At a little after 5 p.m. on an ordinary Tuesday, people start to stop in front of an eatery wedged beneath an aging walk-up building in a working class Kowloon neighbourhood. By 6 p.m. – when the Covid-19-related ban on dine-in services begins – what started as a steady trickle has become a long line that snakes from inside the restaurant on to the pavement.

People look at dishes for a rice box
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Patrons in the quickly moving queue peer at some 20 pans of steaming Cantonese dishes arranged next to each other like tiles, pondering what to order for takeaway. To get a better view of the vibrant mosaic, some stand on their tiptoes as the shop window sweats with condensation.

One man takes a photo of the options available on his phone. Moments later, he receives the same image back via WhatsApp, with small green circles indicating which dishes to buy.

They are waiting for “two-dishes rice,” as it’s known in Hong Kong, or rice with two sides. English speakers might recognise the meal as a rice box.

Rice with two sides

For as little as HK$17, customers can choose any combination of two dishes – often from dozens of options – which are served with a mountain of white rice. For a few more dollars, they can add a third or even a fourth dish. Soda drinks and hot soup are also among the extras available, although some stores hand them out for free.

This particular east Kowloon eatery is one of almost 300 that have opened since dine-in restrictions first kicked in under the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, according to a database map compiled from user-contributed information. In comparison, the city counts a total of 248 McDonald’s.

Rice box side dish options
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

However, rice with two sides is nothing new in Hong Kong. It has long been popular among money-saving students eating at subsidised university canteens, or blue collar workers looking for the best bang for their buck at cooked-food markets.

Traditionally, the meal’s defining qualities were not its taste or presentation, but its quantity and price.

Dine-in out, takeaway in

In late-July 2020, the Hong Kong government introduced a blanket ban on dining in at restaurants, a strict social distancing measure designed to slow the spread of the city’s third wave of coronavirus infections. It led to an immediate outpouring of anger, as low-income and outdoor workers – those without an office to shelter them from the elements – were seen raking rice from foam boxes while sitting on the pavement or on park benches in the rain.

Within days, the government relented and relaxed the ban, allowing diners to eat in restaurants until 6 p.m. The evening dine-in ban lasted for a total of 100 days until it was lifted in February 2021. Last month, amid a fifth wave of infections, the evening dine-in ban was reintroduced, along with a raft of other social distancing measures.

An old building in To Kwa Wan, Ma tau wai road.
Ma Tau Wai Road. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

When HKFP visited Sam Doh Foods in To Kwa Wan, its manager Dong Min – a young woman with dusty, bleached blonde hair wearing a Bathing Ape T-shirt – was busy filling styrofoam bowls with hot soup as elderly customers chose their sides from some 20 options.

Dishes of the day included steamed whole fish, steamed egg, or pork patties for more delicate, low-salt flavours. For more intense umami bombs, there was deep-fried sweet-and-sour pork, curry ribs, chicken wings, or braised brisket with turnip.

“Our boss opened the store following what other people did,” said Dong. During the first evening dine-in ban, observers noted how Hongkongers grew tired of cooking at home and started eating more takeaway dinners. Seeing that business was booming for similar eateries, Sam Doh’s owner decided to join the ranks of restaurants offering rice boxes – despite having no experience in the food industry – in early 2021.

Andrew Wong, a social worker, was among those for whom the ban on dining in meant ordering more takeaway. “The epidemic was not too severe in 2021, but buying takeout food to eat at home became a habit,” he said.

He got tired of fancier Japanese or Taiwanese food ordered from delivery apps and found himself eating rice with two sides more than ever. He enjoyed the feeling of paying very little to get stuffed.

Sam Doh foods.
Sam Doh in To Kwa Wan. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“If we have to eat takeout long term, rice with two sides – which suits the food habits of Chinese people – will be our ultimate comfort,” Wong said.

For Wong, rice boxes offer a fast and convenient meal option that tastes similar to healthier home-cooked food but with a lower price tag. “Sometimes you want to cook the simplest thing at home, but you still need to go buy a box of tofu, marinate some pork – it’d take you half an hour. Plus you’ve got to make a pot of rice,” he said.

“If I go to the store, I can point at a dish and put it in a box. The taste isn’t that different.”

Facebook ‘concern group’

With more time spent at home and less spent in restaurants since 2020, local food enthusiasts began congregating online in various “food concern groups”, such as one dedicated to Hong Kong-style siu mai, a yellow steamed pork dumpling.

The term “concern group” was commonly used for policy advocacy or social activist groups, but as political activism quietened down following the enactment of the national security law in June 2020, Hongkongers redirected their zeal towards local delicacies.

Around Christmas in 2020, Wong followed suit, creating his own Rice and Two Sides Concern Group on Facebook.

double combo rice concern group
A snapshot of images uploaded by double combo enthusiasts to the concern group. Photo: Screenshot via Facebook.

To date, more than 60,000 rice box enthusiasts have flocked to the online community, eager to mine information on the latest store openings and share reviews of dishes they have tried.

“There were 13.5 shrimps in the two boxes combined – gave them all to my wife,” wrote one reviewer, who laid out the contents from two takeaway boxes for careful examination.

“The veggies look like they were there for too long,” a user wrote in a different post. “The vegetables are a bit yellow,” another user chimed in.

Wong said that some members of the concern group even registered new accounts to post anonymously in case their friends found out about their appreciation of the historically working class dining style.

A customer lining up for a lunch combo takeout in Tai Po.
Customers lining up for lunch in Tai Po. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Thanks to the group’s shared knowledge, Wong said he began venturing further from home for his rice with two dishes. Usually, he would follow other members’ recommendations to look for rice boxes with a unique offering, such as goose intestines or stir-fried clams.

