Why Hong Kong Restaurants Serve Hot Water, Instead of Cold Water

When you go to restaurants in Hong Kong, like a lot of countries, you get a glass of water immediately after you sit down. However, Hong Kong local restaurants (Cantonese style or the Cha Caan Tang) usually serve you hot (or warm) water instead of iced water or tap water. While Hong Kong locals already get used to it, tourists and expats might find it weird to have hot water. Why does this phenomenon exist?

Hong Kong restaurants serve more hot water than iced water (Photo: hojotea.com)

Hong Kong restaurants serve more hot water than iced water (Photo: hojotea.com)

From my observations and understandings, there are two main reasons:

Utensil Washing Tradition
One of the most popular Hong Kong local food culture is that restaurant goers tend to wash the plates and utensils before they eat, especially at the places that serve dim sums. Restaurant staff would give customers a big bowl of hot or bowling water to wash the plates, and together with an empty bowl for the diners to pour away the washed and dirty water. It’s hardly because the plates and utensils are not clean that this tradition emerged, maybe it’s because Hong Kongers want to feel more secure about the hygiene of the plates and utensils as the diners share all the dishes as a eating culture.

Hong Kong Food Culture - Washing Utensils

Instead of drinking the hot tea served for free, Hong Kong people use it for cleaning their utensils

Due to this plate washing tradition with restaurant staff always serving hot water, even when at places without the need to wash the plates, the staff would just serve customers hot water, or sometimes hot tea, by default. I mean, how could you wash the plates with iced water?

Ices Drinks Cost More
At Hong Kong’s Cha Caan Tangs (“tea restaurants” in Cantonese), there’s a practice that iced drinks are charged around HK$2-3 more than hot drinks for set meals. This practice also happens at canteens, cafeterias and some western restaurants owned by Hong Kongers. Similar to the previous reason, iced water is not in particular any more expensive than hot water because both the freezer and the water bowling machine involves operating costs anyway. But there’s a norm that iced water are just charged more.

"Iced drinks add two dollars" is a common practice by Hong Kong restaurants.

“Iced drinks add two dollars” is a common practice by Hong Kong restaurants.

As a result of this tradition, restaurant staff don’t give out iced water for free because they don’t want to give up the opportunity of charging diners more for iced drinks because diners usually order iced drinks for set meals anyway.

After-thoughts
Although Hong Kong people are already accustomed to this hot water serving tradition, foreigners and expats could find it weird and they might ask for free iced water instead. Over time, I’ve seen that restaurants staff would prepare iced waters specifically for foreigners because they know non locals prefer cold water more. When the local restaurant staff see non-locals arrive, they would call the kitchen staff to make iced water, only for the foreigners.

What kind of water you prefer? Do you use the hot water to wash the utensils or do you ask for iced water at local restaurants?

You may take a look at my previous article about 9 Characteristics of Hong Kong Food Culture for a better idea of Hong Kong’s dining traditions. If you want to know what Hong Kong restaurants staff are like, please read 3 Types of Restaurants Staff in Hong Kong.

25 Comments on Why Hong Kong Restaurants Serve Hot Water, Instead of Cold Water

  1. esthertung
    April 29, 2013 at 11:49 am (1 year ago)

    The reason that my parents and family tell me is also that they believe hot water is ‘healthier’ than cold water. Chinese people usually seem to believe that hot food or drinks at least feel more nourishing and don’t upset the internal organs as much, which is why usually you’ll see older folk order hot drinks even in the dead of summer.

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 29, 2013 at 1:03 pm (1 year ago)

      True. My mother tells me exactly the same thing too, and I like warm water :)

      Reply
      • Jenny Meister
        May 19, 2013 at 11:53 pm (1 year ago)

        My mother, who was from the French part of Switzerland, always said: drink a glass of hot water before breakfast. I stick to it.

        Reply
        • Jin Wong
          May 20, 2013 at 12:14 am (1 year ago)

          Thanks for sharing, Jenny. Yeah, my mom told me the same thing when I was small. Guess your mother thinks that hot water is healthy too.

          Reply
          • Erika Wong
            July 17, 2014 at 12:51 am (1 week ago)

            In naturopathic and traditional Chinese medicine, they say that warm water is better for you because cold water is too shocking for your system. That your body has to use more energy to “heat” it up while you are drinking it.

  2. Daniel
    April 29, 2013 at 12:33 pm (1 year ago)

    ‘Why does this phenomenon exist?’… haha, its hardly a phenomenon but it certainly happens everywhere. I recently went to a locally owned Vietnamese restaurant in Fortress Hill. They gave my 4 year old son and me steaming hot water. It was just boiled. I looked at my son and said ‘what are we meant to do with these?’. How can this ‘gor go’ expect us to drink this within the next 45 minutes? As we say in Australia, one of his best!

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 29, 2013 at 1:03 pm (1 year ago)

      Your son has common sense!

      Reply
  3. Wai Shing Lee
    April 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm (1 year ago)

    For the Utensil Washing Tradition, it really is about cleanliness. If you ever see how the utensils are being washed, it’s normally just a person in the back alley with a hose (if you’re lucky) and some soap. In order to save time, it’s a very quick job and very often, you may still find some stains or a dried grain of rice on the utensils. After it is “washed”, it is stacked very casually where it is possible for dust to settle and cockroaches to roam. So it’s wise to give it a rinse before using.

