantonese-speaking populations. Cha Chaan Teng literally translates to tea restaurant, but these spots feature a unique mix of Chinese and Western dishes, due to British colonization and the country’s history of being a major port city in Asia. So while you can grab a bowl of congee or wonton noodle soup, you’ll also find instant noodles with spam or a casserole made with rice, tomato, and cheese at cha chaan tengs.
Growing up, this was my comfort food. My dad, who hailed from Hong Kong, would make fluffy scrambled eggs and ham on crustless white bread for breakfast or macaroni soup with lettuce, peas, and carrots. Once I was old enough to appreciate the taste of caffeine, he’d also tack on strong black tea with condensed milk, sometimes mixed with coffee. And even though plenty of these dishes were easy to cook at home, the more involved ones (like the cheesy Portuguese rice casserole) were best eaten in Chinatown at a Cha Chaan Teng.
These days, I’ll make some of the classics at home, as a quick meal in between Zoom meetings. It’s nostalgic, comforting, and the closest I’ll get to eating in a real Cha Chaan Teng, at least until it’s safe to travel again. Read on to see what staples you’ll need and if you want a deeper look, check out IYKYK. It’s full of beautiful photos, illustrations, and interviews about the Hong Kong cafe experience.
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To Make Hong Kong Cafe-Style Milk Tea
I love starting my morning with a cup of this sweet yet strong drink. You can make it with black tea as the base but there’s also the yin yang version which is 50% black tea, 50% coffee, and condensed milk.
Tea snobs might look down at Lipton, but it’s the easiest way to recreate the milk tea you’d find at Cha Chaan Tengs. The actual process of brewing the drink involves using a special filter and steeping it in a specific teapot before adding in condensed milk. It usually requires years of training to create the perfect, creamy cup. Using tea bags is an acceptable shortcut. If you want to make it the way my dad does, double or triple up the bags to get it strong enough to stand up to the condensed milk.
If you want the authentic Hong Kong milk tea experience and want to attempt to brew it the way the masters do, try this blend of leaves. It’s finely ground and meant to be used with a cloth filter, to get the proper dark and bitter flavor you’d expect from the drink.
While this says it’s for Thai tea, you can also use it for Hong Kong milk tea. Place your leaves into the bottom and pour boiling water over it. The cloth bag should be set into a tea pot to steep.
And here’s the tea pot you’ll commonly find in Cha Chan Tengs. You can also use it to make coffee.
There are several brands of condensed milk you can use but Black and White is the go-to one in Hong Kong. I’ll use it in my coffee and tea but it’s also delicious spooned over toast.
When your tea is steeped, pour it into this classic red cup and saucer. The pattern is one of the most recognizable and I’ve yet to find a Chinese household that doesn’t have a plate, bowl, or cup with this design.
If you don’t want to get the full set up to make milk tea, this cup and infuser set is an easy way to make milk tea or any other hot beverage.
To Make Macaroni Noodle Soup
When I’m feeling off or just in need of something warm, I’ll make this dish. It starts with a base of chicken broth or hot water and some sort of delicious MSG-based bouillon cube. Add in elbow macaroni, frozen peas and carrots, a handful of iceberg lettuce, and some thin slices of spam. Let it all boil up, finish with a drizzle of sesame oil, and you have a meal that takes about 15 minutes from start to finish.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that elbow pasta was actually used by non-Chinese people for macaroni and cheese. In my household, you always kept a package for tong sum fun aka macaroni noodle soup.
For people who don’t get Spam, let me say this: You’ve never had someone prepare it correctly for you. I’ll add a few thin slices to ramen and or noodle soup and it adds a fatty, salty flavor that beats stringy, dry bits of chicken any day.
The Best Instant Noodles for Cha Chaan Teng Dishes
While there are a ton of delicious instant noodle brands out there, Nissin is the one you’ll find at Cha Chaan Tengs.
Sesame oil is the classic, mainly because the flavor is simple enough that it’ll serve as a base for dishes. You can eat it plain but you’ll see Cha Chaan Tengs play around with toppings ranging from fried eggs to veggies to roast pork and more.
One of my favorite Cha Chaan Teng moments was in Hong Kong at Tsui Wah, where I had a bowl of beef flavored instant noodles with sliced hot dogs and an egg. I was jetlagged at 6am and it was exactly what I needed to get me through a day sightseeing with my in-laws.
Other Easy Cha Chaan Teng Drinks
Milk tea is the go-to beverage but there are other drinks that speak to the European influence on Cha Chaa Tengs like Ovaltine and Horlicks.
With its chocolatey flavor, this drink is a popular menu option in Cha Chaan Tengs. The European version is the closest to what I grew up drinking and it’s less sweet than the American version.
Nutty and soothing, Horlicks is the hot beverage to have when you’re not in the mood for tea or coffee. It’s almost like drinking toasted rice flour, except sweeter.
The Plates And Spoons To Set The Mood
Even if you’re ordering takeout and not making any of these dishes, you can recreate the experience with some plates and spoons.
Cafes in Hong Kong will serve wonton noodle soup in these large bowls. Whenever I order that dish for takeout, I’ll always replate it in a large bowl for easier slurping.
Speaking of slurping, these spoons are the perfect size for the proper wonton to soup ratio.
Cha Chaan Tengs aren’t ones for fancy dishware – you’ll actually see red trimmed plates and bowls that are similar to these on Amazon. While they’re sold out at the moment, the blue ones are also an acceptable substitute.
Regardless of which color you choose, the move is to order some chow fun and replate it on one of these guys. And if you wind up chipping them, don’t worry – these are meant to show wear and tear.
To match the cup from above, these bowls are also a staple in households and restaurants for rice or soup.
Order the 'Zine
Want to learn more about the Cha Chaan Teng experience? Our ’zine is full of beautiful photos, illustrations, recipes, and more. Plus, a portion of sales will benefit Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots initiative developed to support Chinatown businesses and amplify community voices that generates much needed momentum for the preservation of one of New York City’s most vibrant neighborhoods.