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The hidden (and disappearing) food gems in Hong Kong

For a long time, I thought the best representatives of local Hong Kong food culture was the famous milk tea and buttered pineapple buns, especially the latter that I rarely saw anywhere in China but Hong Kong. 

Milk tea is made from super strong black tea and evaporated milk. The result is thick and creamy Hong Kong style milk tea.

milk tea
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 奶茶
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 奶茶
  • Pinyin: nǎi chá
  • Cantonese pronunciation: naai5 caa4
  • English (literally): milk tea

A pineapple bun is a sweet bun, but it has no pineapple in it. The name refers to the look of the uneven topping. Slit the bun open and insert a thick slice of butter, then it becomes a famous traditional snack.

pineapple bun with butter
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 菠萝油
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 菠蘿油
  • Pinyin: bō luó yóu
  • Cantonese pronunciation: bo1 lo4 jau4
  • English (literally): pineapple oil

My recommendation for anyone who wanted to experience some old Hong Kong traditions was used to be an afternoon trip to a Hong Kong-style cafe.

local restaurant in Hong Kong
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 茶餐厅
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 茶餐廳
  • Pinyin: chá cān tīng
  • Cantonese pronunciation: caa4 caan1 teng 
  • English (literally): tea restaurant

These restaurants are not very busy during the afternoons and always provide an afternoon tea menu. All restaurants offer milk tea and many offer pineapple bun with butter. For around 30 Hong Kong dollars, whether you like it or not, you can try a cup of milk tea and a crunchy buttered pineapple bun.

Now, besides milk tea and buttered pineapple buns, there are other traditional food gems in Hong Kong to try. 

They are quite hidden, at least for me, because I did not know their existence for over twenty years. And as soon as I found out about them, I realised that the reason that I did not know about them might be that they are disappearing. 

Food gem #1: Pudding cake with red beans

pudding cake with red beans
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 仔糕
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 砵仔糕
  • Pinyin: bō zǎi gāo
  • Cantonese pronunciation: but3 zai2 gou 
  • English (literally): small bowl cake

It is made mainly with rice flour and sugar, steamed in a small bowl. Those dark spots are red beans. When it is done, it’ll be taken out of the bowl and served with two bamboo sticks screwed into the cake. 

I had one. It was sweet, but not too sweet, which is what I prefer. The texture of the cake was soft while the red beans provided firm places for me to chew.

Food gem #2: Pluchea indica flat cake

luan xi bing
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 栾樨饼
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 欒樨餅
  • Pinyin: luán xī bǐng
  • Cantonese pronunciation: lyun4 sai1 beng2
  • English (literally): Pluchea indica cake

It is made mainly with rice flour, sugar and mashed pluchea indica leaves. 

What is pluchea indica? 

Luan xi (栾樨) is a type of plant, the official Latin name is pluchea indica. It has great medicinal value in traditional Chinese medicine, including detoxifying our body and warming up our stomach. 

Therefore, food made with this plant will also have these benefits. Take a look at the package (see below). The label says it removes hundreds of toxic substances.

luan xi bing package

That might be an exaggeration. But as it is printed on a package, I read it as an advertisement where exaggeration is common. It is like there are so many best Chinese programs, best learning Apps, best Chinese textbooks and best Chinese teachers around. 

Usually people have pluchea indica cakes around the fourth month of the lunar calendar, around May. This is when summer is coming and all kinds of things, including those toxic ones, begin to grow. These special cakes help us remain healthy.

I had two of them. It was also sweet, but not too sweet, and with a trace of grass flavour. In the middle, there was some filling, made with mashed lotus seeds.

Food gem #3: Piggy shaped biscuits

zhu long bing
  • Chinese characters (simplified): 猪笼饼
  • Chinese characters (traditional): 豬籠餅
  • Pinyin: zhū lóng bǐng
  • Cantonese pronunciation: zyu1 lung4 beng2
  • English (literally): pig cage cake

For people who have not studied any Chinese, their appetite could be destroyed completely by English translations. This is a good example. Who wants to eat anything related to pig cages?

Don’t be deterred by the English name. It is actually really good, a seasonal special for the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Many Chinese language learners have learned that moon cakes and seasonal fruits are the special food during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Hardly anyone know about these piggy shaped biscuits.

Before, moon cakes were all handmade. After all the fillings were used up, there was usually some moon cake dough left. Creative people would make the dough into many small piggy shaped biscuits and bake them.

Now people just make these biscuits for their own sake. 

When selling them, each biscuit is put into a basket, like this:

zhulong bing package

In Hong Kong, when people send good wishes, they often use 猪笼入水 (zhū lóng rù shuǐ), which literally means pig basket into water, which really means to get lots of money and to be prosperous. 

Therefore, a piggy shaped biscuit in a basket represents this wonderful wish.

These biscuits are moon cakes without the fillings. I had one and I thought it was marvellous, better than moon cakes. 

Because of the fillings, moon cakes can be heavy. Moon cakes are also huge. I feel guilty when I devour a whole cake all by myself. But the biscuits are small. There is no guilt.

Source of information

I must thank Jenny for the knowledge about these traditional food gems in Hong Kong. She is a life long learner and a yoga enthusiast, and is interested in a wide variety of things.

She said that there were fewer and fewer people making these traditional food nowadays and good ones were hard to come by. That explains partially why I did not see them. The other reason was probably that I did not know what I was looking at without some external help.

For people who wish to experience old Hong Kong, try milk tea and buttered pineapple in a local restaurant, and also keep an eye for these wonderful food items in small shops and old markets.

If you like them, please don’t forget to say “Thank you, Jenny!”