For a food style traditionally too cheap to be considered worthy of reviews – its evolution was well under way.

‘Restaurant quality’

Competition has clearly intensified as more customers post honest – and sometimes unflattering – reviews in Wong’s concern group. The owners and managers of rice box eateries HKFP spoke with all said they check the group on a regular basis to see what dishes their competitors are serving, and sometimes, to respond to customers’ criticisms.

double combo rice - cheap food eats buffet restaurant takeaway takeout cuisine chinese canteen  food cuonter
Counter staff stuffs plastic takeout boxes with dishes of a customer’s choosing. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

When a user complained that their rice was a little on the hard side, chef Kong Chun-ho replied within the minute. The rice was “AAAAA” grade rice from Thailand, he wrote, promising to improve.

Until late last year, Kong, with a full arm of tattoos and hair dyed electric blue, worked at a Chinese seafood restaurant. But business plummeted and the restaurant’s underemployed kitchen staff were paid only a fraction of what they used to earn.

So, Kong – with a former colleague and dim sum chef Alex Hung, who worked the morning shift at the same restaurant – decided to open their own eatery. Their Tai Po store, Ling Lung, now operates like a co-op, where its three kitchen staff are also its shareholders.

Chefs Alex Hung (foreground) and Kong Chun-ho (background) now run their own combo store in Tai Po.
Chefs Alex Hung (foreground) and Kong Chun-ho (background) now run their own store in Tai Po. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Initially, the chefs wanted to offer takeaway dim sum. But they soon realised that customers were more interested in the rice-with-sides options than the Cantonese-style steamed bites. “We realised how big the demand was,” Hung said.

Now, at any given moment, their store offers at least 18 dishes the chefs describe as “seafood restaurant quality,” such as wine braised oxtail, pork belly and taro stew, honey-glazed ribs, or steamed carp, silver pomfret and red seabream. A box of rice with two sides sells for HK$35.

Unlike at a seafood restaurant, where chefs cook each dish to order, at Ling Lung, Kong throws enough ingredients into his wok to fill it. Unable to stir-fry the contents with a spatula, he violently shuffles the wok back and forth over the heat to ensure the food has been sufficiently tossed and tumbled.

Back pain is an occupational hazard, Kong said, and comes from tossing “ten times more food” in a heavy wok to fill 120 pans over the course of a 15-hour day.

double combo rice - kitchen cooking cuisine culinary restaurant chinese cooking
Tossing sweet and sour pork. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The chefs cook enough to sell some 1,000 takeout boxes, and over 900 pounds of meat and up to 300 pounds of vegetable pass through their kitchen daily. Ingredients for lunch service are ordered the night before, with the chefs going to a nearby wet market in the afternoon for another round of shopping.

“We buy whatever looks beautiful,” Hung said. Freshness ensures quality and taste, he adds, which is why he insists on cutting up fresh pineapples every day for their sweet-and-sour pork, instead of using tinned fruit.

Like Dong, the manager of Sam Doh, Ling Lung’s chefs said they monitor the Facebook “concern group” closely for customer feedback, but also to gather intelligence on what competitors are doing. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t look at it,” Hung said.

chef at work
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

At Sam Doh, meanwhile, double combos are as cheap as HK$30 a box, with offerings that are closer to home cooking than seafood restaurant quality. Dong said their 20 options a day cover four cooking methods to ensure variety: steamed, poached, braised and deep fried.

Dong has noticed that elderly customers prefer steamed fish, which are more tender for their ageing teeth, while families with children go for the deep-fried chicken wings. The key to retaining clientele, she said, is to make customers feel their meal “was worth the buck.”

Rice double combo rice - cheap food eats buffet restaurant takeaway takeout cuisine chinese
A rice tower. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

For as long as the pandemic and the dine-in ban last, business looks promising. The store rakes in up to HK$23,000 in daily revenue, Dong said, although when the first dine in-ban was relaxed, there were moments of “bottleneck.”

“If people eat double combos long term, I think it means the economy isn’t going so well,” she said.

With lower rental costs due to these eateries’ smaller sizes, rice boxes typically sell for a fraction of the price of a dinner set or a la carte menu items at a cha chaan teng – affordable Hong Kong-style cafes – even though the dishes may be similar.

bowls of hot soup ready for take away
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

For someone who lives alone, who works all day and who does not have a lot of money to spare, these humble meals can be more cost-effective than home cooking, said food culture scholar Siu Yan-ho. “You can’t eat a whole stalk of celery if you bought it to cook just for yourself,” he said.

Known in the past as poor people’s food, these meals used to be considered “unpalatable, and were cheaply cooked,” Siu said. “By the time you got home with the box, it had turned into a slab.”

Wong described it as food “only uncles would eat.”

And while some stores now offer premium ingredients such as scallops, clams or crabs for a few additional dollars – such as those sought out by concern-group founder Wong – not all have elevated their fare.

“Of course, there are unpalatable options, even now,” Siu said.

Customers choose their side dishes
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Despite its popularity growing during the pandemic, Siu said he believed that the trend for rice with two sides would eventually pass like every other transient food fad in Hong Kong – matcha, purple sweet potato or melted cheese-flavoured foods.

“Once the pandemic is over and people can eat out, travel or find a good job with better pay, there will naturally be less demand for these rice with sides meals,” he said.

But even if the fad fades when the pandemic eventually passes, the dish has become more popular and shed its stigma without being gentrified, Siu said. “When more people follow a trend, it becomes a thing… It’s no longer something that can’t be seen.”

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.