Steam rises from a pot, cuts through the chilly November air and fills a crowded Market Square with a delightful whiff of lunchtime goodness. Nick Tse gently ladles a batch of noodles from the pot into a container, mixing in sauces and toppings. He then locks eyes with a customer and smiles as he hands over the dish.
Tse opened his Market Square stall, Street Food HK, in July of 2016. The only other staff member is Yan Yu, whom Tse first met while they were both working in a nearby restaurant. While Tse takes flurries of orders and diverts his attention between pots of rice and noodles, Yu tosses around sizzling vegetables and meats in a pan. Together, they seek to ensure the prompt delivery of elaborate meals to locals and visitors alike.
“I just like making food, and I like to meet people,” Tse tells me in Mandarin. “To pass each day chatting with friends – it’s pretty enjoyable.”
When Tse first came to England in 1993, he noticed that there were few restaurants where he could find the food he was used to eating. While some restaurants serve dishes from northern China, few provide specialties from the geographic south, where Hong Kong is located.
“I felt like here, there weren’t too many offerings for people from my area,” Tse says. “The things I wanted to eat, I had to make them. I couldn’t get the same flavors out in restaurants. So the thinking was to make my own things to eat.”
Street Food HK is open from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. each day except Saturday. Every morning, Tse loads a car full of fresh ingredients to bring to work. He and Yu start setting up at 7:30 a.m., replacing their business’ menus, signs and decorations (a Hong Kong flag adorns one side of the stall, with the Union Jack spread across the opposite end). They begin preparing rice and boiling water to be ready for early customers.
Tse says that his most popular dish is the “scallion noodles,” which can be served plain, with vegetables, with shredded chicken or with a chicken steak. Those noodles use a “handcrafted special sauce” – an original recipe that Tse and his wife put together at home. Each week’s sauce takes up to five hours to make, he says.
On Mondays and Fridays, Street Food HK also offers soup specials. Cantonese cuisine is known for its soups, and students seem to enjoy them, according to Tse.
“People from the southern part of China – we like soup,” he says. “It’s a different soup each day that I make for students.”
Tse communicates with customers in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (he says that his English is not very good, but he can make do in basic conversation). With the regulars, he will joke around and perhaps throw in a wink or two. Outside of the stall’s busiest hours, he might even join a table of diners to have a chat.
Part of the joy, Tse says, is Market Square’s friendly character. He often pops over to catch up with other vendors, such as those across the aisle at Jian Bing House. It’s a lifestyle he has come to embrace.
“In this market, the atmosphere’s pretty good,” he says. “It’s lively, everyone around here gets along well. Everyone helps out here and there. The tourists, the students – they’re all quite nice. I’m quite happy to work here.”