A cha chaan teng
is a type of Chinese tea restaurant
commonly found in Hong Kong
, known for its eclectic and affordable menus which include many dishes from Hong Kong cuisine
and Hong Kong-style Western cuisine
. This type of restaurant is also popular in Macau
. They can also be found in the Chinatown districts of many Western countries.
Name and description
Cha chaan teng
establishments provide tea
(usually weak tea) called "clear tea" (清茶 cing1 caa4), to customers as soon as they are seated. Some patrons use the hot tea to wash their utensils
. The name, literally "tea restaurant", serves to distinguish itself from Western restaurants that provide water to customers instead of tea. The "tea" in the name refers to the inexpensive black tea
, not the traditional Chinese tea
served in traditional dim sum
restaurants and teahouses
(茶樓 caa4 lau4). Moreover, some cha chaan tengs
prefer the use of the word "café" in their names.
The "tea" may also refer to those tea drinks, such as the Hong Kong-styled milk tea and cold lemon tea, which are very popular in cha chaan tengs. The older generations in Hong Kong use yum sai cha (飲西茶 lit. "drinking Western tea"), when dining in these restaurants in contrast with yum cha.
Some restaurants operate in chains such as Sun Chiu Kee (新釗記) and Tsui Wah (翠華)
Cha chaan teng serves a wide range of food, from steak to wonton noodles to curry to sandwiches. Both fast food and à-la-carte dishes are available. A big cha chaan teng often consists of three cooking places: a "water bar" (水吧) which makes drinks, toast/sandwiches and instant noodles, a "noodle stall" which prepares Chiuchow-style noodles (including wonton noodles), and a kitchen for producing rice plates and other more expensive dishes. The invention of drinks like yuanyang (鴛鴦), Iced coffee with Lemon (凍檸啡) and Coca-Cola with Lemon (檸樂) are often credited culturally to this style of restaurant.
A typical menu includes:
(Pasta offered are often served with soup, though not being al dente very often; also the spaghetti might be offered stir-fried.)
- Rice plates (usually referred to as 碟頭飯 dip6 tau2 faan6), as the varieties offered by different cha chaan teng are more or less the same.)
- Rice with fried tofu and BBQ pork tenderloin (豆腐火腩飯)
- Rice with assorted meats (雜扒飯), usually ham, sausage, tenderloin-like beef
- Rice with ham and chicken fillet (火腿雞扒飯), usually served with tomato sauce. (See note 1)
- Rice with creamed corn and deep-fried filet of Garoupa (粟米石斑飯)
- Bread and cake
- "Freshly baked" (either provided by a supplier or baked on the premises)
- Egg tart, a tasty baked egg custard.
- Pineapple bun (See note 2) or bor law yau (菠蘿油), a steaming hot sweet bun stuffed with a slice of butter.
- Bread with cream filling, topped with shredded coconut (椰絲奶油)
- French toast (西多士) - The local version is typically stuffed with peanut butter and deep-fried until golden.
- Butter and jam on toast (油占多)
- With preserved foodstuffs
- With fresh meat and vegetables e.g. Sandwich with tomato slices and beef
- Drinks (See notes 3-6)
Note 1: Common sauces available: tomato sauce (茄汁), black pepper
sauce (黑椒汁), cream sauce (白汁), curry sauce (咖哩汁). However, the naming of sauce
in a cha chaan teng
can sometimes be misleading. Do not expect tomato sauce to be similar to that in tomato pasta. The predominating ingredient in the sauces is, not uncommonly, just starch
Note 2: "Pineapple bun" does not contain pineapple or any of its derivatives. It acquires the name from the caramelised crispy topping, an outcome of baked syrup mingled with eggs. It is often served with a slice of butter. A "pineapple bun" served in this way is called Boh law yau (菠蘿油 lit. "Pineapple oil" where "oil" stands for the butter). Boh law yau often goes with drinks as a set meal and is popular among the male working class.
Note 3: Most cha chaan tengs charge an extra $1 or $2 for iced drinks, except soft drinks.
Note 4: Very rarely do any cha chaan teng offer espresso and its derivatives (e.g. latte, cappuccino). Instead, they boil coffee in stainless steel kettles. The taste can be intense (or bitter, if the beans used are of marginal quality) when drunk straight. One might consider it espresso-like but it does not offer much of an aftertaste. In addition, crema is not seen.
Note 5: Iced coffee is sweetened with syrup unless specified to the waiter.
Note 6: Most Cha chaan tengs use canned evaporated milk, but the customer can require condensed milk be used. Fresh milk is rarely used.
Note 7: When ordering a set, it usually accompanies a choice of tea or coffee on the menu. The actual choices offered are tea, coffee, Horlicks, Ovaltine, and Milo.
Customers usually select their seats freely in a cha chaan teng, but in a crowded restaurant they have to share a table with strangers. During peak hours, waiters in a cha chaan teng will seat their customers, "packing" as many customers into the restaurant as possible. This practice of sharing table is called dap toi (搭檯 daap3 toi2 Pinyin: dā pèi) in Chinese. For example, they will seat two groups of three customers at a six-seat table, to avoid having a pair of customers sitting with a group of three people, leaving one seat vacant. Sometimes already-seated customers have to move to accommodate the business.
In most cha chaan tengs, customers call out their orders to a waiter, who will jot down the prices of the ordered food (sometimes also the names of the food in local short forms; for instance, lemon tea is recorded as "0T", see simplifications on written Chinese in Hong Kong for details) on a piece of card/paper provided to every group of customers. After the meal, customers present the card/paper at the cash register to pay the bill.
A feature of cha chaan tengs
are the set meals. There are various sets throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. The lunch and dinner sets usually include a soup and a drink. Generally there is an additional HK$2
charge for cold drinks. Sometimes an additional HK$1 is charged for toasted bread.
Other sets include:
- "Nutritious set" (營養餐) - It comes with milk and other nutritional food
- "Constant set" (常餐) - Provided all day long, hence the name
- "Fast set" (快餐) - Immediately served
- "Special set" (特餐) - Chef's (or Boss's) recommendation
Other kinds of local restaurant related to cha chaan teng
in Hong Kong include chaan sut
(餐室 lit. "meal chamber"), bing sut
(冰室 lit. "ice chamber"), and bing teng
(冰廳 lit. "ice dining room"), which a provide lighter and a limited selection of food than cha chaan teng
In the old days, these eateries only sold different types of "ice", sandwiches and pasta but no rice plates. However, some of the restaurants bearing these titles today ignore the tradition, and provide all kinds of rice plates and even wonton noodles. Original chaan suts, bing suts and bing tengs, which can be regarded as the prototype of cha chaan tengs, are now scarce in Hong Kong.
- The similarities between the different set meals were made fun of by My life as McDull, a McDull movie.
- An important part of Hong Kong culture, cha chaan teng is featured in many Hong Kong movies and TV dramas, including the popular sitcom Virtues of Harmony. The TVB-made soap opera tells the story of a family who runs a cha chaan teng, usually boasting the egg tart and "silk-stocking milk tea" produced by them. Stephen Chow also played a cha chaan teng waiter in the 1998-comedy Lucky Guy (行運一條龍).
- Some beverage producers use the words cha chaan teng to name their products, such as "cha chaan teng milk tea" and "cha chaan teng lemon tea".
- On 19 December 2007, lawmaker Choy So Yuk proposed during a Legislative Council session that Hong Kong's cha chaan teng be recognised and put up to Unesco as an "intangible cultural heritage of humanity". The proposal came about after a recent Hong Kong poll found that seven out of ten people believe the cafes deserve a UNESCO cultural listing.