I have always loved the thought of Dim Sum but rarely been lucky enough to try steaming parcels that the Chinese would happily put their names to. Throughout this trip, forays into different ‘China Towns’ have been tantalising but not fulfilling, so an email from a foodie friend in Hong Kong to say that she had to take me to experience the best Dim Sum in the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world, was more than a little exciting. Until now, I had not realised that Hong Kong is traditionally considered one of, if not the, Dim Sum centres of worship.
The first lunch we had was in a well-known 1920’s teak tea house. Dim Sum were originally created to serve to workers as snacks while they were drinking tea, hence eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to “drink tea.” Tea is still always served with dim sum, but beer is definitely an accepted alternative..
It turns out that Dim Sum in Hong Kong demands dedication. These little steaming parcels were considered to be a morning treat and hence few tea houses served them after mid afternoon. Service starts early and tables cannot be booked – this is where the loyal show their dim sum dedication: pre-warned, I turned up at 10 am to ask for a table for lunch. ‘No madam, we are full.’ Right. I turned on some serious charm and flattery and walked out with half a promise of a table at 12… I was there at 11.45 to secure it.
Tea was served and we started picking our dishes off the menu and the queue built up outside the door. The steamed prawn and pork dumplings were divine, as was the fried dumpling with pork and chives. I have to stay I am not so keen on the big, white, wudgy steamed bun option; they are slightly sweet with not enough interest in the middle…and are just too filling – one thing I like about dim sum is that they are light to eat and you enjoy every element of every mouthful. The other thing I love about them, is the dim sum ritual – picking, eating, laughing, judging, ogling. They turn up in a steady flow and each parcel is as exciting as the last. Even securing the table is fun.. if you have time on your hands. Embarrassingly, I clearly do.
The first dim sum experience was a traditional one and while we enjoyed the efficient, old-school, white-table clothed atmosphere, we needed a bit more buzz. So the next day, we headed to Kowloon for ‘the michelin starred’ wonderment. Dim Sum Dedication was back in play, as you have to turn up ahead of time, get a ticket and wait for your seat – sometimes up to 2 hours. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could go off shopping (or drinking) in that time. But no one dares, as if you miss your slot, you are out of the game and your precious table is handed over to the next hungry taker.
We were rewarded for our patience. As we were in a larger crowd, we went mad with our ordering, concentrating on their speciality of little steamed parcels with soup inside. The process of eating them was clearly laid out on cheat cards at the table – you had to take you parcel, put it on a spoon, spear it with your chopstick to release the clear soup and then gobble the whole lot together. Heaven. The truffle and pork version was up there with my best mouthful of food on record.
I learned that ‘won ton’ aren’t in fact greasy parcels in an M & S box, but are steamed parcels with a light sauce on them. They are much more like tortellini with similar filling to the steamed version and are totally impossible to pick up with chopsticks – back to the drawing board I go with my technique. More dedication required.
After the most delicious meal with ‘oohs and aaah’s’ which competed with a fire work display on bonfire night, we left this amazing hub of activity, 15 quid down. Another reason to love dim sum. As we passed the kitchen I took a glimpse in to see the army full of smiling chefs, juggling bamboo baskets over huge steam ovens. While one man rolled, the other stuffed and the next sealed the little parcels, so quickly and delicately that I couldn’t help just staring at the end result. Amazing skill.
That was it, I thought – the ultimate dim sum experience. Nothing could better it…. but I was wrong. At 9.30 am on Monday morning, Danielle, my foodie friend, sounded concerned when I said I would meet her at 12 for our final dim sum forray. We had to go now, she said – dedication, dedication. So off we trotted across town – I could not tell you where as there was no English sign anywhere. We identified the restaurant by the worryingly large queue outside and headed eagerly over. Unlike the UK, queues in HK involve elbows and energy, but we finally got our number and were told it would be at least 2 hours before we could eat.
Time for a visit to the food market (water chesnuts and noodle stands being the definite highlight) and then off to buy handbags – what more could a girl want? Heading back we waited nervously outside as numbers were called. The only westerners going into the packed 30 seater room were clearly food journos, enjoying this whole scene as much as us. To our amazement, it turned out we were sitting on the furthest table from the door pretty much in the kitchen – we instantly made friends with the chef who showed us how what he was up to. There was so much steam we felt like dim sum ourselves within minutes.
I had to confront my nemesis – chickens feet. I had been studiously avoiding them for months and today was the day. We were in a place with a michelin star although – food aside – I am not quite sure how that was wrangled. The feet were served with pork knuckles and rice, in what looked like a tin dog bowl for poodles, bones extracted, covered in soy sauce. I went for it and was, of course, surprised; it just tasted of non-descript meat with good seasoning.
That out the way, we tucked into the most delicious baked bun (slightly sweet) with BBQ pork inside and delicious ‘vermicelli rolls with prawns’ which we watched the chef make from rice flour, steamed on a flat tray. The steamed dim sum were incredible despite the fillings all being the same as the previous days; pork and shrimp with the occasional addition of chinese chives. More and came to the table, washed down with delicious tea and good foodie banter. Waitresses were chattering loudly, bamboo baskets being precariously placed on overflowing tables, everyone smiling as they enjoyed their food, elbows squeezed in to tiny tables. It was brilliant.
Later that afternoon, I found out that dim sum literally means ‘point of the heart.’ As they were designed as a snack, they were designed to ‘touch the heart.’ They sure did.