Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

dim sumI realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]dim sumStandard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.
dim sum
The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Chopsticks Using Tips

Top 10 Hong Kong experiences

Hong Kong is all about balance. Nature and steel. Silt and sparkle. Yin and Yang. This masterpiece of divergences is a Feng shui city bereft of boring angles or a predictable head turn. Spicy aromas billow from a flaming street wok. An animated hawker peddles jade from a humble stoop, his wispy beard blowing in a gust from a passing double-decker. In a corner office sixty floors up, a suited banker creates eastern wealth like a modern day alchemist. Each plays a part in defining the complexities of character forged in this balancing act of humanity. Vertically, Hong Kong is man’s answer to the California redwoods – thousands of spires erupting out of the earth like a civilization on steroids. If ever mankind had something to prove, they proved it here on the banks of the South China Sea.

After the Opium Wars in the 19th century, Hong Kong became a British colony. This colonial conquest fostered Hong Kong’s character in amazing ways. Compromises were made, the city was built, and the unlikely union created a hybrid society where east met west. The Brits and the Chinese built towards the sun and created a hulking civilization. The end result is Hong Kong – a city lavished in sublime food and breathtaking vistas. It is near impossible to yawn with boredom in this extraordinary city, and these ten experiences are a great foundation to any stay in Hong Kong.


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Ascend to the Peak
Victoria Peak is the highest point on Hong Kong Island, and the panoramic view out over the steel and glass jungle is awe-inspiring. To reach the peak, follow the signs from Hong Kong central and board the peak tram which shuttles you up to the peak at an unbelievably steep angle. The Peak boasts a multilevel shopping mall, great restaurants, and some of the most expensive real estate on the planet. For food options, a disappointing Bubba Gump looms in a display of stale consumerism. Luckily, there is also a Mak’s Noodle, which serves up piping hot bowls of scrumptious wonton soup endorsed by Mr. Bourdain himself.

The Peak is a huge tourist draw. It is as mainstream as it gets and for good reason. The view is undeniably epic. Looking out across the harbor is to understand the scale of humanity.

top 10 Hong Kong Explore Tai O
The dichotomy of Hong Kong is a characteristic that is perhaps its most endearing. People assume it is only towering skyscrapers and glowing neon signs, but in actuality, Hong Kong is 40% parkland. For the yin of every bustling Kowloon intersection, Hong Kong has a peaceful yang nestled away on one of its many islands.

Tai O is a rural Chinese fishing village on the western side of Lantau Island. Lantau Island can be reached by boat or subway in a little over thirty minutes from Hong Kong Central, and Tai O can be reached by bus or taxi from the Tung Chung MTR stop on the island. Speeding from the hustle of Central to this old school fishing village frames the breadth of Hong Kong’s character. Tai O is a great place for eating fresh seafood, exploring, and even searching for elusive pink dolphins that appear occasionally just off shore. The stilt houses and country charms are a welcome respite from the urbanity of Hong Kong’s jungle of towers.

Wander Hong Kong Park
In the shadows of the steel and glass monstrosities that blanket Hong Kong Island is a very serene park. Hong Kong Park was built in 1991 at a cost of almost 400 million U.S. dollars. It was worth every penny. Boasting a surprisingly good (and free) aviary, a foot massage path, an Olympic square, several sporting areas, an artificial lake with a waterfall, and many other cool features, the park is a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Located near the Central MTR station as well as the Peak tram station, it is very accessible and easy to find.

Dim Sum and Yum Cha
While similar in portion size and functionality to Spanish tapas, comparing dim sum to any other culinary tradition is an affront to its ancient legacy and the centuries of culture inherent in each bite. Dim sum literally means “to touch the heart.” Originating in Cantonese China, the meal was originally intended as a social snack with friends or family. As the years passed, dim sum evolved into a full blown meal to be consumed in the morning or early afternoon. Some dim sum staples include shrimp dumplings, phoenix talons, congee, and the ubiquitous barbecue pork buns.

