Thursday, November 22, 2012

Eating at a dai pai dong is an interesting and fun experience

What is a dai pai dong?
Dai pai dong are located at street levels, with quite often tables set on pavement (particularly in the evening), or indoor in cooked food centres (like the one in Tai Po Hui Market I am going to talk about.) 

Cooked food centres are rather crowded and noisy places. The stalls are close to each other and the tables (also side-by-side) all look alike. You’d better check that the table you want to sit at belongs to the dai pai dong you have chosen.

Note: The Cantonese pronunciation (Yale Romanization) is daaih-pàaih-dóng - 大牌檔 - literally means: big licence stall.

Click to the video below and listen to the background sound of a dai pai dong.

Dishes are quickly transferred via a kitchen pass-through. In front of the stall ladies are washing dishes. Dirty and clean cutlery, plates and bowls are all piled up in separate crates and pails. Dried and canned foods are packed in cardboard boxes nearby. Although it seems like an absolute mess the stall workers are at ease and everything seems conveniently placed.

Front: Jar of tea with label (chàh = tea)
Behind: coloured crates/boxes full of clean dinnerware.
The dining tables, most of them round, are fixed as well as some of the stools around them. Extra stools can be added in between the fixed ones.
Each table is set and covered with a thin coloured plastic sheet. A few basic and necessary things are put in the centre such as chilli sauce, vinegar, a container full of orange chopsticks, toothpicks, a pack of paper towels (if not already there check near you), and - this list would not be complete without it - a (plastic or metal) large bowl to wash dinner ware in and a (plastic) jug of tea. This tea is not only meant to wash the cutlery with but also to be consumed. This tea is light in flavour and of low quality.

Note 1: This is customary (in dai pai dong) to wash chopsticks, rice bowls and glasses with tea before using them. 
Note 2: non-plastic glasses are available if you order a beer (or if you have brought your own bottle of wine or spirit) and even a plate of complimentary roasted peanuts (on our 2nd visit we were pleasantly surprised to be offered peanuts as we did not had some on our 1st visit).

The service is handled in a quick and efficient way. Once you have witnessed the rapidity in which the table are set and cleared you will understand why plastic dinnerware is used.
There is no table-top bin (what we call “poubelle de table” in French) and diners put bones and other rubbish on the dining table. As soon as customers have paid waiters/waitresses quickly clear the table, gather all rubbish in the centre, roll up the disposable cover and throw it away (this is the thing I don’t like about this method: efficient but very bad for the environment.)

One interesting part of this dining experience is that dishes are cooked very close to the dining area and you can hear the roaring fire and continuous stirring and scrapping of the wok spatula. The cooks make good stir-fries as they have the tools and know how to build “wohk-hei 鑊氣”

The other interesting and fun part of eating at dai pai dong is that you can bring your own fish and seafood and ask the stall to cook them for you (the way you want). On that evening we bought a fish (grouper family) for HK$150 at one of the fish stalls (G/F - Tai Po Hui Market) a few minutes before our meal. Then we headed straight to the 2nd floor and ordered our food at one of the stalls.

Here are the photos of the dishes we had:
Steamed fish (typical Cantonese food)

Squid w/ bitter melon in black bean sauce

Stir-fried flowering garlic chives
((Garlic shoots/sprouts – syun-sâm 蒜心)

Our meal was washed down with beer.

Our bill (in a glass)
Dai pai dong are inexpensive places to eat at. If you don’t have high expectation in terms of hygiene and service then you could be pleasantly surprised by the quality and taste of the food.

Breakdown of our bill:
Steaming of fish = HK$40
Squid with bitter melon = HK$58
Chinese garlic chives= HK$40
HK$138 (excluding beer and fish)

[Why we did not order steamed rice? I forgot. We usually order a bowl as it goes so well with (the sauce of) the fish]

For me a dai pai dong is a typical local Hong Kong eatery and a must see and must try; and I’d like to recommend to any new comers to Hong Kong to eat there once.

Cooked food centre - 2nd floor - Tai Po Hui Market


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