A steaming bowl of noodles, served in a light soy based broth with 3 toppings of your choice.
It sounds simple, but it’s really not. Each strand of noodles leaves a lingering taste of egg; the signature of all freshly made noodles. The broth, while subtle in flavor and depth, creates a smooth balance between the rich, almost-creamy-in-texture braised meats and the soft chewy al dente noodles.
You’re not just eating noodles either. With each bite of noodle, each slurp of the broth, you’re experiencing a bit of Hong Kong’s culture through one of their oldest and culturally iconic known noodles dishes.
Originated in Hong Kong of the 1950’s, Cart Noodles (車仔麵) were meant as a cheaper solution for food. Street vendors would take their heavy wooden carts and push it alongside of the streets while yelling “嗱喳麵! 嗱喳麵” and wait as people began to form queues around the cart.
The term “嗱喳麵” is the alternative nickname for Cart Noodles that roughly translates into “the nasty noodles” – it’s been coined this term by locals and non-locals alike because of how unhygienic the noodles had been during those times. People from that generation including my parents would often recount stories of finding cockroaches or parts of rats in their bowl.
Hygenic standards have improved tremendously since then; Hong Kong now no longer has street vendors, much less any street vendors who sell cart noodles. While it’s now nearly impossible to experience the ambience and thrill of eating Hong Kong’s cart noodles by a roadside cart, you can still experience the taste of it. There are still restaurants and cafes all around and throughout Hong Kong that continue to make it and improve upon the recipe.
Cart noodle’s signature characteristic is that it’s served with 3 toppings of choice. Toppings vary vendor to vendor but popular choices include pig skin, curdled pig’s blood, pig intestine, beef ball, curry fish ball, luncheon meat (spam) and chicken wings along with a selection of green vegetables, usually lettuce.
I don’t eat cart noodles often – not because I don’t want to but because it’s now really rare to find a restaurant that specializes in just cart noodles alone and has the quality to show for it. Maybe it’s because I’ve still yet to find a truly authentic version of the cart noodles that match the expectations I’ve gotten from hearing about how incredible cart noodles can be, or because I want to continue to experience a part of my parent’s past but to date, it’s still one of the top foods I look out for whenever I’m in Hong Kong.
If you come across cart noodles in Hong Kong and it seems authentic enough, I highly recommend that you try it. If not for the taste, then at least for the experience. Remember, you’re not just eating cart noodles; you’re enjoying a part of Hong Kong’s culture and history.