The biggest Hong Kong food trend of 2022 is probably not what you’d expect. It’s not some nouveau-gastro movement started by artisanal-minded chefs deeply connected to their native terroir, pursuing organic yet authentic cooking techniques to elevate the Escoffier tradition while remaking it for modernist palates. Nope, what’s taking the city by storm is nondescript food stalls selling rice boxes topped with your choice of two or three side dishes. It is blue-collar meals made on the cheap, sold to those on a tight budget trying to fill their stomach as inexpensively as possible. None of these slop shops will ever make anyone’s gourmet list, but over the past year they’ve popped up everywhere – well, maybe not so much in posh parts of town like Mid-Levels and Repulse Bay. But everywhere else working-class folks live, you’re bound to find a new outlet with a queue snaking around the corner. For about HK$40 (US$5), you can get a big scoop of rice topped with an equally generous paddle of entrées. Depending on the shop, there might be 10 to 15 different dishes served from large trays. Standard options include steamed pork ribs, stir-fried beef with bitter melon, fried chicken wings, something in a curry sauce and a few other common Cantonese favourites. Most Cafe de Coral outlets in Hong Kong to halt dine-in service from March 1 If a neighbourhood is particularly competitive, with several stalls dispersing such rice meals, there might be a complimentary watery soup or lemon tea thrown in. For the price, it’s fast, simple, familiar and filling. Such takeaways have always existed in Hong Kong. It’s the standard formula in many lunch canteens. But these free-standing purveyors have proliferated recently in a perfect storm of pandemic restrictions, economic downturn, and lots of empty storefronts available for short, cheap leases. People who previously took their dinner in cha chaan teng (cafes) or dai pai dong (street food stalls) now have to take their box home to eat on a stool, probably next to their bed. So in demand are they, many takeaway dim sum stalls are switching over to make rice boxes. Can you blame them? This is Cantonese comfort food, but it’s actually not easy to prepare at home. You need a very hot gas hob, lots of oil and a really good kitchen fan so your apartment isn’t full of smoke and smells and covered in grease. It’s a no-brainer for so many to just get a rice box with up to three side dishes costing less than a Starbucks coffee. Except for the queuing, it’s a very appealing and economical dinner. I’m tempted every night I walk by their shop windows. Like bakeries and buffets, when you can see the variety of food available it’s all the more enticing – although it usually looks better than it tastes. I always get suckered by the glistening, radioactive orange hue of the sweet and sour pork. But more often than not, it’s mostly bony chunks with more gristle than meat. But hey, what do you expect for HK$40? Telling the story of Hong Kong in 2021? Try Dine Hard: With A Vengeance Interestingly, vegetable sides have become more popular since the price of a catty of greens doubled in the recent supply shortage. For me, anything with a sauce – curry chicken, taro stew, fish and tofu in oyster sauce – is good to mix into the rice. Inevitably, everything in the box tends to glop together into one undistinguishable mess of gravy. The other downside is that tonnes of extra styrofoam are now dumped daily. It never requires that much extra effort to bring your own reusable box, but it’s hard to be sanctimonious, because I do wonder how many in the food queue are living in subdivided flats without even a kitchen in which to clean and dry a container. Let’s remember, the reason these rice shops are so popular now is because times are very tough. I really hope another new food trend comes along soon.