    Agree with Esther with the mentality that hot water is supposed to be healthier. Apparently, cold water causes the oils in the human internal organs to congeal which is not good. Also, restaurants normally buy ice which is delivered which is an additional cost.

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm (1 year ago)

      I agree the utensil washing tradition is for assuring cleanliness. But another off-topic issue for this is that, would this tradition make restaurants staff make less effort in washing the dish?

      Reply
      • Wai Shing Lee
        April 29, 2013 at 1:24 pm (1 year ago)

        To be honest, I think there was never much effort made in the beginning. Hence the need for this tradition.

        Reply
  4. arnold
    April 29, 2013 at 9:43 pm (1 year ago)

    I visited hong Kong for the first time last Feb. I was shocked that didn’t served cold water. But I was even more shocked that they didn’t provided any napkins with my meal. When I go back to HK next year, I will bring with me napkins.

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm (1 year ago)

      Those restaurants that don’t serve napkins are likely to be small noodles shops. They also don’t charge you service charge because there is literally no “service” from them. At the small restaurants, you might still get water (hot or warm, not cold), but you might need to get the water from the jar on the table (and you’re likely to share the table with random people when the restaurants get busy).

      Because these kind of small restaurants don’t charge you 10% service charge, they’re also likely not to provide any water or napkins at all. Of course, those restaurants that with slightly better decoration or higher-priced menu would provide you both water and napkins (and even cold water if it’s a western restaurant).

      I would say don’t get bothered by restaurants not serving napkins. These restaurants are likely to be small resties, they can hardly earn a margin from the inflating material prices and expensive rents, that’s why they even charge customers who want to but a pack of tissues. It’s the purely Hong Kong style restaurants.

      Reply
    • Wai Shing Lee
      April 29, 2013 at 10:01 pm (1 year ago)

      I completely agree with what Jin has said. I have a simple rule. No napkin, no additional tip.

      Reply
  5. zenlifefrugal
    April 30, 2013 at 1:15 am (1 year ago)

    I wonder if some of the restaurants have thought about converting some of the chopsticks to wooden. But I do agree that it might be a good thing to wash the utensils before eating though.

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 30, 2013 at 6:31 am (1 year ago)

      Some restaurants do provide wooden chopsticks. What’s the difference? Do you like wooden chopsticks more?

      Reply
      • zenlifefrugal
        April 30, 2013 at 7:28 am (1 year ago)

        Sometimes. I was thinking more from a sanitation standpoint. I know in other countries they tend to provide wooden chopsticks only.

        Reply
  6. May
    April 30, 2013 at 6:50 am (1 year ago)

    Try hot water with fresh squeezed lemon juice when you get up in the morning, It do wonders to your system.

    I lived practically most of my life in the west and still dont get how people here can have a cold sandwich in winter, I love to have my noodles hot in summer and I love to drink all the time hot green tea

    Reply
    • Jin Wong
      April 30, 2013 at 6:57 am (1 year ago)

      I like hot drinks too. I usually order hot coffee or in the summer I prefer cold lemon tea. Thanks for the tips!

      Reply
  7. Michael
    May 2, 2013 at 10:57 am (1 year ago)

    The reason hot water is served is because the tap water is not safe to drink without being boiled. If they wanted to serve you cold water it would have to be bottled water or boiled water that has been cooled both are too much trouble or too expensive for free water so they just give you the water hot. Most chinese people think drinking hot water is better for your stomach anyway.

    Reply
  8. daan tart
    May 11, 2013 at 9:04 pm (1 year ago)

    i like hot lemon coke.

    Reply
  9. dream-bear
    August 20, 2013 at 8:05 pm (11 months ago)

    With the growing number of mainland travelers, most eateries are not providing this freebie anymore because these travelers will top up their drinking bottles and the providers will never find enough to supply to these travelers especially in hot sticky summer. I have seen eateries with posters indicating free drinks are not provided.

    It is normal to see patrons washing dishes at the table regardless of dim sum restaurants or other smaller eateries because most of the time, bleach / Clorox is used during the washing process. Sometimes, the smell of bleach is still there when the utensils are placed in front of patrons. Therefore, people tend to ask for hot water to enable rinsing of the dishes.

    The hands of the waiters/waitresses may not be that clean and hence the washing just for safety conscience.

    Reply
  10. J
    August 27, 2013 at 4:25 am (11 months ago)

    Coming from San Francisco, I was so shocked when I first came to Hong Kong and noticed they serve only hot water. It was even more funny when they couldn’t understand me when I ordered ice water. On top of that, this was all in the summertime! I wish there was more iced water! I guess it’s a cultural thing.

    Reply
  11. Sinan
    January 1, 2014 at 2:03 am (7 months ago)

    I was recently at a dim sum restaurant in Vancouver and wasn’t paying attention when I served myself tea into my bowl. The waiter came over to pour it out. My friend’s girlfriend said she thought I was being very traditional and cleaning my bowl because that’s what her mother does.

    Reply
  12. gabyu
    February 14, 2014 at 11:39 am (5 months ago)

    Another reason I imagined in another Asian city (Shanghai) was for diet: By drinking hot water it helps to get rid of fat that burns ‘liquid’ instead of cold water than turns it ‘solid’.

    Reply
    • Jin
      February 14, 2014 at 11:41 am (5 months ago)

      This is kind of true actually. Chinese people always think that hot water is more healthy and it warms your stomach and burns the “poisons’ away.

      Reply

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