Egg Custard and Milk Toast in Hong Kong
The line outside Australia Dairy Company this morning is dozens deep. I’ve typically got zero patience for restaurant lines, but a trustworthy Hong Kong native has directed me here, to the Kowloon Peninsula’s Jordan neighborhood, in my pursuit of steamed egg-custard—bowls of which are stacked in the lightly fogged-up front window.
It’s named for the founder’s long-ago stint on an Australian farm, but Australia Dairy Company is a fully Hong Kong institution: a cha chaan teng, which is a sort of quick-serve diner that evolved in the post-war, newly urbanizing and industrializing city, whose swelling working class sought a place to sit and eat cheap but nourishing meals outside the home. Cha chaan teng food skews to the soft, the creamy, the broth-y, and the quick.
Hong Kong, like much of the developed world, finds some of its culinary and cultural peculiarities at risk of extinction. For now, some cha chaan teng endure, offering quick, affordable, and comfortable defense against the relentless invasion of chain restaurants, luxury brands, glassy high towers, and absurd real estate pricing.
I should’ve known that the line would move quickly. Inside of 10 minutes, I’ve been briskly beckoned in by a waiter in a white jacket and jeans and shown to an empty chair at a small table for four, occupied by three strangers with their cups of iced milk tea to drink and weak hot tea in which to wash their utensils, a bowl of elbow noodles and Spam in chicken broth, scrambled eggs, a pitcher of fake maple syrup, and a couple of smart phones with which they snap photos of the food and each other. It’s a tableau equal parts Chinese and British, a little bit American, glancingly Australian, and creepingly global.
When the waiter approaches, I point to some half-consumed dishes on a nearby table to get what I want: a bowl of hot, steamed egg-custard flavored with almonds, a slice of generously buttered, crustless milk toast drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, and a cup of hot and sweet almond tea. I came in with no nostalgic longing for this simple, pleasing food, but its soothing effect is immediate, and indelible.
Two of my tablemates depart, and within 90 seconds are replaced by two more. Having emptied my dishes, I’m soon handed a slip of paper with my total bill: $64 HK, a little over US$8, which I pay in cash to the ladies at the front desk before returning to Kowloon’s fragrant, dazzling, congested streets.
Australian Dairy Company
47 Parkes St, Jordan, Hong Kong
Closes 11 p.m.