SHAM SHUI PO, HONG KONG
The people of China are snacking pros. Jump on any long-haul bus ride and you'll see locals snacking on freshly-steamed dumplings, hot dogs, sunflower seeds and, the quintessential train snack, cup noodles (not just your average two-minute packets – these cups include special spices, meat and pickled veg, and most passengers bring an extra sausage with them to chop up into their cup). Almost every city has a so-called ‘snack street’, too, where hungry customers queue nightly for things on sticks, fried bread, bao, buns, waffles, tarts, pastries and more.
Snacks are eaten all day long – they’re given as auspicious gifts, brought out whenever guests drop by, used in traditional ceremonies or eaten to bring back nostalgic memories of the past. Snacking is a way life.
In Hong Kong, snacks are just as important. Sweets, skewers and fried breads are everywhere, and, if you think about it, the process of dim sum is essentially ordering a bunch of different snacks to share. Here, it’s easy for three meals a day to quickly evolve into five, 10, or, like on our first full day there, 15 different meals and snacks.
A few of them came from Kwan Kee, one of the most famous sweet snack food vendors on Kowloon. Named after his father, Fu Kwan, Fu Wing-Cheung opened up this shop on Fuk Wah Street in Sham Shui Po in the 1960s, after working at his father’s stall all throughout his childhood. His father, originally from nearby Guangdong province on Mainland China, learnt how to make all sorts of desserts working in various restaurants near his home.
Kwan Kee is known for their sweet snacks; rice-flour puddings, steamed egg cakes and black sesame cakes are all cooked to his father’s recipes, and have crowds gathering for takeaway bags of his sweets every day until sold out. We'd just had lunch, a big one including some syrupy French toast from a nearby cha chaan teng, but, let's be real, there was no way I was going to turn down a chance to try a selection of Mr Fu's most popular sweets. Second lunch has just become a hazard of the job.
Mr Fu tells us his signature snacks are the put chai ko – little bowl puddings. Made from rice flour, brown sugar and red beans, the puddings are steamed in little ceramic bowls and scooped out as they’re ordered. “Unlike many other shops, we grind our rice every day instead of buying pre-made rice flour,” says Mr Fu. This ensures his puddings end up with a nice, chewy texture. “We also don’t use any rising agents,” he says, pointing to a big tray of steamed white sugar egg cake. “It rises from the natural fermentation of the rice flour.”
The bowl puddings are no quick production, either. The rice is ground and made into a milk, which is poured over individual bowls filled with beans. They are then steamed for up to six hours. “We start the process at 2 o’clock in the morning every day.”
Kwan Kee sell about 400 of these puddings each day and it’s these old-school, no-cheat traditional methods that have earned the shop’s strong reputation for authentic Hong Kong snacks. Even the Michelin guide think so – awarding him a Michelin Guide street-food recommendation in 2016 and 2017.
Our tour guide Michael reminds us that just because these snacks are sweet, it doesn’t mean they’re labelled as desserts. “These are just snacks – they’re eaten any time of day”. Cakes as snacks? This is my kind of culture.
Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki