Morning Coffee: The Boss

Milk tea

Milk tea at a cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. Photo by Lisi Tang

It was the Saturday before the Lunar New Year and The Boss was crazy. People crammed inside the small bakery that fronts this old Chinatown restaurant, buying cakes, buns and cookies. Others stood around, waiting for their names to be called so they could finally be seated. Hungry, we pushed through the crowd and gave our name to the host. Then we waited. My girlfriend’s sister decided to buy a box of cocktail and curry buns. As she walked towards the counter, I stared at a large painting of a rosy-cheeked, contented old man that loomed over the bakery, flanked on both sides by festive red New Year banners with gold script. His long white beard flowed towards large pots of gold coins that rested at his feet.

“Who’s that?” I whispered to my girlfriend, Laine.

Choi Sun wah,” she whispered back. “The, uh, god of wealth.”

When our name was called, we went to the rear of the bustling restaurant where there was a long dining hall with four rows of booths. My eyes wandered to the back of the restaurant, A strangely dour-looking jiu choi mao, or lucky cat, was perched on a ledge near the ceiling, its paw solemnly raised to beckon good fortune. As I stared at the cat, a remarkably fast-moving waitress placed four glasses of tea on the table and slapped down our menus before running off. I opened mine, stomach growling. My eyes widened as I perused the dozens of items: ox-tongue spaghetti, lovebird fried rice, baked Portuguese chicken, Hong Kong milk tea. Ah yes, this is what I had come for: cha chaan teng food.

Cha chaan teng, which means “tea restaurant” in Cantonese, are Hong Kong’s answer to North American greasy-spoon diners. The food they serve is known as “Hong Kong-style Western cuisine”: Chinese and Western dishes that have been pushed through the distortion chamber of colonialism, emerging as something unexpected but entirely delicious.

A typical cha chaan teng menu includes things like sandwiches, congee, noodle soups, spaghetti, steak and borscht. All pretty basic, perhaps, but they all defy convention in some subtle and surprising way. Hong Kong-style “Russian borscht,” for instance, is nothing like Russian borscht at all: it is a robust tomato-based soup with chunks of potato, pork and cabbage. Pork chops aren’t served with a side of peas and mashed potatoes; they’re baked in a tomato sauce and served on soft spaghetti. “Portuguese chicken” is actually a Macanese dish that consists of chicken and potatoes baked in a curry-like coconut-based sauce and served over rice.

The same hybrid flavour is infused in cha chaan teng drinks. Milk tea is the standard, made by combining several different types of black tea with thick condensed milk. Traditionally, the tea is infused in a silk sock, giving it the Cantonese nickname of sai mat lai cha—literally “silk stocking tea.” (The coffee served in cha chaan teng is made the same way as the tea—in fact, you can combine the two for an especially delectable drink.) Good milk tea is perfectly smooth and creamy with a rich, full-bodied flavour. Its origins, as you might expect, can be traced back to the influence of British tea-drinking customs in nineteenth century Hong Kong. Likewise, there is a strong British influence in the other drinks on a typical cha chaan teng‘s menu: Horlicks, Ovaltine, hot lemon coke, lemon tea are all staples.

What is remarkable about cha chaan teng food is that, to a Westerner, it all sounds vaguely familiar yet strangely off-kilter at the same time. It is, essentially, a Cantonese interpretation of how Europeans and North Americans eat. Consider the spaghetti. Typically, it is deliberately overcooked and then doused in a sweet cream or tomato sauce. (At The Boss, I ordered a plate of ox-tongue spaghetti that was big enough for two very hungry people. The four ox tongues, piled neatly on top of one another, were tender and quite flavourful.) Another example is the French toast, which is stuffed with a variety of substances (peanut butter, for instance, or kaya, a Malaysian jam made from coconut milk and egg) and then deep-fried to golden perfection.

I’m not sure when the first Hong Kong-style tea restaurant opened in Vancouver, but it was probably in the 1960s, when a new generation of Hong Kong immigrants rejuvenated the city’s Chinese community. The Boss is definitely one of the oldest cha chaan teng, although its tacky renovations have stripped it of the mid-century charm you can still find in other Chinatown cafés. Still, The Boss’ age is revealed by some of the old-school items on its menu, like “hot water egg,” which perplexed even born-and-bred Hong Kongers like Laine and her sister, Andrea. Naturally, not knowing what it was, we decided to order it. (At $1.50, it was a risk we could afford.) A few minutes later, the waitress brought a white ceramic mug. We peered over the rim excitedly—and were not any more enlightened for doing so. Just as its name might suggest, the “hot water egg” was, indeed, a poached egg in a cup of hot water.

“How do we drink it?” Andrea, asked the waitress. “You just put sugar in an stir it,” she replied in Cantonese, somewhat amused, making a stirring gesture with her hand. So we did just that. Andrea took the first sip—and she did not like what she tasted. “Wah!” she exclaimed, thrusting the mug away from her and shaking it so violently that globs of hot egg water spilled onto the table. She made a face like she had just taken a gulp of drain cleaner. “Here,” she said to me, scowling. “You try it.”

I looked at what was left of the frothy liquid and gingerly sipped it. It was wonderful. It was everything I could ever want from a hot, thick, eggy drink. Perhaps the only thing better would have been the “hot water milk,” also on the menu.

When we told Laine and Andrea’s dad about our encounter with the strange beverage, he laughed. “I used to drink that all the time when I was in university! Another thing was fresh milk with Schweppes cream soda. Have you had that? That was a very good combination!” He told us how, as a young architecture student at the University of Hong Kong, he would hang out with his friends at cha chaan teng to escape his crowded home. “Cha chaan teng in those days could be hang-out places for young people—I shouldn’t say young people, even grown-ups went there,” he recalled. “If it was a neighbourhood cha chaan teng, people went there every day to meet their friends, to check about things. It was so habitual that they really needed to go every day.”

We’re a long way from postwar Hong Kong. But cha chaan teng still thrive on both sides of the Pacific. At The Boss, I looked around. In the booth to the left, a group of teenaged girls were sharing a huge plate of spaghetti. Behind them, two elderly women chatted over a pineapple bun and milk tea. The sound of loud, animated Cantonese filled the air. It certainly seemed to fulfill the most basic criteria of a good Hong Kong-style tea restaurant, which is to provide a casual hangout where friends, family and neighbours can meet and eat in unpretentious surroundings. When we finished our meal, we had full stomachs and a meal’s worth of leftovers. As we left the restaurant, passing through the bakery, my eyes caught Choi Sun. He smiled contentedly.

The Boss

Cakes on display in The Boss’ window on Main Street, near Keefer

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday April 09 2007at 03:04 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Canada, Food, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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