Yum cha is a tradition with roots reaching back into the Silk Road days. Traders would stop by tea-houses for a snack and some hot tea. Translating to “drink tea,” yum cha is a term that is largely interchangeable with dim sum. Today, yum cha is the experience of drinking tea and gorging on a dim sum meal. A fantastic place to have tasty dim sum is the Michelin starred Tim Ho Wan. This restaurant may be the best place in the world to eat dim sum and is surprisingly cheap.

Shop the street markets – Ladies Market and Temple St. night market
Hong Kong is a perfect city for shoppers. One can purchase a real Vacheron Constantin watch in the Peninsula arcade for $18,000, or buy the knockoff version in one of the street markets for under a hundred dollars. Fake iPhones with lackluster functionality clutter high tables in display cases of high techno-comedy. Their smartphone brothers and sisters belittled by the mere association. If you crave Christian Louboutin shoes, then those are here too. You can buy the red soled pumps for roughly $50 if you bargain right. Of course, they are “same same but different,” which is to say they are fake. For the real thing, walk a few blocks south from the Ladies Market to Harbor City. A Louboutin boutique opened just last year – the second in Hong Kong. Expect to pay twenty times more for authenticity.

The Ladies Market is full of fake items, from Bapes to Rolexes. Selling both male and female clothing and jewelery, the market spreads out over several Mongkok blocks and is open every night. The negotiators are real professionals, so bring your “A” game and be prepared to walk away a few times to get your price. Exit the Mongkok MTR to access the Ladies Market on Tung Choi St.

The Temple Street night market is slightly less cramped than the Ladies Market and is located near the Jordan and Ya Ma Tei MTR stops. It has similar offerings to the Ladies Market, except with a wider range of strange offerings. There are also a multitude of great places to eat, and the local color is phenomenal. Hong Kong men lounge around shirtless drinking and playing cards at tables along the street.


Ride the Star Ferry
One of the greatest commutes is the world is a simple boat ride across Hong Kong harbor. The Star Ferry transports over twenty-six million passengers per year and costs about a quarter (2 HKD) for the cheapest route between Central on Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon peninsula. It has been in operation since the 19th century, and provides sublime views of both sides of the harbor. Traveling at night from Kowloon is especially colorful.

Fortune telling at Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin
Otherwise known as Wong Tai Sin Temple, the temple is dedicated to the Great Immortal Wong – an ancient Taoist who could turn stones into sheep. The temple architecture is traditional Chinese with lots of red, golden roofs, and various dragons. It is a very popular place to pray and is especially busy during the Chinese new year. It is located in Kowloon by the Wang Tai Sin MTR station.

Kau Cim is a spiritual fortune telling exercise and is extremely popular at Wong Tai Sin Temple. The process involves shaking a bamboo cylinder filled with fortune sticks until one falls out. The stick that falls out is exchanged for a corresponding fortune provided by an oracle. The temple is open from 7:00am to 5:30pm daily, and overnight on the Chinese New Year.

Ride the Ngong Ping 360 to Big Buddha
On Lantau Island, small cable cars slowly ascend to the foggy heights of Ngong Ping village and the Big Buddha. The village is largely a tourist concoction, though the nearby Po Lin Monastery has lurked in these hills for over 100 years. The Tian Tan Buddha is a massive structure – the second largest seated bronze Buddha in the world. Supposedly, it can even be seen from Macau on a clear day. Ironically, in the photo above, the Buddha can hardly be seen from just twenty feet away.

The fastest way to reach the Ngong Ping 360 is by MTR to the Tung Chung stop near the airport. From there, follow the signs to the Ngong Ping cable car station. The Ngong Ping 360 costs 115 Hong Kong dollars for a return trip, roughly $15.

Dive in to Hong Kong’s natural side
Hong Kong is almost half parkland, so there is much to do for outdoor lovers. There are hiking trails, nature parks, fishing, beaches, and even scuba diving. For hiking, Lantau hiking trail is a very popular 70km trek around luscious Lantau Island. Similar treks exist between villages on nearby Lamma Island as well. On Hong Kong island, the Dragon’s back is considered one of the top Urban treks in the world, snaking through the green backside of the densely populated island. The ramble ends near Shek O beach.

