Hong Kong: Touching the Heart
If there is one thing that really sums up the essence of Hong Kong it is the Cantonese favourite of dim sum. It is so more than just a meal, it is a dining experience that is a way of life for many people and something that I recommend every serious diner must try at least once in their lifetime. Find a good restaurant that sells good authentic dim sum and I guarantee you will be coming back for more and more. Dim sum is a much cherished part of Cantonese cuisine and an essential introduction to the real Hong Kong.
The opportunity to yum char with friends and family is something that the majority of Cantonese look forward to. Good food, good conversation and the chance to catch up and relax with loved ones it really doesn’t get much better. Yum char literally means to drink tea but it is commonly accepted now to mean eating and drinking which is something that the locals excel at. Cantonese dim sum restaurants are very noisy and often crowded places with conversations continuing uninterrupted throughout the meal. I am not sure if it is the conversation that compliments the meal or the meal that compliments the conversation but whatever the case it is a hugely popular dining experience and one that really helps to immerse and integrate you into the heart of the culture of this wonderful place.
Dim sum in translation simply means to touch the heart, which is said to originate from the way Cantonese housewives used to prepare small steamed dumplings as a breakfast or lunchtime treat for their husbands. These dumplings were made with great love and care and as they came from the heart so these treats became known as dim sum. Nowadays over 2,000 kinds of dim sum are produced and enjoyed by millions of people in China and Hong Kong every day. Hong Kong is the true home of dim sum and its origins can be traced back to the early travellers who visited the island seeking some refreshment and a place to rest before continuing on their journey. In response the first teahouses began to appear although at first food was not served as it was thought that food combined with tea would lead to excessive weight gain and detract from the taste of the tea. Soon it was discovered that tea actually aided digestion and helped cleanse the palate heralding the introduction of the small buns and dumplings that were the forerunners of dim sum.
Dim sum is best described as a light meal served from early morning through until late afternoon accompanied by a light Chinese Jasmine or Chrysanthemum tea. In Hong Kong it is common for some restaurants to open as early as five in the morning as traditionally it is the place to go after completing your morning exercises. Generally the busiest time is around midday with weekends particularly popular as these are considered to be family days. The choice of dim sum is staggering with the average restaurant serving around 100 different dishes using a wide variety of meat, seafood and vegetables with a broad range of textures and tastes to excite the pallet. They are really appetisers in the same vein as French hors d'oeuvres giving Hong Kong’s talented chefs the chance to experiment with many new and innovative culinary ideas. Savoury steamed buns, dumplings and rice rolls are traditionally served along with sweet cakes and tarts in small portions with three or four pieces per dish. It is the accepted practise to order several dishes and to share these with everyone round the table so that everyone gets to try a wide variety of food.
You may even see people ordering side dishes of steamed vegetables. A particular favourite is choi sum, a green flowering Chinese cabbage with tender and delicious stems which is often served with an oyster sauce. Plates of roast meats such as pork, duck and goose are common as are fried rice and noodle dishes depending on the appetite of the diners. Dim sum can be ordered from a printed menu but more often the food is wheeled round on a trolley where you can look and order what you want. Normally you will have a bill at your table where your server can mark what dishes you have eaten so this can be totalled up at the end when you are ready to pay.
Nowadays you can even find dim sum at some of the dai pai dong street stalls or as frozen or chilled snacks in convenience stores that you can reheat in the microwave. You may even be served dim sum on your flight out to Hong Kong as they are becoming increasingly more popular with people outside of Asia. They are variations on the dim sum you will see in the restaurants and obviously not a patch on the real thing but interesting to try nonetheless. Incidentally some dim sum restaurants also offer a takeaway service for busy businessmen, students and office workers who don’t have the time for a leisurely lunch.
As most dim sum restaurants are extremely popular you may find that you will have to wait for a table particularly if you wish to dine during the busy lunchtime period. Normally there will be some sort of ticketing system in operation where on arrival you will be given a numbered ticked which will be called out when a table becomes available similar to the system used at most large supermarket delicatessen counters. Be aware that your number may be called out in Cantonese and that there may not be a display showing the number for you to watch. Don’t let this put you off as more often than not your host will speak English or some kindly person in the queue will translate for you. If all else fails just keep going up with your ticket in hand and the hostess will help you.
