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?
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.
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.
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.
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.