As any traveler will tell you, it's the little differences that make a place seem foreign, and often these trifles are exasperating and exhilarating at the same time.
My ten-year-old daughter Iris and I spent spring break in Hong Kong this year. We were there to eat Chinese food, and did we ever: clay pot rice, roast meats, dim sum, pineapple buns, Cantonese stir-fries, Sichuanese chile-fests. I take you on the grand tour in my short ebook Child Octopus: Edible Adventures in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong offers brilliant high-end dining, and we had one dazzling meal at a cathedral of dim sum, but we're not high-end people, and we mostly stuck to neighborhood restaurants and teahouses. We ate at noodle houses, dens of roast meat, hawker centers, and dim sum joints the size of a Seattle dim sum cart.
And we especially enjoyed eating at cha chaan teng, the east-west teahouses where Hong Kongers of every social class gather for thick toast, noodles, and rich, smooth milk tea.
The food at these places was great and cheap. The service was sometimes perplexing. Here are five rules of Hong Kong dining we wish someone had told us before we went.
1. Prepare to Share
Tables, that is, not food, although we were often tempted to reach across with our chopsticks and sneak a dumpling or two from the stranger sitting across from us. HK's small, low-margin restaurants were seating diners at communal tables before your average Brooklyn hipster was born, because they'd go broke letting two people monopolize a four-top. The protocol is to nod politely and then ignore your tablemates.
2. If You Want Help, Ask for It
Waiters in Hong Kong assume you want to be left alone to enjoy your food unless you say otherwise. They're not being rude. They're being polite. In HK, you never have to endure an overly solicitous waiter loping over to your table to say, "And how are we enjoying the wonton noodles?"
Instead, if you need something, give a waiter the international come-hither arm gesture and say, "M'goi!" It's Hong Kong Cantonese for "excuse me"—and "thank you."
3. Water, Water, Everywhere...
Hong Kong has the most beautiful geography of any place I've ever been. The South China Sea is omnipresent. You're never far from water—except when you're sitting at a table in a restaurant.
I know Americans have a weird hangup about water in restaurants. From birth, we're instilled with the idea that a tall glass of ice water, served without asking and constantly refilled, is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In Hong Kong, if you demand ice water with your meal, you'll typically get a reaction as if you just ordered a piping hot beer in Seattle. Hong Kongers consider ice water bad for digestion and potentially contaminated. (HK tap water is totally safe, in fact, but conventional wisdom hasn't caught up.)
If you want a cold drink, either carry in a bottle of water from a vending machine or convenience store (this is not impolite) or order iced lemon tea. This is a delicious sweetened iced tea with many slices of fresh lemon. Smash the lemon slices with your spoon and drink up.
4. You're Soaking in It
Speaking of tap water, another oddity you'll come across, especially at cha chaan teng, is your cups, plates, and bowls marinating in brown liquid in a larger bowl at the table. The liquid is weak tea. Tea is obviously sterile, since it's been boiled, and this is your opportunity to rinse your own utensils, just in case. Pull the dishware out, shake it dry, and pat it with a towel if one is supplied.
5. Keep it Clean
Before your first meal in Hong Kong, go into a convenience store. You'll find 7-Eleven, Circle K, and other chains everywhere. Grab a bottle of water and a few packs of Tempo brand tissues.
Tempo tissues are as much a symbol of Hong Kong as BBQ pork buns and bamboo scaffolding on the latest high-rise project. The tissues are available in various scents, including jasmine, applewood, citrus, and unscented or "neutral."
Why do you need them? Because most restaurants don't offer napkins.