Once in the restaurant you may be escorted to a vacant table but more often than not you will be expected to find a vacant table of your own choice. You are free to sit anywhere with the exception of some tables which will be clearly marked as reserved and set aside for regular diners. On the table you will find a printed menu card, which is normally written in Chinese along with an English translation of the dishes available. Simply mark which dishes you require and hand this sheet to your waiter who will process your order. The sheet will be returned to your table and act as your bill throughout the meal. In the restaurant you will see several ladies moving about with large trolleys piled with bamboo baskets of dim sum. It is acceptable to leave your seat and choose dim sum from these trolleys throughout your meal. The server will mark which dim sum you have taken on your sheet and this will be totalled up at the end of your meal to work out your bill. In these places the dim sum are individually priced with the prices displayed on the menu so the more you eat the more you pay. There is also usually a 10% service charge added to the bill so it pays to keep a count of the dishes you consume if you are on a tight budget although in most establishments they are all very reasonably priced. You may occasionally find restaurants offering a set price for dim sum but usually in these outlets the choice is limited and not quite so good.
Tea will be served as soon as you sit at the table sometimes in two teapots, one full of tea the other just hot water ready to replenish the pot. Don’t be alarmed if you see people washing their chopsticks in the tea, as this is an accepted practise to clean and sterilize them before the meal starts. Tea may also be used to clean sticky fingers, just place any tea used for cleaning in one of the bowls provided and your waiter will clear it away. If during the course of a meal you require more tea or hot water the accepted way to ask for a refill is to leave the teapot lid slightly askew which is a signal to any passing waiter that a refill is needed. Look around for yourself and you will see this act happening many times in the course of a busy lunch session without a word being said between the diners and the waiter. Similarly if you have finished with your pot turn the lid upside down as this signals that you have finished and the pot may be removed from the table. This simple custom has its origins in a legend passed down through many generations of Chinese. It is said that it originates from the story of a poor student who hatched a plan to get himself a free meal. He took his pet bird to a restaurant hiding it in his empty teapot while he dined. His waiter, unaware of the situation came to refill the teapot and lifted the lid, allowing the bird to fly away. The student made a loud fuss and claimed it was a very valuable bird demanding a free meal as compensation. The restaurant owner apologised and gave the student a free meal but from that day on he insisted that his waiters only fill teapots where the lid was placed to one side. This according to legend is a practise, which was taken up by many other restaurants to prevent this happening in their establishments.
Dim sum restaurants are very traditional places with many rituals observed at the table, which the average Westerner may be unaware of. We have looked in an earlier chapter at some of the superstitions associated with chopsticks and general dining etiquette but take a seat in any restaurant and you are bound to see many more. Take the act of finger tapping which is common in many dim sum restaurants when someone has poured tea. You will usually see the recipient tapping the table with three fingers of the same hand in a silent expression of gratitude to the person who poured the tea. This gesture is not a superstitious act but dates back to the time of the emperor Qian Long of China. The legend reports that the emperor and some of his aides visited Jiang Nan in the guise of commoners so that the local people would not recognise him. On their way they stopped at a teahouse for refreshment and were served by a waiter who set several bowls on the table and began pouring tea from a great height without spilling a drop. The emperor was amazed at this and so when his subordinate’s cups were empty he took the kettle and poured tea for them in a similar fashion. His companions were humbled by this act and wanted to kneel and pay their respects to him but as they were in disguise they could not do anything. One of the party came upon the idea of tapping the table with three fingers of the same hand in order to symbolise the kneel and kowtow gesture that was the traditional manner of respect towards an emperor. So this is why to this day many Chinese will tap the table as a respectful way of thanking someone for the act of pouring tea.
