How the humble 'cai fan' is now all the rage in epicurean Hong Kong
In a city pummelled by political upheaval, economic downturn and the pandemic, bare-bones ‘two dishes and rice’ restaurants have become a go-to destination across all social classes.
The lines begin forming before lunchtime and wind on well into the night, with customers outside craning their necks for views of the day’s selection through the window.
It is not a newly anointed Michelin bistro or the latest photogenic, Instagram-friendly confection that has captivated Hong Kong, a famously epicurean city.
It is a humble takeout box of white rice and two precooked main dishes of the diner’s choosing (commonly known as ‘cai fan’ or economy rice in Singapore). The price: around S$5.50
Bare-bones 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 a 77,000-member Facebook fan group.
The food itself hardly seems worth the attention. The offerings are standards of Cantonese cuisine, with options like stir-fried tomato and eggs, sweet and sour pork, or braised beef and turnip. They are ordered cafeteria-style, by pointing or shouting one’s order to an expectant worker with a ladle. Even the name given to these establishments is as no-frills as their menus: “two dishes and rice.”
But that plainness is the point.
In a city pummelled by two years of political upheaval, economic downturn and seemingly endless pandemic controls – a ban on dining in after 6 pm. just lifted late last month – two-dishes-and-rice places have become a lifeline.
For struggling restaurant owners, this business model is a rare source of surging demand. For diners, the food is a cheap and convenient staple, the two dishes offering the comforting flavours and variety that define Chinese home cooking.
There are now at least 353 businesses selling two dishes and rice across the city, according to a crowdsourced map. No census exists of how many existed before, but Hong Kong food scholars and diners agreed there were far fewer before the pandemic.
“You can be sure that when you go into this kind of restaurant, you can get something that won’t go wrong,” said Kitty Ho, a nurse eating lunch with her boyfriend, Jack Fung, an IT worker, in the blue-collar neighbourhood of North Point.
Ho and Fung, both in their 20s, said they had started eating the lunchboxes multiple times a week in recent months, especially after Ho, who follows many food-related pages 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 unapologetic lack of ambience. Its walls were lime green, matching the plastic chopsticks and upholstered chairs. (While many two-dishes-and-rice shops are takeout only, some offer spartan seating areas.)
Cardboard boxes, each holding 500 Styrofoam containers, were stacked in the middle of the floor. No music played; the only soundtrack was the shouts of workers hurrying between the kitchen, which exhaled clouds of steam into the dining area, and the front, where the food was served.
The day’s two dozen or so dishes were displayed, buffet-style, in an L-shaped array of stainless-steel pans. Two dishes cost 32 Hong Kong dollars (S$5.50), cash only; each additional dish was $1(S$1.4) extra. All the options – spicy eggplant, pig ears, stir-fried cauliflower – were brightly coloured and clearly visible from the street through large windows to entice passers-by.
Two dishes and rice had long been overlooked, or dismissed as the realm of broke students or the working class. In both format and quality, it recalls Panda Express in the United States. In Hong Kong, some jokingly referred to it as “cursory rice,” to reflect their low expectations.
“It was seen as food for commoners, people with low incomes,” said Siu Yan Ho, a lecturer who studies the city’s food culture at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Then the pandemic hit. Unemployment jumped. Hong Kong’s world-famous restaurant scene was left limping along. The most recent ban on dining in at restaurants in the evening lasted nearly four months, and even though it has been lifted, people still cannot gather in groups larger than four.
Many Hong Kongers also do not cook, in a city where groceries are expensive and tiny apartments may not have kitchens.
So, the types and numbers of people who can appreciate a cheap, filling meal has widened considerably. And Hong Kong’s food entrepreneurs have responded.
Chefs at ailing cha chaan tengs — traditional Hong Kong sit-down eateries — quit to open two-dishes-and-rice shops. A popular local hot dog chain started its own two-dishes-and-rice offshoot. Seafood banquet halls wheeled out a few pans of ready-made dishes at night as takeout options when the dine-in ban kicked in. So did coffee shops better known for their latte artistry.
“We get office ladies, students, older people, cleaning workers,” said Kai Kee’s owner, Wong Chi-wai, adding that he usually sold 1,000 meals a day at each of his six locations.
To distinguish themselves among all the competition, some shops offer whole steamed fish or lobster for a few additional dollars. Others throw in free soup. One spot in the Yau Ma Tei neighbourhood includes truffle chicken, red rice and quinoa to lure younger customers.
Still, even the most devoted customers have no illusions this is fine dining.
“I don’t have too many requirements,” said Kelvin Tam, another Kai Kee customer, who had chosen curried fish balls and a beef and leek stir fry. “As long as it doesn’t taste too bad and is edible, then it’s OK.”
Like all food trends, this one is likely to end. It may already be in its sunset days: On the day the 6 p.m. dining-in ban was lifted, Andrew Wong, the Facebook fan group’s founder, posted, “The All-Hong Kong Two Dishes and Rice Thanksgiving Festival has officially ended.” Many members wrote how excited they were to sit down at dim sum parlours with friends again.
Still, many said there would always be an appetite for the rice boxes – both among the converted, and those who had long depended on them.
That includes Lo Siu-ying, 64. Peering at the day’s selection at Kai Kee, Lo, dressed in a pair of rubber work boots, said she’d been eating there for years. It was the easiest option for herself and her husband, both of whom left home at 8am for their job as building cleaners and returned past midnight.
She would be glad, she said, when others became less reliant on it, though. Her work had become extra tiring during the pandemic, because the amount of trash she had to take out had doubled.
“Everyone is buying takeout,” she said. “There are so many boxes.”
By Vivian Wang and Joy Dong © 2022 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.