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In the middle of a neon-lit block in Hong Kong sits a tiny but cheerful café. Cracked yellow-and-white striped tiles line the walls of the dining room where customers squeeze into small booths and around tables for soup, egg sandwiches and steamed milk pudding. A dozen men in white shirts and jeans dart about the restaurant, handing off food and barking questions in English and Cantonese, “Yes? Ready to order?” All while a couple of cooks work furiously away in the steamy stainless steel kitchen.

This is Australia Dairy Company, a cha chaan teng, or tea restaurant as it’s known in Cantonese, which has been serving Western and Hong Kong comfort food for decades. It’s one of many cafes of its ilk thriving in Hong Kong. Cha chaan teng became popular after World War II. The Japanese had surrendered the land to the British, and Western food — from buttered toast with marmalade to Ovaltine malted milk — had become an inextricable part of the local diet. The majority of Hong Kong’s inhabitants were, as they are now, of Chinese descent. So the bo lo baau (pineapple bun) and the char siu (barbecue pork) remained on the menu.

Lucky for us, cha chaan teng don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon, even as monster restaurant chains like Maxim’s and Café de Coral gain a foothold in Hong Kong.

Learn more about Hong Kong cafes on KCRW’s Good Food blog. Photo by Stan Lee.

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