Hong Kong street food a new trend in Britain, with local twists – think egg waffles with gelato and French toast with Nutella
Bubblewrap in London began as a student business project, and adapted egg waffles recipe to fit UK tastes; Pop Up Wok in Newcastle, started by homesick Hongkongers, serves silk stocking tea and snacks like curried fish balls
It’s a sunny afternoon and the aroma of egg waffles and curried fish balls wafts through the bustling streets as pedestrians sink their teeth into delicious golden egg tarts. Sounds like a normal day in Hong Kong? You may be surprised, but such scenes are now also seen in the UK.
These humble Hong Kong street food staples are some of the latest, yet least expected exports from the city. Bubblewrap in London and Pop Up Wok in Newcastle, both very young businesses, are the driving forces behind this new trend.
Located in Chinatown, London, Bubblewrap is a shop specialising in Hong Kong’s favourite street food – egg waffles. Sunny Wu, the 26-year-old co-owner of the establishment, says, “Bubblewrap began as a business project by a group of Imperial College students in 2015. When group member Yu Liu, who lives in Hong Kong, suggested egg waffles, [at first] the group was not convinced that Londoners were going to buy into it.” Eventually they saw it as a practical business model and decided to go ahead.
When asked how they learnt to make the egg waffles, Wu replies, “Funnily enough, we got our initial recipe online – but we tested and modified it ourselves.”
The original aim was to make their waffles as traditionally Hong Kong as possible, at first, but the plan took a slight turn. “We felt that the original recipe is too filling. As we wanted to combine it with gelato and toppings, we had to adjust the recipe to make the batter lighter,” says Wu.
She points out that the addition of gelato and toppings, as well as the change in recipe are to cater to British tastes, have proven to be very successful.
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Bubblewrap got its catchy and memorable name from one of the group members, Satbir Sandhu, who grew up in London. Wu says, “He has never come across egg waffles before, and immediately drew the connection between the two things. The name was a perfect touch to our business, because it instantly communicates what it looks like to customers who have no idea what it is. I see it as a milestone in the initial stages of our business.”
Starting as a stall at various food markets around London, Bubblewrap opened its first store in March 2017, marking another milestone for the establishment.
How does this London version compare to its original? Customer Ivan Kam, who was brought up in Hong Kong and has lived in the UK for nine years, says that the enticing Instagram posts, and the fact that the iconic Hong Kong street snack reminds him of home, brought him to Bubblewrap. “I love the egg waffles here but they are definitely tailored to a Western taste,” he says, adding, “The tasty snack has been a favourite of generations of Hongkongers, making it integral to the local culture.”
Another Hong Kong-style snack business, Pop Up Wok (PUW), was established in July 2017. Open three days a week as a stall at different locations in the northern city of Newcastle, founders Molly Chan and Lucia Tsoi are determined to bring the Hong Kong street food culture to the UK. The two 28-year-olds began their journeys in Newcastle as undergraduate students at Northumbria University in 2013.
PUW sells mainly Hong Kong snacks such as curried fish balls and chee cheong fun (rice flour rolls). “We started making Hong Kong food partly because we were homesick, partly because we craved hot food in the very cold weather, as good, quick, and hot bites were nowhere to be found whenever we wanted some here,” Tsoi says. With encouragement from friends and the university’s help, Pop Up Wok was born.
“I learned how to make Hong Kong-style French toast from my mum,” Chan says. “It didn’t take long to learn, but took me some time to fine-tune the recipe, making decisions on the thickness of the bread and whether to keep the crust.”
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In addition to the original peanut butter, they also offer Nutella, because the pair felt the latter might be more popular in the UK. They’ve also changed the way they serve it, to cater to the needs of the business.
“We serve the deep-fried toast in bite-sized pieces, so that it’s easier to eat on the go at a food market,” says Chan.
She adds: “For some dishes, we insist on using the anglicised Cantonese names, such as chee cheong fun. Generally, locals are intrigued to find out what they are and how we eat them.”
Tsoi says: “These names are very good conversation starters. Many people have shown interest in learning more about Hong Kong through us.
“Some have asked us questions such as where is the city, what Hong Kong people eat, and so on. We want to be in touch with the local community and to tell them more about Hong Kong culture.”
The Tsang family were trying PUW for the first time. The parents, in their 40s, relocated from China, and the three boys, who have spent their whole lives in the city and are all under 10, loved what they tasted. Mrs Tsang said: “It’s so great that PUW is here now, there [has] been woefully little food like this around here.”
When tasting egg waffles for the first time, the 28-year-old British customer Austen Scully asked, “What’s so Hong Kong about them?” It’s a fair question. Hong Kong has dishes such as waffles and toast that could trace their roots back to Europe, as well as curry sauce from India. Do these outside influences make our street food any more or less Hong Kong?
The fundamental part of egg waffles – the batter – is most likely from the West, although the shape of the Hong Kong version is very different (the name – gai daan jai – refers to their resemblance to “little chicken eggs”.)
Wu from Bubblewrap says: “It is normal that there are Western influences in the recipe as Hong Kong was a British colony for over 150 years, but Hongkongers added their own twist, thus making it unique to the city.
“Egg waffles are so woven into the fabric of local culture that they are like tea or gin to the British – neither are natively British, but have become British icons. The interesting thing is that Bubblewrap is established in London – it’s like coming back to the snack’s muse.”
Chan of PUW says: “Interestingly, this is a question we’ve always pondered, especially when PUW started. If we shoulder the mission of promoting Hong Kong food culture to locals here, we ought to have a thorough understanding of it.”
Tsoi adds: “Hongkongers are very good at embracing influences from different cultures, adapting and making our own versions of it.”
Next time, as you feast on snacks in the streets of Hong Kong, pause and reflect on the fascinating food culture embedded in these delightful treats. Such cosmopolitan influences do not make our food culture any more or less Hong Kong; together, they make Hong Kong.