January is traditionally the peak of winter in Hong Kong, and while the start-of-the-year cold snap has given way to balmier temps in recent weeks, there is no better time than the present to indulge in an array of traditional Chinese winter foods. From bubbling hot pots to clay pot rice and delicious dessert soups, there are a number of comfort foods that Hongkongers crave this time of year. Scroll down for our list of the most popular dishes to hunt down around town.
Snake soup (or se gang in Cantonese) is a staple in winter, sought out not just for its warming and detoxifying properties, but also as the slithering serpents usually store more fat this time of year from hibernation. The soothing broth is made from long-simmered bones, redolent with a variety of herbs and spices, and topped off with shredded snake meat (some say it resembles the texture of chicken). This traditional Chinese yang food (generating warm heat and energy) is said to have an abundance of medicinal properties, and can be enjoyed at popular shops such as Ser Wong Fun and Shia Wong Hip.
A quintessential Chinese culinary tradition, the popularity of hot pot has permeated all corners of the culinary universe; lucky for us, Hong Kong still boasts some of the best, thanks in no small part to the Cantonese’s love for all things soup-based. Hot pot restaurants here are a dime a dozen, but you will find quality across the board, whether it is a traditional establishment or a growing number of modern eateries touting unique ingredients and artsy decor. With Covid-19 fundamentally altering our dining habits this year, you can stay safe by seeking out individual hot pot joints, where everyone gets their own bubbling soup pot, serving utensils and sauces.
Tong Sui Dessert Soups
Less saccharine than their western counterparts, Chinese dessert soups (tong sui) are a wonderful way to cap off an evening of grazing and warm up when the temperature dips. Many Chinese-style dessert soups can be served chilled in the summer months or warm in the winter months—the latter suited for variations such as red bean, black sesame and taro sago with coconut milk.
Clay Pot Rice
Traditionally cooked over a charcoal fire to impart a wisp of smoke and a crispy bottom layer, there are few dishes as hearty and satisfying as Chinese clay pot rice. Nestled together in the earthenware vessel, the juices from the ingredients seep into the rice, infusing it with flavour as it develops a slightly charred quality, not unlike the crispy soccarat layer in paella. A fortifying one-pot meal, popular variations include chicken, mushrooms and lap cheong, and salted fish with minced pork, with budget-friendly to premium versions all around town.
Soya Beancurd Pudding
Silky and smooth, tau huay, or soya beancurd pudding, is a nostalgic treat for many Hongkongers, and makes for equally good breakfast or late-night supper fare. This traditional treat can be enjoyed both cold or hot—the latter preferable in the colder winter months. With an enjoyable melt-in-your-mouth quality, a good version is silky-smooth as it slides down your throat, lightly sweet and fragrant. The beloved dish is ubiquitous from street stalls to hole-in-the-wall shops, but one of the most legendary sellers of this sweet treat is Kung Wo Tofu Factory in Sham Shui Po, who hand-grind their own beans and have been perfecting their version for almost 130 years. You would be remiss not to browse the variety of soy milk and soy products while dropping by their iconic storefront.
When it comes to soup, the Cantonese are strong proponents of double-boiling—the method by which a ceramic soup pot sits semi-submerged in another pot of boiling water, allowing for a slow, gentle process of extracting maximum flavour from the ingredients. This so-called pot-in-pot cooking results in minimal evaporation, more concentrated flavours and locking in of essential nutrients. The steamer-like set-up can easily be replicated at home, or visit any local Cantonese restaurant for popular variations such as pork ribs and bitter melon or black chicken with ginseng.
Roasted Chestnuts and Sweet Potatoes
While the number of street vendors peddling these toasty treats are dwindling, it is still common to catch a waft of roasted chestnuts or the fragrant scent of sweet potatoes as you scurry around the city during the winter months. Follow your nose to one of these spirited local vendors dedicated to preserving a bona fide Hong Kong winter tradition. For just a few dollars, treat yourself to a brown paper bag brimming with chestnuts or a wrinkly-skinned sweet potato roasted to fall-apart tender over hot cinders. Many of these vendors also sell salt-baked quail eggs, another beloved winter street snack to try.