In Praise of Hong Kong Macaroni Breakfasts
A few years ago, when my young daughter was sick, I did what any Canto mum would do and fed her congee (a gruel of white rice made with water or broth). After two or three back-to-back congee meals, I could see she was getting bored. So I boiled up some macaroni and served it in a soup of chicken broth with some added peas and finished with strips of ham.
I watched apprehensively as she surveyed the bowl in front of her and was filled with relief and a sense of joy when she snarfed the contents down greedily. Not only had she filled her belly but she had also shown herself to be a true Hong Kong kid!
This traditional Hong Kong breakfast dish – served in local cha chaan teng (diners) and fast-food joints across the territory is one of the ultimate Hong Kong comfort foods.
As a child growing up in London, I used to dream about the cha chaan teng breakfast sets of ham macaroni soup, served with a slice of spongy, crust-less white bread or toast with a slather of ‘butter’ and runny fried eggs.
Whenever we came back to Hong Kong to visit family, I would order this breakfast set with an ice lemon-tea or iced Hong Kong milk tea. When the meal arrived, I’d carefully lift the two fried eggs from the melamine plate and place them in the soup and submerge them, before sprinkling a generous amount of white pepper onto the contents of my bowl.
Then, after the eggs were cooked a little more in the hot broth, I would break them up with my spoon and watch as the creamy yellow yolks oozed into the soup, forming golden pools of savoury deliciousness before emulsifying the surrounding soup.
Eating a Hong Kong macaroni breakfast is a deeply satisfying but hardly gourmet experience. It’s a dish that many non-Hong Kong friends deeply steeped in Chinese and Canto food culture find hard to appreciate. Some find it bland and boring, others find it a very strange way to serve pasta. With so many exciting local choices around, why would anyone hanker for it? Maybe it’s a taste that must be acquired in childhood or not at all.
For me, Hong Kong macaroni soup is a quintessential dish of the city, created through the collision of trade, empire, and the very Chinese notion that the only proper meal is a hot one (including breakfast). It has become a staple of the cha chaan teng which in turn are the quintessential Hong Kong eateries. These local diners sprang up in the 1950s to serve a variety of quick, tasty and affordable Cantonese and localised western dishes to factory workers and ordinary office workers.
It doesn’t have the variety of textures, fragrances and tastes of Malaysia’s nasi lemak and it lacks the depth of flavour of Vietnamese pho, but Hong Kong macaroni soup is a breakfast I’ll keep going back to.
The Hong Kong Macaroni Factory
I recently learned that, rather improbably, there is still a factory producing macaroni in Hong Kong, in a Tsuen Wan industrial building unit. Eat and Travel Weekly ran a story on 37 year-old Calvin Lo, a former Japanese chef who took over his father’s forty-something year-old pasta production business in 2013.
Lo said that despite rising operating costs and falling prices due to competition from inferior quality mainland pasta, he insists on using high quality, imported durum wheat for their macaroni, fusilli, conchiglie, alphabet shapes and more.
It’s rather heartening to know it’s possible to have a real made in Hong Kong bowl of macaroni soup!