Even though I did not grow up in Hong Kong, I went there often as a child as my father’s side of the family is from there. One of my favorite places to eat was the Chinese diner or “Cha Chaan Teng” – essentially a “tea canteen” that served Cantonese street-food classics (bbq, noodles, etc) along with western food done Chinese style to Hong Kongers. My favorite meal that I would share with my grandmother would be soy sauce roasted quail (with a dark caramelized, crispy Peking duck-like skin and itty, bitty drumsticks that I’d gnaw on like Sylvester the cat), borscht soup (more sweet than sour), and chestnut paste layer cake – these were probably the most refined items on the menu which suited her Shanghainese tastes.
If I was craving comfort food, I’d dig into their baked rice or noodle dishes which essentially was a protein on top of starch drowned with a rich sauce and baked in the oven to perfection. So that means either ketchup fried rice or spaghetti noodles with baked pork chop in tomato sauce or, “portuguese chicken” which is basically a coconut curry chicken baked in rice. And to wash it all down, I’d slurp down either a HK milk tea (basically strong black tea with sweetened cream), ovaltine (the malty British iteration), or a red bean icee (tall glass with red beans, crushed ice and sweetened milk). I have a big sweet tooth so the intense combination of sweet and savory and more sweet put me in my happy place. Also the fusion of east and west, kid food (noodles plus ketchup, ovaltine) and grown up food (Cantonese classics and baked rice) all mixed up – is both a reflection of my identity and palate so there’s a certain gastronomic synchronicity that makes me feel just at home.
Sadly some of the Hong Kong diners in LA are pretty C-level – cheap ingredients and a bit too reminiscent of microwave dinners or super late night Denny’s level eating. If anyone has tips on a taste of Hong Kong diner food in LA that can bring me back to the homeland, do let me know.
What kind of nostalgia food do you crave and why?
PHILIP: Omurice–it’s basically like a rice omelette with ketchup on top. My mom would often make it when I was a kid because it was fairly simple to make and my sister and I liked it. During the summers when we’d be home from school, she’d often make it and leave it for us to eat for lunch while she went to work so it brings back a lot of memories of those summer vacation. I’ll still order it once in awhile but almost always when I’m out late at night at a 24-hour Korean place like Hodori or Nak Won in Koreatown. For me, there’s no better time to experience nostalgia than the wee early hours of the morning when the rest of the world is asleep.
ALFREDO: Donuts with money inside. When my cousins and I were kids, our “Oma” (grandmother), on Three Kings Day, January 7 (as best I could tell, a kind of second Christmas for Germans) would bake about two dozen donuts, the kind with no hole in them, like a jelly donut. Only instead of filling them with jelly, she would bake quarters into 3 or 4 of them, and it was a mad scramble and eat-a-thon for me and my cousins to eat through to the lucky donuts. What I distinctly remember is that the dough immediately around the quarter would be green – something in the baking process probably released some carcinogenic heavy metals into the dough that were absolutely scrumptious. Now my own mom has not continued the tradition, unfortunately, worried about tumors and stupid stuff like that, but man, earning a quarter never tasted so good.
IRIS: I didn’t know they had Omurice in Korea as well. I love Omurice! I recently had a craving for a specific Hawaiian style spare rib that my mom used to make all the time. The recipe comes from the Honpa Hongwanji Temple’s “Island Cookery” cookbook (which I inherited). It’s similar to adobo but with ribs instead. I don’t know what it is, but the meat falls right off the bone & it’s so delicious! I actually prefer these ribs over dry rubs or barbecue sauce. And of course, when I go to Hawaii, one of our first stops is always Leonard’s for malasadas. When I was little, we used to stop at the food truck in the Safeway parking lot (way before food trucks were popular) and pick up a bag of the sugar-coated goodness.
PHILIP: Yup, all us Korean kids enjoyed omurice, but of course, if you asked our parents, it was a Korean dish, not Japanese 🙂
ROGER: My food nostalgia tends to run on the basic notion that if I had it and loved it as a child, I find comfort in eating it today as an adult. Those things are – Domino’s Pizza (pepperoni and mushroom), In-N-Out Burger (Double Double with raw onions), Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni from the can, Beef Bowl (chicken, beef, vege combo), and dim sum pork spare ribs. It’s a pretty simple list but every time I have any one of them, it takes me back to the warmth and idealism of my childhood. Oh, I forgot gummy bears. Loved my Haribo gummy bears. 🙂
BEVERLY: Mayonnaise on toasted white bread. Mom didn’t always keep butter in the house and I wasn’t (and still am not) allowed to use the stove so I toasted a lot of mayonnaise bread. I still love it. Can’t eat it as much (truly unhealthy) but I sneak them into my mouth once in a while. And life is good when I can have a halo-halo which is a Filipino dessert of shaved ice, sweet milk, and all the sweet beans and jellies and coconut strings and sweet corn you can find in your pantry and throw it all in there. Back in the 70’s before crushed ice became readily available, my family had a hand-held ice shaver which would require you to take a block of ice and literally sandpaper the ice off. Smoothest halo-halos ever. And… I’ve always called it ‘puto’ cuz that’s what my parents called it but I know that’s not the right name… I love those ‘rice cakes’ that are usually triangle or square shaped that you can get at a to-go dim sum joint. Sweet and gelatinous…. Ah!!!! And and and.. I think ‘silogs’ (Filipino breakfasts of various sweet meats on top of a mound of garlic rice and served with eggs…preferably over easy for me) are bombastic no matter what time of day. (Maybe not lunch. They make you sleepy. Lots of fat.)
EMMIE: Elaine, you sent me down a rabbit hole with this one. I went online and read write-ups of Taiwanese street food to stir my old-person’s memory. I love Taiwanese snacks b/c they remind me of childhood adventures (I want the food in its natural setting, though – I crave the visuals and foreign country experience).
Here’s an abridged list of stuff I will gladly stuff in my face anytime: scallion pancakes (so many layers, and you pull them apart as you’re eating), soft mochi with freshly ground peanut and sugar powder, douhua (sweet soup with soft tofu, cooked peanuts, and ginger, which you can eat hot or cold), rice sausages, ai-yu jelly (mainly b/c it’s so damn beautiful), ba wan (sticky rice pouch with delicious meat, bamboo and mushrooms inside), tea eggs (best and cheapest on-the-go food . . soy satisfying), freshly roasted sweet potatoes, pan-fried bao/dumplings, agei (deep-fried tofu pouches with noodles inside, sealed with fish paste – get it by Tamsui’s waterfront and eat it while watching fish doing acrobatics), sticky glutinous rice cake with chunks of taro, beautiful and colorful yu yuan (sticky rice balls flavored with yam, taro, tea, etc, in a sweet broth) from Jiufen, boba (somehow always tastes better over there), chewy bakery bread made with mochi flour, taro ice cream, a delicious taro dessert that I had in a random cafe that was the best thing on earth and I can’t for the life of me remember what was in it or where this cafe was.
Am hungry now!!