Hong Kong restaurant Cantopop: Seeking a new definition of the cha chaan teng
What would Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin have made of Hong Kong's cha chaan teng?
The oft-quoted French gourmand famously wrote in 1825: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”
Today, I am having pork chop in black bean sauce on a bed of spaghetti with a side of French toast, accompanied by a glass of Ovaltine -- what does that make me, monsieur?
Prevailing trade winds, the spikes and valleys of population patterns and the postwar economic surge have each played a part in determining Hong Kong’s iconic purveyor of comfort food: the cha chaan teng.
Although the menu has its classic items, one defining characteristic of the cha chaan teng is continuous evolution with an anything-goes attitude. The latest development is in the form of Cantopop, a new restaurant on Queen’s Road Central that seizes on the “healthy cha chaan teng” angle.
A collaboration between the team behind Italian restaurant Posto Pubblico, and Margaret Xu, owner and chef at private kitchen Yin Yang, Cantopop is a reflection of their shared passion for sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients.
“What we’re trying to do here is give you comfort-style Hong Kong food that doesn’t make you feel bad after you’ve eaten, ” said Xu, who is also Cantopop’s executive chef. “Cantopop is an everyday Hong Kong restaurant that’s more environmentally conscious, fresher, and free of the junk.”
The menu at Cantopop is a mixture of re-imagined cha chaan teng staples, built on the notion that cha chaan teng cuisine is inherently fusion cuisine which is open to further interpretation.
Veronica Mak, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong agrees, noting that Tsui Wah has recently done its part in redefining the cha chaan teng yet again.
“Tradition is always an invention,” said Mak. “The cha chaan teng is an imagination of a certain kind of culture or a certain kind of culinary presentation.
“Is [Cantopop] a redefinition of the cha chaan teng or, to put it another way, is it the invention of tradition for a certain kind of interest?”
The tea room
Cha chaan teng translates literally from the Cantonese as "tea meal room," but like many literal translations, it is arguably a bit of a misnomer.
Yes, weak tea is exactly what you are first served when you walk in and the centerpiece of the meal is naaih cha (“milk tea”), a mixture of evaporated milk and strong black tea. It is Hong Kong’s de facto official drink.
But the menu at a cha chaan teng is breathtaking in scope. It’s not unusual for the food and drink options to number in the hundreds.
If there is any equivalent to the cha chaan teng, it is the venerable American diner. Yet the definition of a cha chaan teng is much more elusive than that of a diner since there are no tangible criteria that serve to classify it.
In the 1950s, shortly after they began to proliferate, cha chaan tengs were places where Hong Kong’s burgeoning lower-middle class could go to eat affordably and sample exotic “Western” foods interpreted to suit local tastes.
The typical food at a cha chaan teng, ranging from borscht to bo lo baau, is far from what one would label gourmet, yet in 2007, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council proposed that the government endorse the inclusion of cha chaan tengs on UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage.”
As Hong Kong continually seeks its cultural identity in the post-Handover era, the cha chaan teng somehow feels like an appropriate mirror.
It’s not quite Western and it’s not quite Chinese, it’s both traditional and modern, it can be chic in a drab sort of way and it provides a sense of nostalgia and historical continuity to the city.
"Clean" cha chaan teng
What a cha chaan teng does not necessarily provide, however, is a healthy eating experience. Canned meats and soups proliferate and MSG is usually the additive of choice.
High levels of sodium provide an in-your-face taste experience that has, for better or worse, become a selling point. One doesn’t go to McDonald’s to eat a Kobe beef burger and one doesn’t go to a cha chaan teng to eat sous-vide cha siu.
At least, we hadn’t thought so.
Cantopop opened to the public last Friday evening. We had the old cha chaan teng standby of macaroni, fried egg, and luncheon meat in broth.
Except, the macaroni is made in-house using a pasta machine from Italy, the chicken stock is made from scratch and is entirely free of MSG, the luncheon meat is freshly made, and the egg is sourced from a local farm in the New Territories.
In the parlance of Todd Darling and Robert Spina, the co-founders of Posto Pubblico, all the dishes on the menu use “ingredients with integrity.”
“This project allows us to make clean food accessible to more people than we had previously been able to reach,” said Darling.
Indeed, the majority of dishes at Cantopop are priced below HK$70, democratizing the Posto Pubblico experience and the restaurant space aims for mass appeal to a younger demographic. The low-slung plastic stools, Roy Lichtenstein-esque murals and statement butcher lamps make for a sort of whitewashed cha chaan teng for the hipster set.
The difficulty, however, in paying homage to a culinary tradition while attempting to simultaneously redefine it is that something must be conceded along the way.
In the case of Cantopop, the restaurant has gone out on a limb by avoiding the traditional crutches of MSG, high sodium and random sourcing of ingredients.
But by remaking the cha chaan teng into something new, the dishes become unrecognizable even as vestiges of their original forms.
After tasting a sampling of dishes on the menu, it’s difficult for us to categorize Cantopop as a cha chaan teng per se.
The sous-vide cha siu, for instance, lacks the salty and sweet burst of the cha siu you would find in a regular cha chaan teng. In fact, the Cantopop version doesn’t even really taste like cha siu at all.
The paradox is that this is precisely the point of Cantopop. It doesn’t offer cha siu. It offers sous-vide cha siu, made with ingredients curated with purpose and crafted with care.
So be warned: Cantopop is not your father’s cha chaan teng, although it might very well end up forging its own tradition. As with everything in Hong Kong, blink, and everything new is old again.
Cantopop UG/F, The L Place, 139 Queen’s Road Central, Central +852 2857 2608/2007 www.canto-pop.com