There are many dim sum restaurants throughout Hong Kong and many different opinions on which ones are the best and serve the best food. The Luk Yu Teahouse on Stanley Street in Central not only serves good tea but excellent dim sum as well with the surroundings of this vestige of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage adding greatly to the overall dining experience. One of my favourite places to enjoy dim sum is Maxims Palace on the 2nd floor of the City Hall Low Block in Central with fantastic views across Victoria Harbour. It has an airy and light spacious restaurant with gilded dragons and phoenix on the walls and friendly faces serving you what is remarkably good quality and delicious dim sum. There are two ornate chandeliers which dominate the high ceiling room looking down on the crowded red and gold decorated restaurant. There are comfortable red chairs along with round and square tables draped in clean white linen. The staff are friendly and the traditional dim sum trolleys are still in evidence offering some of the best dim sum in Hong Kong. The restaurant is extremely popular so come early and be prepared to wait for a table. The food is worth the wait and although relatively expensive by Hong Kong standards it is worth the wait. Expect to pay between HK$23 and HK$42 per dish and try the baked barbecued pork puff and steamed shrimp dumplings and you will be hooked.
If you fancy a more upmarket venue for your dim sum then you could do no better than Dragon I in Wyndham Street in Central. It is the regarded as the trendiest club on the island and is the place that has been frequented by such celebrities as David Beckham, Michael Jordan, Jackie Chan and Mick Jagger. It is a privately owned club, bar and restaurant that is regarded as the home of the colourful people in Hong Kong society. The restaurant known as the Red Room serves Chinese-Japanese fusion food until 10pm when the room turns into a VIP lounge and the place to be seen in Hong Kong. The main area is called the Playground with a dance floor and New York style seating booths bathed in the ambient glow of red lights or you may prefer to sit at the long bar amongst the beige and gold décor or perhaps out on the terrace under the hanging songbird cages. An interesting feature of Dragon I, which has caught many visitors unawares are the unisex toilets. Male and female patrons actually share the same facilities, which can come as a bit of a shock if you are unprepared. Actually the system works well as it is all very private and clean but it is still quite amusing to see the reaction of people who think they have wandered inadvertently into the wrong washroom.
The dim sum in Dragon I is pretty good offering you an all you can eat dim sum menu for a set price, which is pretty reasonable, or you can order a la carte from an extensive selection of attractive dishes. You have the choice of ordering wok dishes, salads or Japanese set lunches along with a nice selection of desserts so no one will go home hungry. One interesting feature of the menu are the little symbols used next to the dishes; such as a star for new dishes, a leaf for vegetarian dishes and a Bruce Lee figure to denote kick ass dishes, now that is my kind of restaurant! Try the steamed shrimp dumplings with bamboo shoots or the cold spinach with sesame sauce and you will be soon coming back for more.
My favourite place for traditional dim sum however is the Majesty Seafood Restaurant at 88, Queens Road, Central. This is a typically busy restaurant frequented by a lot of the locals and well worth the wait for a table. The reception to the restaurant is on the ground floor, a busy thoroughfare filled with people waiting patiently for a table to become available in the upper reaches of the restaurant. When after successfully securing a table you ascend in the lift to the restaurant the sight that meets you as the lift doors open is quite spectacular. The doors open directly onto a sprawling vista of tables with nearly every available space secured by animated diners sometimes with only the smallest of gaps between tables just big enough to accommodate the dim sum trolleys, which are busily being pushed across the room. You will immediately become conscious of the rumbling of conversation that provides a constant backbeat to the dining experience. No background music is necessary here only the distinct hum of a thousand conversations, interspersed with several televisions showing the latest CNN news reports or the comings and goings in a Cantonese soap opera that nobody seems to be watching. Conversation and food are more important here and the televisions soon become absorbed into the background beneath a myriad of Cantonese voices.
The tables are large, round and spacious creating comfortable communities of diners absorbed happily in their own respective conversations and somehow oblivious to the other diners in a packed restaurant. Members of staff rush round like worker bees all with a definite purpose in their eyes, following set routes across the restaurant and rarely if ever colliding in mid flight. The whole scene is like some choreographed dance routine with people, food and trolleys moving in unison to the beat of chattering diners. At one end of the restaurant are some large fish tanks occupied by some large and exotic fishes watching as this scene plays out before them, no doubt contemplating their fate. Huge grouper vie with open-mouthed tilapia for the best view of these strange human creatures while at the same time trying to do their very best to look unappetising and unappealing to a hungry audience.
