‘I want to tell the people here our stories,’ says Vivian as she gestures to the photos on the wall of her Leytonstone restaurant, Aquila. ‘I’m proud of Hong Kongers. Millions of us went onto the street to protest, peacefully.’
It’s been three years since the new British Nationals (Overseas) visa scheme welcomed thousands of Hong Kong migrants to the UK. And these framed pictures show why it was so needed: they depict Hong Kongers pouring onto the city’s streets as the country they knew began to change forever. Their protests began in March 2019, sparked by a bill that would allow Hong Kong prisoners to be extradited to mainland China for punishment, before evolving into a more general expression of pro-democracy feeling. Rubber bullets and tear gas from the police followed, before a government crackdown made protest all but impossible (‘last week, a man got arrested for criticising the government in a Facebook post’, says Vivian).
Now, underneath these images of a more hopeful era for Hong Kong, her team of staff is serving up nostalgic dishes from their homeland – and flavours you won’t find anywhere else in London.
Aquila is part of a wave of Hong Kong restaurants that have opened up across the UK since January 2021, run by the 120,000 migrants that have made this country their new home. They’ve set about putting their own stamp on its centuries-old Chinese food scene, battling against economic conditions that make starting new food businesses seriously tough.
If you’ve eaten a bubble waffle, dug into a peanut-laced French toast, or nursed a milk tea (all of which have taken London by storm over the past few years), you’ll already know what makes Hong Kong’s food so interesting. ‘It’s a food paradise,’ says Vivian. Pretty much everyone I spoke to for this article said the same thing, waxing lyrical about the ‘east meets west’ food culture that has sprung up in the uber-cosmopolitan island.
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it was handed over to the People’s Republic of China. Red post boxes were swiftly repainted green and portraits of the Queen were removed from government offices, but deeper traces of its past still remain, from its UK-style legal and educational systems to the popularity of milky tea and custard tarts.
On celebrations, everyone would gather round and 20 people would eat from one dish
It’s not just British flavours that have made their mark. Hong Kong’s multiculture is a breeding ground for uniquely delicious hybrids between Chinese, French, South East Asian, and Indian cuisine, ones which creative local chefs have exported the world over. You’ll find one such success story in Bubblewrap (founded in 2017 by a group of Hong Kong students studying at Imperial College), which gets people queuing through Chinatown for its crispy, ice-cream topped treats, inspired by a French-influenced Hong Kong egg waffles.
But not every invention has had the same breakout success. Take Hong Kong baked rice. ‘People think it’s lasagna’, explains Vivian, showing me a decidedly Italian looking miniature casserole dish topped with bubbling cheese. ‘But actually, it’s a base of egg-fried rice, layered with pork chops and a tomato sauce full of secrets,’ she jokes. ‘You’ll only find one or two restaurants in London doing it.’
Above her on the wall is a poster advertising another dish that hasn’t garnered mainstream attention, either: poon choi. It’s a favoured feast day speciality of Hong Kong’s indigenous Hakka people. ‘On celebrations, everyone would gather round and 20 people would eat from one dish,’ she says, explaining that its lavish layers of dozens of different kinds of meat and fish were a display of wealth in the walled confines of old Hakka communities.
The impractical, lavish poon choi is worlds away from the kind of food that Hong Kong chefs first cooked when they arrived on the UK’s shores in the late Victorian era, their passage smoothed by colonial ties. The flavours of British Chinese food were defined by these early Cantonese entrepreneurs, who set up their first restaurants in the docks of east London’s Limehouse, serving cheap eats catered to sailors from all over the world (and attracting scurrilous tabloid hysteria about opium dens in the process).
After this community was ravaged by bombs in WWII, London’s new Chinatown took shape, and Hong Kong chefs were perfectly placed to understand what finicky Western customers would willingly eat. Spots like Maxim’s in Soho won customers over with sweet and sour pork, chips, and bread and butter, establishing the flavours that would define British Chinese food for decades to come.
This complex history means that more recent arrivals from Hong Kong are in a paradoxical place. There are restaurants theoretically serving Cantonese food on every British high street, but it’s worlds away from the actual food they grew up with, after decades of being tweaked to local tastes – while in Hong Kong, the food scene evolved along a different path, with influences from France, India, South East Asia and more.
‘I’m going to have to be very diplomatic otherwise I’m going to upset a lot of people…’ says Aquila’s co-owner Lau, when I ask her what she thinks of British Cantonese food. ‘We have upset many already, no worries!’ jokes Vivian, before explaining that the pair frown on cost-effective takeaway shortcuts like cooking noodles and rice in the morning then reheating them to order, or buying frozen dumplings from suppliers. ‘We stick to our philosophy of cooking good food, we stay away from MSG.’
