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In search of the perfect siu mai

Fish balls, siu mai, egg waffles, thy name is street food

“I’d like a portion of cheung fun and siu mai please.” I took a quick whiff and the familiar scent of the tuck shop just around the corner of where I work is beckoning. I get my breakfast here at least once a week. The woman manning the store is never seen working without a pair of gloves. With the steam basket opened, my cheung fun and siu maiwere placed inside a plastic bag, lined by a piece of greased parchment paper.


“A bit of everything please – actually heavier on the sesame dressing, skip the hot sauce.”

She squirted the dressing all across the inside of the plastic bag like she’s spray painting on a canvas. With the same pair of gloves she handled my money and change, rendering the seemingly sanitary practice completely pointless.

Back at my desk, I untied the knot on the plastic bag, revealing the piping hot content inside – as expected the dressing did a Jackson Pollock, and it’s an not artform the uninitiated would understand. I usually stand by a my clean eating rules, but would always make an exception for cheung fun and siu mai. The heavenly combination of greasiness and aroma makes them a guilty pleasure for Hong Kongers. You can have it for lunch, an afternoon snack or even something to fill the stomach when you’re burning the midnight oil. Doesn’t matter that it’s deemed unhealthy, unsanitary, and unappetising – you’re having the essence of Hong Kong street food.

For decades, street food has been a crucial part of Hong Kongers’ way of life. From varieties to flavours, our street food has kept up with the times, but their prices have remained steadfastly affordable; again, reflecting the true essence of the city, falling smack in the middle of the Venn diagram of good, cheap and fast. Even the Michelin Guide started to recognise street food in 2016, adding it as a category in the much revered culinary bible, an irrefutable proof of how formidable street food is in the local food scene.

Fish balls, siu mai, egg waffles, faux shark’s fin soup, red bean pudding – we grew up with these names. First appearing in the streets in the 60s, running a mobile snack cart was enough to feed the whole family, and hawkers selling fish balls and cart noodles were quite the spectacle. Fast forward to the 90s, when the government decided to clean up the streets by phasing out licencing altogether, getting your breakfast or midnight snack from a street stall slowly became a distant memory.

Cheap eats are not only the means for many families to earn a living, they provide an affordable option for the work force and students, offering a way for people to bond and socialise in the streets over simple comfort food. Wiping out street stalls doesn’t mean street food would cease to exist – they found their way into corner stores. In Mongkok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay where shoppers like to congregate, there are more corner stores than 7-11. Some of these street foods even made it into restaurants and hotels – don’t be surprised to find them on the buffet tables in luxury hotels.

But it’s not the same as gobbling down these delicious morsels in the streets, their aromas blending with emissions from car exhaust. My obsession with siu mai started a long time ago at a tuck shop in Quarry Bay. The chewiness of their siu mai made the store stand out, but what really got me hooked was the addictive satay dressing – there’s about this dressing that makes it the perfect winter warmer, and I’d take that over soy sauce and chili oil any day. I was such a familiar face at the store that the owner didn’t even need to ask what I wanted, which made it even more of a sore loss to me personally when the store changed hands. Only the name of the store remained unchanged, and shortly after I stopped going altogether. Since then I have been on the hunt for the ultimate siu mai, and I realised I was not alone in my search. Social media has united us under one goal, and thus the “Hong Kong Siu Mai Concern Group” – a Facebook group dedicated solely to the search and review of siu mai in our city – was formed,

Globalisation has also imparted new flavours for Hong Kong’s street food. In addition to the original, chocolate, coconut shavings, and taro have become popular egg waffle flavours, not to mention the more peculiar meat floss, and matcha and red bean paste. An elevated version of the egg waffle has been exported to London as an IT snack – bubble waffles are all the rage now. Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, bubble waffles are often accompanied by ice cream, whipped cream and fruits to rival the popular Belgian waffles.

In Japan, an eatery mistakenly referred to Hong Kong’s famous pineapple bun (which does not contain the fruit, by the way) as having a Taiwanese origin – to many’s surprise, pineapple bun fans from all over the world have come to the rescue, setting the record straight just because this humble baked good has won their hearts and stomachs over.

The evolution of street food embodies the quintessence of Hong Kongers – we have a clear, recognisable identity, yet we don’t limit ourselves. We can be refined and casual at the same time. Westerners have their afternoon tea, and we have our milk tea and egg tarts, not to mention our fish balls on a stick. For those of us who are far from home, street food flavours can easily become the one thing we miss the most.


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