Hong Kong Cafes and the allure of escargot, clam chowder, and spam

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They are everywhere on Valley Boulevard: Hong Kong-style cafes. Pam Sosa wrote in 2011 about the allure of escargot, clam chowder, and spam and her personal connection to the cuisine via her grandmother. Although Sosa — who previously blogged at Daily Gluttony and Rants and Craves — has retired her food blogs to focus on her son and her career in the apparel industry, she reports she "still loves to eat." Photos of her meals can be seen at instagram.com/dailygluttony.

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Growing up, I loved my mom and grandma’s interpretation of chicken noodle soup made with packaged elbow macaroni and the same homemade chicken broth that they used to make their peasant-style Chinese soups. Combining a little Western flavor with Chinese flavors was not at all foreign to my family since they are from Hong Kong, home to cafes that serve Hong Kong-style Western food, or Canto-Western food, a culinary phenomenon often nicknamed “see yau sai tzan” in Cantonese or “Soy Sauce Western Food" in English. 

Here in Alhambra, the Hong Kong-style cafe tradition is very much alive. Venture into such places as Baccali Cafe and Rotisserie, Sunday Bistro, and Garden Cafe along Valley Boulevard, and you might mistake them for any old Western cafe or coffeeshop. Waiters dish out filet mignon, Caesar salad, clam chowder, escargot, spaghetti bolognese, and omelets — each for no more than $14 per plate. But no Hong Kong-style cafe menu is complete without traditional Cantonese fare, meaning you can order something to the likes of chicken and salted fish fried rice or wonton noodle soup with that grilled salmon filet. Braised short rib at Cafe Spot | Photos by Pam Sosa

Such cafes originated in British-colonial Hong Kong, according to an Associated Press write-up on Canto-Western cuisine, and kept growing because many Hong Kong locals found these cafes to be more affordable and comfortable than their authentic Western counterparts. "You could call this Hong Kong's earliest fusion food," Lau Kin-wai, a food columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal, told the AP.  “Chinese people were trying to handle what they saw as exotic food at the time. They were applying their own flavors and culture to the Western dishes they were exposed to. 

I suppose that in the literal sense of the term, Soy Sauce Western Food can be considered “fusion cuisine,” but I don’t think it’s the most accurate label. To me, true fusion cuisine conjures up images of wasabi mashed potatoes, of ginger-soy marinated fish and avocado tacos, and of Mongolian beef sliders. It’s more of a creative venture where flavors from different cultures morph into a new dish, whereas Soy Sauce Western Food involves emulation of or borrowing from Western food culture and tailoring it to the Chinese palate. Baccali Cafe | Photo by Tim Loc

Yet while Soy Sauce Western Food may lack creativity, it plays a crucial role in easing the culinary cultural divide. I can relate to the reasons for Soy Sauce Western Food’s existence—the whole dynamic is not so different from my own family’s attitude toward Chinese and Western foods.  It was definitely challenging for my family to branch out and try other cuisines, so I grew up on a diet consisting almost exclusively of Chinese food. When we went out to eat, we almost always ate at Chinese restaurants, not simply because they loved the food but also because their frugal mindsets perceived Chinese food to be a better value than Western food. 

Every once in a while, though, someone would want to venture out of their comfort zone and eat a Western meal. But when we did, we hardly ever ate at Western restaurants. Instead, we ate my family’s home-cooked, Chinese-Western hybrid versions of these foods. In addition to macaroni noodle soup, my grandmother would make her interpretations of hot dogs and pizza, relying on the same dough used to make Chinese mantou buns to make hot dog buns and pizza crust, ketchup for pizza sauce, and sliced up hot dogs for “pepperoni.” A family favorite was a dish in which a can of creamed corn was mixed with wok-fried chicken and spooned over a bed of rice — it’s a hearty but visually unappealing dish that is also commonly served at Hong Kong-style cafes. 

A casserole dish | Photo by Pam Sosa

My family’s attempts at cooking and eating Western foods were just one way in which they tried to assimilate with American culture. The truth is that assimilation can be a scary ordeal, no matter if one was a Chinese local living in British-colonial Hong Kong, or an immigrant in the United States, and both deal with the unfamiliar in ways that they feel the most comfortable. For some, eating other cultures’ foods in a restaurant served and populated by their own kind makes the whole fitting-in process less stressful, however counterproductive that may be. For others, eating different foods that have hints of Chinese flavors, like a steak au poivre with pepper sauce containing traces of soy sauce and white pepper, is more manageable than eating the real deal at a French bistro. Making it even easier is being able to eat unfamiliar dishes alongside the familiar Chinese ones like chow fun and congee. All of this is possible at Hong Kong-style cafes, a reflection of my family’s way of slowly eating their way into a new culture. 

As an adult, I’d say that I’ve embraced the melting pot concept. I’ve enjoyed foods from a wide array of countries and love introducing them to my half-Chinese, half-Puerto Rican toddler — a toddler who, by the way, can’t get enough of the creamed corn and chicken with rice that I cook. For me, eating Soy Sauce Western Food now isn’t about assimilating on anyone’s terms, but rather, about reliving a comforting piece of my family’s past. I will keep tossing those cans of creamed corn into the wok and will keep ordering macaroni with Spam at any of Alhambra’s Hong Kong-style cafes.

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