Decades of urban transformation have replaced the stalls, known as dai pai dong, with glitzy malls and upscale restaurants.
Lam Tse-Sing has worked in the same open-air food stall for nearly 30 years, preparing dishes from fried rice to steamed clams. Now in his 50s, he is one of the last of a dying culinary tradition. He says the modern restaurants have “no culture, no taste.”
Lam says the key to the outdoor cuisine is the sizzling wok which gives the food a distinctive flavor. He uses scorching flames, boiling hot oil and a stir-fry technique that throws the food into the air, giving a home-cooked aroma and a rich taste.
But will Hong Kong’s future children be able to experience this kind of cooking? Lam says it all depends on the government.
Some officials in Hong Kong’s administration view the dai pai dong as health risks, fire hazards, and public nuisances. The government has paid hundreds of stall owners to give up their licenses, and stopped granting new licenses decades ago.
But many of the local people would like to see the tradition continued. “They’re friendly, tasty, and cheap. My friends and I eat there all the time,” said Yu Tse-Pang, a 24-year-old cashier at a local dumpling restaurant.
But the future of the dai pai dong is uncertain, in spite of their popularity. Licenses can only be transferred to relatives, but the children of stall owners have no interest in continuing the trade. “They say the work is too difficult, the weather is too hot,” says Lam. “When I pass away, the next generation isn’t going to take over.”