Like clockwork, around 3 p.m. each day, my mom makes herself a cup of milk tea with toast (crusts off, like a tea sandwich.) The ritual of afternoon tea has been ingrained in my now-retired parents from back when they worked in offices in Hong Kong. It’s why cha chaan tengs (Hong Kong diners) and bakeries don’t really have a downtime between lunch and dinner as the afternoon tea crowds file in to get their milk tea, pineapple buns, egg tarts and little snacks like fried chicken wings and fries. (I love that wings and fries are considered a snack.)

This daily ritual is the result of Hong Kong having been a British colony for more than a century, up until 1997 when the territory was handed over to China. Hong Kong food is a mishmash of global cuisines due to Hong Kong’s history under British rule and as an international port (it was fusion before fusion was a thing.) It’s a glorious cuisine unlike anything else in the world, and I’ve been enjoying more of it over the past two years when everyone was turning to their own versions of comfort food amid the pandemic.

But in the last week I’ve been thinking more about the food I grew up with after the announcement of Queen Elizabeth II’s death. Even though it’s been 25 years since the handover, the British influence (and the late Queen herself) has always been in the background for me and others who remember Hong Kong before the mid-1990s. I look back fondly on that era when Hong Kong culture had a global impact comparable to that of South Korea today. But with the Queen’s passing, there are renewed discussions on the British monarchy’s history of oppression and forced labour around the world, and I’m reminded of how much the food I grew up on is tied to the legacy of colonialism.

At the typical cha chaan teng, you’ll see Chinese interpretations of British dishes. This is because these restaurants started out as an affordable way for regular Hong Kongers to get a taste of the aspirational lifestyle of Europeans at the time. Milk tea was tweaked from the British version by substituting fresh milk with easier-to-find evaporated milk. Macaroni soup with luncheon meat approximated a pasta dish with fancy ham. Toast and scrambled eggs became a breakfast staple. Lyle’s Golden Syrup, a British cane sugar syrup, is used on French toast rather than maple. Western-style bakeries popped up serving pastries, cakes and items such as egg tarts as a riff on English custard tarts. (Nearby, Macau has egg tarts too, but they’re closer to the pastel de nata, given Macau’s history as a former Portuguese colony).

More recently, a cohort of millennial restaurateurs opened cha chaan tengs, nostalgic for their childhoods spent in ‘80s and ‘90s Hong Kong. That was the era when many families (including mine) left Hong Kong and came to Canada, unsure what the territory would be like after the handover. From there, dozens of Cantonese and Hong Kong-style restaurants opened in the GTA, especially in Scarborough’s Agincourt neighbourhood, which was unofficially dubbed “Asiancourt” due to the influx of Chinese residents and businesses.

I’m writing this because cuisines never exist in a vacuum and are shaped by factors such as migration, climate and, yep, colonialism. Hong Kong came under British rule at the end of the first Opium War in 1842, which stemmed from China attempting to stop traders, many of whom were British, from illegally exporting opium to China, which caused widespread addiction. After years of warfare, Chinese forces were outmatched by the British, and as part of peace negotiations, Hong Kong was ceded to British rule.

With human history, however messy and fraught, comes food history. But I’m not writing this to make anyone feel guilty about their milk tea or afternoon pineapple bun (I repeat, I am not trying to cancel the pineapple bun!) Rather my goal is to emphasize that dishes don’t appear out of thin air. Cuisines change and are shaped by the people who make the food over centuries during good times and bad, and with each generation the symbolism behind the dishes changes. It’s a similar story for many other cuisines and cherished dishes around the world.

The beloved Hong Kong milk tea started off as regular English tea served at high-end hotels and restaurants inaccessible to most Hong Kongers before it trickled down to the masses and was tweaked for local tastes. It’s now a symbol of pride that’s even recognized by the government’s heritage office. Younger generations have also turned milk tea into ice cream flavours and towering shaved ice desserts perfect for TikTok.

There can be multiple truths in that a dish can be delicious and integral to your culture and upbringing, but it can also have an unsavoury past. It can conjure up warm, fuzzy feelings, grief or a combination of both, and everyone will have different feelings towards it, all of which are valid. I recognize the dishes I ate throughout my childhood and continue to make are heavily influenced by an empire that’s been rife with scandal and controversy long before Queen Elizabeth II took the throne.

To appreciate food is to know all of its parts — the sweet and the bitter. And just like a cup of milky Hong Kong tea, the feelings around them aren’t always clear.

Karon Liu is a Toronto-based food reporter for the Star. Reach him via email: