In Hong Kong, cheap food options are all the rage

HONG KONG — Lines start to form before lunchtime and stretch late into the night, with customers outside craning their necks to see the ...


HONG KONG — Lines start to form before lunchtime and stretch late into the night, with customers outside craning their necks to see the day’s selection through the window.

It’s not a newly anointed Michelin bistro or the latest photogenic, Instagram-friendly confectionery that has captivated Hong Kong, a famed epicurean city.

This is a humble take-out box of white rice and two pre-cooked main courses of your dinner choice. The price: about $4.

Stripped-down restaurants offering these simple meals have become an unexpected food fad in Hong Kong, prompting an explosion of vendors, the fascination of food bloggers and even 77,000 members. Facebook fan group.

The food itself doesn’t seem to deserve much attention. The offerings are Cantonese cuisine standards, with options like sautéed tomatoes and eggs, sweet and sour pork or braised beef and turnip. They are ordered cafeteria style, by pointing or shouting their order at a waiting worker with a ladle. Even the name given to these establishments is as simple as their menus: “two dishes and rice”.

But that simplicity is the point.

In a city battered by two years of political upheaval, economic downturn and seemingly endless fight against the pandemic – the ban on eating after 6pm was just lifted at the end of last month – two-course and rice places have become a lifeline.

For struggling restaurateurs, this business model is a rare source of growing demand. For diners, the food is a cheap and convenient staple, with both dishes providing the comforting flavors and variety that define Chinese home cooking.

There are now at least 353 businesses selling two dishes and rice across the city, according to crowdsourcing menu. There is no census of how many there were before, but food experts and diners in Hong Kong agreed there were far fewer before the pandemic.

“You can be sure that when you walk into this kind of restaurant, you can get something that’s not wrong,” Kitty Ho, a nurse, said while having lunch with her boyfriend, Jack Fung, a computer scientist, in the blue- collar neighborhood of North Point.

Ms. Ho and Mr. Fung, both in their twenties, said they had started eating the lunchboxes several times a week over the past few months, particularly after Ms. Ho, who follows many pages related to feed on social media, found the Facebook fan group. .

The spot they had chosen that day, Kai Kee, was a classic of the genre in its lack of assumed atmosphere. Its walls were lime green, matching the plastic moldings and upholstered chairs. (While many two-course and rice shops offer take-out only, some offer spartan seating areas.)

Cardboard boxes each containing 500 polystyrene containers were stacked in the middle of the floor. No music played; the only soundtrack was the screams of workers hurrying between the kitchen, which exhaled clouds of steam into the dining room, and the front, where food was served.

The roughly two dozen daily specials were presented, buffet style, in a set of L-shaped stainless steel pans. Two courses cost HK$32, or $4, cash only; each additional dish was $1 more. All of the options – spicy eggplant, pig’s ears, sautéed cauliflower – were brightly colored and clearly visible from the street through large windows to attract passers-by.

Two dishes and rice are not new to Hong Kong. But it had long been overlooked or dismissed as the realm of broke or working-class students. Both in format and quality, it is reminiscent of Panda Express in the United States. In Hong Kong, some jokingly referred to it as “quick rice”, to reflect their low expectations.

“It was considered food for commoners, low-income people,” said Siu Yan Hoa lecturer who studies the city’s culinary culture at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Then the pandemic hit. Unemployment jumped up. Hong Kong’s world famous restaurant scene has been left limping. The last ban on evening dining in restaurants lasted nearly four months, and even though it was lifted, people still cannot gather in groups of more than four people.

Many Hong Kongers don’t cook either, in a city where groceries are expensive and small apartments can no kitchen.

Thus, the types and number of people who can enjoy a cheap and hearty meal have greatly expanded. And Hong Kong food entrepreneurs have responded.

Chefs at cha chaan tengs, Hong Kong’s traditional eateries, have quit to open two-course and rice shops. A popular local hot dog chain has launched its own two-course and rice offshoot. Seafood banquet halls brought out a few cooked casseroles overnight as takeout options when the dinner ban went into effect. The cafes too best known for its latte art.

“We get office women, students, the elderly, housekeepers,” Kai Kee owner Wong Chi-wai said, adding that he usually sells 1,000 meals a day in each of his six Site (s.

To stand out from all the competition, some stalls offer steamed whole fish or lobster for a few dollars more. Others throw free soup. A place in the Yau Ma Tei district includes truffle chicken, red rice and quinoa to attract young customers.

Yet, even the most devoted customers have no illusions about the gastronomy.

“I don’t have high standards,” said Kelvin Tam, another Kai Kee customer, who had chosen curried fishballs and beef and leek stir-fry. “As long as it doesn’t taste too bad and is edible, then it’s fine.”

Despite his lukewarm praise, Mr. Tam, a 60-year-old real estate company employee in a shirt and tie, said he was a regular, noting the ingredients were fresher than elsewhere, he had tried.

Advice like this for fellow diners abounds on the Facebook fan group site. Every day, dozens of people post photos of their lunchboxes, along with notes: pork chops at a store in Prince Edward’s neighborhood were cold today, or the staff there at Tai Kok Tsui is particularly friendly.

Some critics have the mark of true connoisseurs. “The meatballs were pretty good. The ratio of lean meat to flour to water chestnuts was about 5:4:1, and I didn’t detect any fat,” one member said. wrote.

The Facebook group passion underscored the new importance of these meals during the pandemic, said Selina Ching Chan, a professor at Shue Yan University in Hong Kong who has studied the city’s food culture. Diners were expressing their appreciation for something that had become “a public good,” she said.

And the conversations on the site were more inclusive than those that typically take place around Hong Kong’s sparkling food scene, she added. “It’s very different from Michelin-starred, gastronomy experts, who highlight distinction, exceptional stores. Here we salute different things.

Like all food trends, this one is in danger of coming to an end. It may already be in its dying days: On the day the 6 p.m. eating ban was lifted, Andrew Wong, the founder of the Facebook fan group, post, “The All-Hong Kong Two-Dish and Rice Thanksgiving Festival has officially ended.” Many members wrote how excited they were to sit down in dim sum parlors with friends again.

Still, many said there would always be an appetite for the rice boxes – both among converts and those who had long relied on them.

This includes Lo Siu-ying, 64. Looking at the daily selection at Kai Kee, Ms Lo, dressed in a pair of rubber work boots, said she had been eating there for years. It was the easiest option for her and her husband, who both left home at 8 a.m. for their jobs cleaning buildings and returned after midnight.

She would be happy, she said, when others depended less on her. Her job had become very tiring during the pandemic, as the amount of trash she had to take out had doubled.

“Everyone is buying takeout,” she said. “There are so many boxes.”



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