It was the sound of a quarter-inch thick china cup hitting the glass-topped wooden table, as my milk tea lands before me just three seconds after the waiter took my order.
My mind snapped out from my fuzzy morning daydream of fluffy bunnies jumping over lush green grass back into full awareness of the reality. It was brunch time on a muggy Tuesday morning, but with a slight change of scene from the usual relaxed cafes in Shoreditch – I was sitting alone, next to strangers in a small, cramped room lit by bright, yellow lights. An oversized, gold piece of calligraphy, a gift from a celebrity, was proudly displayed on one retro-looking, black-and-white tiled wall. Customers slurped their noodles, gulped down their tea, occasionally glancing up from their phones. Two waiters rushed around the tables, wiping down the tables after each customer, replacing the used cutlery with freshly washed ones, shouting orders to the sweating chefs in the open kitchen behind, dumping plates of breakfast food on tables and chatting in full-blown Cantonese. I was in Capital Café, a local café on a busy street in Hong Kong.
To be more specific, this café is a typical Cha-Chaan-Teng – a Hong Kong-style café. With that said, you can now ditch the stereotypical ideas of what a ‘café’ should be. Here, there is no overpriced coffee served in branded paper cups. Here, there is no good-looking baristas with suspected dyslexia. Here, there is no free Wi-Fi and no comfortable sofas with music blasting in the background. A Cha-Chaan-Teng is the place to fill your stomach with quick, affordable, truly Hong Kong-ese food. It is the place you’d go to when you finish work late at night, for an early morning breakfast or an afternoon tea at 15:15. It is the place where you eat surrounded by noise, and expect to be kicked out as soon as you’ve finished your meal. It is the place where you witness a food culture that has formed through many years under British rule, a tradition that has survived through many generations, a well-loved cuisine that answers the true needs, tastes and lifestyle of working class Hong Kong-ese people.
Let’s be frank. As a Hong Kong-ese raised by (slightly) health-conscious parents, I’ve ever only entered a Cha-Chaan-Teng three times in 21 years. Why? Because the menu would be shock horror to any nutritionist. Fruit and vegetables do not make an appearance, except for a slice of tomato or a cabbage leaf in a sandwich. The menu here, in the form of laminated sheets of paper tucked underneath the glass table-tops, was no exception. Breakfast: macaroni in soup with artificial ham, toast with peanut butter and condensed milk. No dim sum, by the way. Lunch: spam sandwich, spaghetti with barbeque pork. Afternoon tea: Deep fried French toast (a must-have Hong Kong-ese classic) drenched in golden syrup topped with a big slab of butter, finished off with a good cup of milk tea (extra-strong black tea with evaporated milk, an all-time favourite). No one cares about five-a-day, arteries or heart disease when you can get a filling meal for under 40 HKD (£4).
The black truffle scrambled eggs on toast on a flowery plate was dumped in front of me just like the others. This was what I came here for – an old-school café keeping up with the latest black-truffle-in-everything trend. The mountain of bright yellow scrambled eggs wobbled and shook on the inch-thick piece of white toast, with some specks of ‘black truffle’ garnished on top. I was so hungry by then, I grabbed my dripping wet knife and fork off the damp napkin and dug in. Yes, I paid the extra £2 for the non-existent black truffle (the black specks were just burnt carbon bits), but the scrambled eggs were the best I’ve ever had. Creamy, velvety-smooth yet light – the cheap, spongy white bread soaking up the golden river of deliciousness. I washed down each and every mouthful with milk tea – smooth and just the right amount of gip (a Cantonese word for bitterness).
As I headed towards the forever pissed-off-looking lady at the till by the door, my mind came clear of a truth. I needn’t the best sourdough, fancy French butter with a Clarence Court egg; it was the cheap bread, the most horrible service you could ever imagine in a rowdy environment for a taste of the authentic, delicious local breakfast, and reunited my taste buds with my roots.