The cha chaan teng was born in post-WWII Hong Kong, where my father was raised when his family, like so many others at the time, fled China and the Communist stronghold. In this historical moment, industrialization grew and the influx of immigrants and factories produced instant noodles and other processed foods for importing and exporting. An interest in Western food combined with new ingredients like macaroni or instant noodles created its own type of cuisine, specific to the time and place. Factory workers needed cheap, quick sustenance and would find it in a cha chaan teng. It was in places like these my father encountered sweetened condensed milk on toast, most likely savoring the sticky sandwich as much as I did growing up.
Sweetened condensed milk is similar to how food writer Laurie Woolever describes a cha chaan teng: “a tableau equal parts Chinese and British, a little bit American, glancingly Australian, and creepingly global.”