Asia Society Food Series - Dai Pai Dong Cuisine

Inside a dai pai dong. (Asia Society Hong Kong Centre)

HONG KONG, April 1, 2009 – Transforming a table for four into a table for 16 is a common sight at Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs, the popular grassroots eateries scattered throughout the city. Just add an extra table top on top of the existing table. Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s launched its Food Series with a look at dai pai dong culture over dinner at Tung Po Seafood Restaurant.

How the name “dai pai dong” came about remains a mystery; some say it derives from their appearance - long rows of street stalls, while others say the name came from the long benches that stall operators used to place small stools upon for squatting and eating.  

Restaurateur and food critic Frank Sun explained that dai pai dongs were fast food joints often scattered nearby ferry piers where hungry travelers could get a quick bite before continuing their journey. Dai pai dongs flourished in the 1950s, with each stall specializing in different dishes, for example wonton noodles or beef brisket noodles.

Rapid urbanization and redevelopment forced dai pai dongs to relocate. The dai pai dongs that we know today essentially come in three guises: those located in back alleys; others based inside government-run wet market complexes, and the traditional open space food stalls which are considered the most “authentic.”

The popular Tung Po Seafood Restaurant, located on the second floor of the Java Road Market, North Point, is run by the dynamic Robby Cheung, who was asked by his father-in-law to take over the business 16 years ago. Although he had no experience operating a Chinese restaurant, he had plenty of enthusiasm and has transformed the business from a small quiet restaurant to the raucous, lively eatery we know now.

In April, Asia Society members gathered here for a 12-course meal including signature cuttlefish balls cooked in squid ink with noodles and drunken prawns infused with lychee. Beer flowed freely, served in chilled bowls, while guests enjoyed the dai pai dong experience. As Sun put it, “it’s not just about the food. It’s also about the noise, about the clinking of things, about people shouting. What sets the dining experience of dai pai dong apart – it’s casual, boisterous, fun, and hard to get a table.”

While there has been a gradual disappearance of dai pai dongs in Hong Kong (the government stopped issuing new licenses in 1983), Sun is confident that as long as the city’s passion for good food and fun dining continues, dai pai dongs will remain an integral part of Hong Kong culture.