It’s 4:50 a.m. and I’m standing on a still-darkened street corner in an unpromising part of Hong Kong with a handful of elderly Chinese men. I got up before dawn to visit the city’s wholesale fish and vegetable markets, which are just finishing business at this hour. I’m not sure whether the others waiting here are market workers or simply early risers. Unlike me, they are habitués of Tak Yu, a historic Hong Kong eatery from the 1920s famous for its dim sum. At precisely 5 o’clock, a small door in the steel siding opens and the line of men disappears inside. I wait for the main door to open, a few minutes later, before following them upstairs to the large dining rooms on the second floor.
The tradition of dim sum, or yum cha (literally, “drink tea”) as it is also known here, began in 18th-century Guangzhou, in southern China. Teahouses there competed for their clients’ business by offering small dishes to accompany the tea. Over time, these developed into an elaborate repertoire of over 100 recipes that could easily be shared, like tapas. Many are steamed or fried.
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At this early hour we don’t want many dishes, but Dorathy Yu orders a few classics, from wide, steamed beef meatballs (牛肉球) served on fine bean-curd skin, to steamed rice-noodle rolls with sliced chicken (雞絲粉卷), and char siu bao (叉燒包), a popular bun filled with barbecued pork and baked with a light sugar glaze. The most intriguing are the taro dumplings (芋角), in which mashed taro root is combined with diced shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and pork before being deep fried. Their unusual spiky, crisp batter makes them resemble little fluffy animals. There’s nothing refined about this food: The meats ooze with fat and flaunt their richness. These are the earthy flavours of China as they have been maintained for decades at this ever-popular restaurant.
As we eat, Dorathy explains more about dim sum culture. “Dim sum is quite common in Hong Kong. Many people enjoy it for family gatherings: I go to dim sum restaurants once a week with my parents, usually on Saturday or Sunday morning. We are rarely able to relax together during the week, but at the weekend we make time to eat and talk. Dim sum is not cooked at home — there are too many dishes to prepare. We select the restaurant according to our mood: Each is known for different specialities.”
Comparing dim sum
Later that day I go for dim sum again, at a much higher end of the dining scale. Lung King Heen is one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive restaurants and is known for fabulous dim sum. It is located in the luxurious modern Four Seasons hotel and was the world’s first Chinese restaurant to earn three Michelin stars. The elegant dining rooms offer panoramic views over Victoria Harbour. Chef Chan Yan Tak — known as “uncle” — creates a seasonal dim sum menu to complement the restaurant’s more formal Cantonese cuisine; there is a list of premium teas for those who don’t want wine. Chef Chan is not a media-seeker. He insists that success comes from using quality produce and the team’s hard work.
As with all Chinese food, the ideal here is to go with at least two friends to be able to share and compare lots of dishes: China is one country where eating alone limits your chances of enjoying as many taste experiences as possible. I begin with a few of the chef’s summer dim sum dishes. If the characteristic dim sum trolleys have been banished at Lung King Heen, the food arrives beautifully arranged on trays, set like jewels in sleek silver steamers. A clutch of organic vegetables is beautifully wrapped in translucent green rice dough for the zucchini dumpling: It’s crunchy, fragrant and refined. Beside it, a steamed lobster and scallop dumpling is topped with a plump river shrimp and reveals itself succulent and pure. Condiments for the dumplings include broad bean paste, chili oil and spiced soy sauce. The chicken and abalone puff is baked as a two-bite pie with crisp short pastry. It’s piping hot, and displays the prized shellfish beneath a hearty poultry glaze.
Chef Chan excels at barbecue. I opt for a sampling, and I’m presented with three pieces, like little poems of texture and taste. The barbecued pork combines fatty and complex lean meat with subtle honey notes. My suckling pig’s skin is arranged like a crisp caramel layer over the soft meat. A small portion of goose conjures up the vision of the whole bird roasting in a wood-burning oven, and goes well with its clean-flavored plum sauce. After this, an obligatory bowl of soup fills the palate: double-boiled tomato and potato, with fish tails and pork. I wish I had room for more of these excellent dim sum: I’d be drawn to dumplings of bird’s nest and crab roe, and to barbecued pork buns with pine nuts. Alas, I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Hong Kong to find out how they taste!
Top photo: Steamed dumplings at Lung King Heen, Hong Kong. Credit: Carla Capalbo