In northwestern Kowloon, the Hong Kong Wetlands park is home to several wild flora and fauna, from rare Black-faced Spoonbills to a famous croc known as Piu Piu. The Wetlands is a peaceful retreat from the city and is normally quiet on weekday afternoons.

Visit Macau
Macau is a gambling mecca for the eastern hemisphere. In China, it is common for people to toast to luck rather than health, and the Macanese casino revenue numbers spotlight this infatuation. With gaming revenue roughly four times that of Las Vegas, Macau has skyrocketed beyond its desert brethren in popularity.

The boat ride from Hong Kong is a 40 mile jaunt on high speed boats and hydrofoils from the Hong Kong Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong island. The boats are always running, so it is possible just to show up and board, though booking in advance is wise, especially on weekends and holidays. The trip takes about an hour each way.

The Macau territory is considered a special administrative district of China and was once a Portuguese colony. As a result, the culture is a very intriguing mash-up, especially when it comes to food. Macanese cuisine is a tasty and especially unique array of western and eastern influences. This is where tapas and dim sum intersect. Try a pork chop bun or a pastel de nata.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Dim Sum Dialogues: Chinese Tea

One of my only objectives this weekend was to write an article about traditional Chinese tea. I had been entertaining visions of myself walking down a dark side street in Central and discovering an old wooden tea house guarded by an ancient man with a long wispy beard. I would then bow with respect or give him a secret handshake that would allow me inside access to a tea that the man had just spent hours brewing – and I imagine that it would be the most fragrant and refreshing tea I’ve ever tasted.

So I asked some of my local friends where I could go to get some proper tea, and the most popular response was “well…there’s a tea museum in Central park”…but the recommendations for drinking tea in a traditional tea-house were few & far between. I ended up going to the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware (which is now undergoing renovations) to find out more. Although they had a nice collection of 17th century utensils, the overall exhibit was more disappointing than the realization that my vision of ancient men brewing special recipes from long expired dynasties would not materialize.
And I suppose that this is the story of Hong Kong. The practices of conventional Chinese culture have in many ways been paved over by a hybrid east-meets-west society that bears a significant amount of influence from western nations. Sure, the streets of Kowloon and Sheung Wan are still home to the conventional wet markets and local men that sit in the vast recreational parks playing mahjong with their shirts off. It will be generations before this Hong Kong disappears. But simple things like food, fashion sense, and popular culture are a sort of mash-up, resulting in a product that is perhaps unique to Hong Kong.

The formalities of ancient tea preparation have been forgotten for the more relaxed and casual style found in dim-sum restaurants. The term Yum cha (飲茶), or “drinking tea” in Cantonese is primarily used as a verb to describe the act of going out to eat dim sum, showing just how closely tied the act of drinking tea has become to this style of food. In many of these restaurants it’s possible to be served teas like jasmine, chrysantheumum, and oolong – but the preparation is no special ritual. It would be uncommon for people in Hong Kong to only go out for tea, and instead most people would go out for “one bowl of tea – and two pieces of dim sum” (盅兩件) .

One of the most interesting traditions of tea that has evolved in Hong Kong is “milk-tea”. The British colonists that ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years brought with them the age-old habit of afternoon black tea, served with milk. If you’ve ever spent an extensive amount of time in England, then you know that a good cup of tea with milk is the lifeblood of the English. This tradition caught on, and evaporated milk began to replace the regular milk customarily mixed with several black teas at once, giving the tea a rich and creamy taste.

In modern Hong Kong, people drink milk tea with breakfast, lunch, or dinner – and take it hot when the weather favors it, or with ice cubes when the humidity of the summer is unbearable. The signs of a good cup of milk tea are found in how smooth and full-bodied it is, or if it leaves a white residue on the lip of the cup after a sip has been drunk. This is probably the most common type of tea that you’ll find across restaurants in Hong Kong, and definitely worth a try.

If I didn’t know the history behind things like milk-tea, it would be easy to assume that it grew out of a Chinese practice. But the more I try to dissect what makes Hong Kong special, I’m beginning to see just how many cultures have contributed to make this city a multi-cultural melting pot (or rice cooker) that’s slowly developing an identity of it’s own.