Hong Kong is known for being a culinary paradise and having been there, I can confirm this fact! The types of food in this bustling city are varied, thanks to the multi-ethnicity in which seven million inhabitants reside. Cantonese cuisine is wide and varied, from seafood restaurants to street stalls and cha-chaan (restaurants) that have mixed foreign influences with more traditional recipes. It is difficult to find any other cuisine in the world that so cleverly combines Chinese tradition with European influences. Steamed fish with fragrant ginger and shallot are served alongside some sticky French toast, paired with cups of tea. On a trip to Hong Kong one of the things not to be missed is the Dim Sum.
Let’s get to know the Dim Sum or the typical food of Hong Kong.
WHAT IS THE DIM SUM
The Chinese meaning of Dim Sum is translatable as “touching the heart”. It is a wide range of light dumpling dishes or other snacks, often served in pairs of three or four in bamboo baskets. The courses are stewed, roasted or more commonly steamed, are accompanied by Chinese tea, known as yum cha, served in ceramic teapots. They are usually enjoyed from morning to early afternoon, they are more than just a meal in Hong Kong and they are part of everyday life. Families and friends sit around a table for hours telling stories while drinking tea, accompanied by a variety of Dim Sum. They can be found in both five-star hotels and street food. Eating Dim Sum is one of the most fun and delicious culinary experiences you can have!
HISTORY OF DIM SUM
Nowadays, these light dishes are consumed throughout China and the world, but are believed to have originated in the Guangdong region of southern China before arriving in Hong Kong. The Cantonese Dim Sum culture began in tea rooms in the second half of the 19th century in the port city of Guangzhou. When merchants started supplying textiles, jewellery, and spices travelled the Silk Road, they needed a place to rest and relax during their long journeys. They stopped in the tea rooms to rest in preparation for the restart. From then, tea houses began to spread, especially in Hong Kong and to serve small portions of food accompanied by a hot drink. Eating Dim Sum has therefore become synonymous with drinking tea. From there, the tradition of ‘Yum Cha’ has developed.
HOW TO ORDER DIM SUM
The first thing to do is to choose a tea, as it will be a central part of the meal. Depending on which restaurant you go to, it’s good to clean the chopsticks, bowls, cups of cutlery and the dishes you intend to eat with. The Chinese prefer tea over water because they think it’s a disinfectant. At the table there is an empty container ready for washing. Then you serve the tea, wanting to follow the traditional label, the person closest to the teapot should pour the tea for the guests before pouring their own cup, starting with the oldest or important person at the table. During the Dim Sum you can ask for different toppings of the teapot. To do this you have to move the lid to the side and leave it in sight. This is a common signal to communicate to the waiters that you need to replenish. Ordering a meal in traditional restaurants is a fun and unique experience and requires a good eye. Instead of ordering from a menu, you choose from a wide assortment of dishes that servers push on trolley. Diners are free to choose the dishes they prefer without having to order from a menu and a card at their table is stamped to indicate what they have chosen. The price varies according to the “size” of the dish (small, medium, large, extra-large and special, with the “special” category referring to expensive dishes containing particular ingredients). At first glance it may seem very confusing but in reality it is all well organized. First of all, the lighter and steamed dishes come out, followed by more full-bodied dishes such as chicken legs, then fried dishes and finally desserts. Today, most restaurants have done without the trolley system: once seated, the waiter will give you a menu and a pencil, to mark what you want and the number of orders (very similar to all you can eat!). The food is still served at the table in steamed baskets to keep it warm.
A curiosity: there are people, especially elderly people, who when the tea is poured by another person tap three times with their fingers on the table as a sign of gratitude. According to legend, the Qing Emperor Qianlong once visited a city in China dressed as a commoner, accompanied by several of his officials. The group decided to go to a tea house for Yum Cha, and the Emperor took a teapot and poured for his tea staff. The staff were terrified, but could not kneel to thank the Emperor for fear of breaking his cover. So they invented the gesture of the three touches on the table in gratitude.
THE BEST DIM SUM
Dim Sum dishes include an assortment of seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes that are prepared in various ways: steamed, fried, or baked. Here is a list of some of the most popular dishes:
Shumai (Siu mai, Shao mai) are thin round cup-shaped wraps with a filling usually of pork, shrimp, or a combination of the two – and often a small amount of vegetables such as bamboo sprouts, black mushrooms, and steamed water chestnuts.
Shrimp dumpling (har Ow, Xia Jiao) : one of the most popular dishes of Dim Sum, shrimp pieces enclosed in a thin translucent dumpling and served in a bamboo basket.
Soup gnocchi (Xiaolong bao): commonly referred to as soup gnocchi, are filled with hot broth and pork and are served in a bamboo basket. Although these are originally from Shanghai, their national popularity has secured their basic status as Dim Sum.
Chicken legs (tau zi Fung Zao, chizhi feng Zhao): are whole chicken legs, with claws removed, fried, boiled, marinated, steamed and served with a black bean sauce.
WHERE TO EAT DIM SUM
If you want a bit of history and tradition, opt for Maxim’s Palace in Hong Kong City Hall. This is one of the last places that serves Dim Sum from a traditional trolley.
Lin Heung Tea House is one of Hong Kong’s oldest Dim Sum restaurants. The atmosphere in this restaurant is still traditional, lively and with a frenzied buzz, where customers shout and even clash over food. The crowd is mostly elderly, but not relaxed, it is far from the modern concept of a relaxing meal. Definitely worth a visit!