I love it and as a self confessed people watcher this place sates my appetite giving me the chance to catch a glimpse of the true essence of Hong Kong. Businessmen and family groups sit side by side showing that good food and good company is a magic combination that eases away the stresses from daily life in this busy metropolis. The food is exceptionally good here and the service remarkably quick for such a busy place and even as a gweilo entering the heart of the dragon you are made to feel welcome and not the outsider you so obviously are. The menu contains such delights as steamed chicken feet in black bean sauce, shrimp dumpling and barbeque pork buns all of which are delicious. Chicken feet or fung zao are an unusual delicacy but one which has become one of my favourites over the years. You may see them occasionally referred to on a menu as Chinese Phoenix claws but essentially it is just a glorified name for chicken feet. Many people are reticent to try them but in all honesty they are not a million miles away from chicken wings and although they have less flesh are often surprisingly moist and tender. The only problem is that the feet have many bones so be careful when eating them and remember to put any waste bones on the side of your plate.
There are many varieties of dim sum sold throughout Hong Kong and to list them all would take an eternity. An enduring favourite which seems popular with Cantonese and Western diners alike is ha gau or shrimp dumpling which is a delicious mixture of whole or chopped shrimps and bamboo shoots wrapped in a rice flour dough before being gently steamed. They are pale white in colour often translucent so you can see the filling inside with a delicate and appealing taste. Another of my personal favourites is siu maai or steamed pork dumplings which is an absolutely delicious mixture of sweet pork and shrimp in a wheat flour and egg dough wrapper. They are quite distinctive as the dough is often bright yellow exposing the white meat in contrast. The combination of meat, shrimp and dough creates a very balanced dim sum that is absolutely delicious.
Another favourite locally are the barbecued pork buns or char siu bao, which are delightful white steamed buns stuffed with sweet pork. They normally have a piece of greaseproof paper on their base, which needs to be removed before eating. They are quite filling but well worth trying for curiosity alone. One of the most famous dim sum, which is found all over the world is the cheon gyun or spring roll, as it is more commonly known. In Hong Kong this is a deep fried wheat flour dough wrapped around pork, mushrooms and vegetables. When done well this is an excellent crispy treat which most people seem to enjoy and vastly different to some of the greasy monstrosities that are sold under the same name in the UK. An unusual deep-fried dim sum that you may see is woo kok or taro ball, which is an interestingly textured treat. It is made from the mashed root of the taro a starchy potato like staple used all across Asia stuffed with shrimp, pork and mushrooms. It unfortunately looks like something an owl left behind but break through that crispy tarot casing and it is actually pretty good.
For those with a sweet tooth there are some sweeter dessert dishes available. You may wish to try chien chang go or thousand layer cake which is an exceptionally sweet dessert made up of many layers of delicious sweet egg dough. My own personal favourite dessert however goes under the name of mong guo bo din or mango pudding and is a particularly nice mango flavoured pudding made with sweet mango, gelatine and egg served with condensed milk.
Perhaps the most famous dessert is the dan tat or egg tart, which is enjoyed throughout Hong Kong. It consists of a shortcrust pastry case filled and baked with a sweet egg custard mix. It can be found not only in dim sum restaurants but also in bakeries across the island and it is reputed to have been a firm favourite of Chris Patton, the last British governor of Hong Kong. The most famous bakery selling these delights is the Tai Cheong Bakery in Lyndhurst Terrace in Central which is a Hong Kong institution and a place where long queues are not uncommon. There are two types of dan tat that you may come across the Hong Kong style above and a Portuguese style egg tart from Lord Stow's Café in Macau. The Portuguese-style egg tart is more like a caramelized crème brûlée tart in a puff pastry case and actually very nice although I prefer the Hong Kong style. If you want to try a Portuguese style egg tart outside of Macau then try the ground floor EXpresso coffee lounge in The Excelsior Hotel at 281, Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay as this is the only place to find them outside of Macau.
There are of course many, many more dim sum available but these are some of my favourites. The best thing about dining in a dim sum restaurant is that you are free to choose, you can stand up and walk up to the trolleys and lift the lids of the bamboo steamers to see what is on offer. Be adventurous and you will be rewarded, of course you may find something that is not to your taste but as dim sum are small treats it is no big loss but it will all be worthwhile when you find something that has your taste buds dancing. Try to vary your choices, mix different cooking methods, colours, meats and textures in your choices and you will experience the beauty of this culinary institution that is cherished by both visitors and locals alike.