Whenever I crack open a can of condensed milk, my brain is flooded with memories of my time in Hong Kong: A slice of French toast, golden and fresh from the deep-fryer, sits on the plate before me. Peanut butter oozes from the center of the thick, crisped slices of bread, and lashes of condensed milk slowly dribble off the sides. A perfect square pat of butter sits on top. It's three in the morning-a little early for breakfast, perhaps, but my friends and I are nevertheless eating toast and sipping on cups of creamy, full-bodied Hong Kong milk tea. Seated around us in bright orange booths, other hungry, inebriated humans have come for the same thing after a night out: the greasy, comforting delights of the cha chaan teng, a type of diner-style coffee shop that has been a mainstay of Hong Kong culture since the 1950s.
These establishments are an emblem of the past and a place of nostalgia for Hong Kongers who, like me, often struggle to place themselves in a continuously changing city that's no longer British but not quite Chinese either. Many of these cafés still have the same ceiling fans, formica tables, and tiled walls of decades past. As I chew slowly, I take in the sound of drunken laughter and Cantonese chatter, grateful that the cha chaan teng exists.
When full-service restaurants were introduced to Hong Kong by the British in the 1930s, they were designated for wealthy colonizers and Chinese merchants. These restaurants were largely inaccessible to Hong Kong locals, who not only couldn't afford to eat at these places, but were also barred from even entering them. Even so, those locals-inspired by British afternoon tea culture-sought to create their own spaces and opened establishments called bing sutts, or "ice rooms." Bing sutts typically served light snacks and cold refreshments that featured Western ingredients brought to the island by the British. In the 1950s, Hong Kong entered a postwar industrial boom, and workers needed affordable places to eat and rest. Bing sutts expanded their menus to include rice and noodle dishes, pastries, and breakfast foods, which they served around the clock and infused with local flair. Over time many of these bing sutts transformed into cha chaan tengs, which offered more of a full-service coffee shop experience.
Today many of the dishes on cha chaan menus still feature canned goods, including evaporated or condensed milk, Spam, and corned beef, which hearkens back to a time when fresh milk and meat were difficult to come by. For the British, "tea time was still a national pastime," notes freelance journalist Alana Dao, "and sweetened condensed milk allowed them to keep many of their traditions and, perhaps unwittingly, pass them on to generations of Chinese." Canned milk provided both locals and expats with affordable dairy and became an indelible part of Hong Kong cuisine-it appears today in many beloved foods, including Hong Kong-style French toast.
I reached out to Kristina Cho, the author of Mooncakes and Milk Bread, when I came across her recipe for Hong Kong-style French toast, which wouldn't look at all out of place in a cha chaan teng. Condensed milk has been a part of Cho's life for as long as she can remember, but she first experienced Hong Kong-style French toast with peanut butter when she visited the city as a child. Even when Cho was growing up in Cleveland, her mom would top both French and buttered toast with condensed milk. In her opinion condensed milk is far superior to maple syrup, especially for breakfast. She tells me, "We even poured [condensed milk] over pancakes and waffles."
Cho's version of Hong Kong-style French toast does stray slightly from tradition in other ways, though. While most cha chaan tengs deep-fry their French toast-an ideal method for quick, high-volume cooking throughout the day-Cho's version is made in a pan with unsalted butter, making it easier for home cooks who don't want to heat up a vat of oil.
Back in my kitchen in New York City, I spread peanut butter between two slices of milk bread with the crusts cut off, then soak the sandwich in a custard of eggs, whole milk, cinnamon, and salt. I place the sandwich into the pan, and-at Cho's suggestion-cover it with a lid to help the French toast cook thoroughly. I then flip it, leaving it to finish uncovered until the other side is golden brown. I spoon condensed milk over the top of my toast and savor each bite of rich peanut butter against milk bread-crisp yet custardy. It's four in the afternoon, but it might as well be breakfast time-or 3 a.m.-because this simple dish is perfect no matter what time it is.