We don’t just buy a powder from suppliers and mix it with water, we make our own
The husband-and-wife team behind Manchester’s wildly popular Popchop Curry House, which has got queues snaking down the street since it opened in July 2022, are just as dedicated to authentic Hong Kong techniques. Chef Samuel arrives six hours before the restaurant opens to start creating the flavourful curry sauce that coats its signature breadcrumbed pork chops: ‘We are proud to say our curry tastes better and more rich than other Chinese takeaway restaurants,’ the pair explain. ‘We don’t just buy a powder from suppliers and mix it with water, we make our own.’
But then, unlike classic British Chinese takeaway restaurants, they’ve got a stripped back menu with only a handful of signature dishes, all drawing on Samuel’s father’s secret recipes from his curry restaurant, Sun King Yuen, in Hong Kong. Photos on the walls of Popchop show the original pork chop master at work in his wildly popular, 40-year-old establishment, holding memories of a family tradition that’s being continued thousands of miles away from home.
A taste of home
Food and nostalgia are intimately linked. That’s even clearer at year-old Brick Lane cafe HOKO, which is a loving recreation of old school Hong Kong all-day diners known as Cha Chaan Tengs, accurate right down to the red-rimmed china mugs and laminate tables. ‘The noise at the busy cafe always brings back memories’, says owner Nicole Ma, in one of her lyrical posts about the tradition of the Cha Chaan Teng and their east-meets-west menus that revolve around creamy, condensed milk-laced tea – perfect for washing down Western-influenced delicacies like egg tarts or French toast.
HOKO’s menu is full of surprising dishes like ‘Hong Kong borscht’, a tomato-based soup that developed under eastern European influence in the early 20th century, and ‘Swiss wings’, which have no relationship to Switzerland but are rumoured to be a mispronunciation of ‘sweet wings’ by Cantonese waiters in the restaurant they were invented at. These menu items aren’t particularly fancy, but what they have in common is the warm, firm sort of comfort offered on first bite.
There’s a more refined kind of decadence on offer at Dalston’s 404 Bakery, which serves up achingly rich and entirely delicious gateaux made by a dedicated husband-and-wife team, who’d prefer to stay anonymous. ‘I would say British cakes are more about flavour, whereas east Asian cakes are more about texture,’ they explain. ‘People in Hong Kong prefer moister, softer cakes.’ Accordingly, their signature ‘magic 3-texture chocolate cake’ comes with elaborate serving instructions, which invites you to try it chilled, at room temperature or warm for three different versions of cocoa heaven.
The couple started their bakery in Hong Kong before transplanting operations to London last summer. After being snowed under with online orders fulfilled from their small flat, they’re putting a temporary pause on operations while they begin the arduous journey of fundraising for a permanent shop of their own.
Popchop Curry House has expansion plans too, after being overwhelmed by the demand for their dishes: ‘we didn’t expect so many people to come,’ its owners explain. ‘The first month of our opening, my husband didn’t go home for two nights because we hadn’t managed to hire any staff yet and there were so many customers to serve: he just had to sleep in the car!’
Still, their path hasn’t been easy: ‘A greedy builder took our money when we first arrived,’ the couple explain, ‘so it took a long time to get the restaurant started.’
Written in the stars
Dr Heather Rolfe is leading a British Futures research programme into the experiences of Hong Kongers settling in the UK, and explains that such difficulties starting a new life on these shores are common. ‘Hong Kongers feel an affinity and familiarity with the UK, but I don’t think those historic links necessarily help,’ she says. ‘It’s a very different society, and historical links aren’t the same as experiencing a different culture on a day-to-day basis.’
According to her recent report, nearly half of Hong Kongers settling in the UK haven’t managed to find jobs that match their education level, despite the fact that most speak good or fluent English. ‘There’s a lot to get to grips with because the process of finding a job is so different here,’ she explains. ‘Setting up your own business is a way to overcome all that, and change your life.’
It’s not always easy. ‘Incomes are lower, the weather is miserable, the winter days are so short, and there’s always some sort of tree on the line when you try to take the train,’ jokes Lau. ‘Quite a lot of people couldn’t settle here, so they went back to Hong Kong, but touch wood all our staff will make their lives here.’
Still, the name of the restaurant Aquila hints at ambitious future plans: ‘As a family we’re really into star signs. Aquila is the name of a constellation, so we are hoping that in the future our business will grow like so many stars in the skies.’
As new arrivals struggle with homesickness, grey weather, and fitting in, places like Aquila, PopChop, HOKO are all serving up valuable home comforts. But it’s only a matter of time before wider audiences fall in love with the dishes they’re serving up: our Cantonese food scene is getting an injection of new flavours that are nostalgic and fresh, all at once.
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