Even before the plane touches down at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport, my stomach is growling for dim sum.
Yes, it’s my weakness and my obsession. I reckon anyone who loves dim sum (meaning ‘touch your heart’) knows Hong Kong is the city for the best.
Take cult-status Tim Ho Wan, for instance. The quality of the food at this hole-in-the-wall joint was so impressive that the Michelin judges awarded it a star, making it the cheapest starred dining spot in the world. Started by Mak Kwai Pui, a former chef of three-Michelin-starred Lung King Heen restaurant, it was an instant hit.
With so many good dim sum places around town, deciding which to go to is pretty hard. I’ve been to places such as the Metropole and Maxim’s City Hall where dim sum treats are served from traditional trolleys. I’ve also been to old-school teahouses such as Luk Yu where waitresses parade the dim sum on trays slung on their shoulders.
I’ve also lunched at Lung King Heen where biting into a tiny morsel of dim sum has you in raptures. At raucous places such as Lin Heung it’s customary to scald your chopsticks and bowl in hot tea while customers hover behind you waiting for you to eat up quickly and leave.
Dim sum started long ago with the tea-drinking tradition. To accompany the tea, tiny morsels were offered (much like tapas with wine in Spanish taverns). You often hear the Cantonese term yum cha (‘drink tea’) when you are invited to a lunch of dim sum. Hence the name yum cha for the meal when dim sum are served, typically from dawn to lunchtime, although some restaurants now serve dim sum in the evenings.
Since tea is the reason for eating dim sum, you’re often asked by the waiter what tea is your preference. Most Chinese diners ask for po lei or pu er, a fermented tea known for its beneficial qualities. But, when in doubt, ask what is being offered and then decide.
These fragrant dumplings from Tony Tan's new book are made with scallop, prawn and chive
There are virtually hundreds of dim sum and any self-respecting restaurant has to offer at least 50 varieties. Some places have a paper menu where you tick your selection, so it pays to know the classic dim sum items that you should try when you’re in Hong Kong.
Char siu bao: A firm favourite, the soft fluffy steamed bun has a filling of rich, savoury Cantonese barbecue pork. Some experts believe a perfect char siu bao must split open or ‘smile’.
Tony Tan's bao are made with fried chicken and are eaten like a burger
Char siu sou: Brushed with egg and sprinkled with sesame seeds, this baked morsel of flaky pastry made with lard is filled with tender char siu. Triangular-shaped, it’s as much a sight to behold as a joy to eat. A superior char siu sou is rich and must be served warm.
Cheong fun: Made with rice flour, this steamed snowy-white roll made with various fillings is universally loved. Typical fillings include char siu, minced beef and prawns, and, in a vegetarian version called zaa leong, fried cruller, or dough. These rolls are served with sweetened soy sauce and a drizzle of oil.
Dan tat: If you love a custard tart, this sublime Cantonese version is a must. Said to have originated from the English or Portuguese tart, this treat with sweet silky-smooth custard with just that bit of wobble encased in puff or short pastry often marks the end of a meal.
Try your hand at making dan tat egg tarts with Tony's recipe here
Fung zao: Known as ‘phoenix talons’ in Cantonese, these chicken feet dim sum hit the scene internationally in the 1960s. Maybe an acquired taste, the feet are fried, then simmered with fermented black beans and chilli until meltingly gelatinous and juicy.
Ham sui gok: A football-shaped deep-fried beauty made of sticky-rice flour and wheat starch with hints of sugar, and filled with savoury pork, this crisp, chewy dumpling is admired for its pastry. Properly executed, it’s irresistible, with none of the lingering oily taste of inferior versions.
Har gao: The work of a master dim sum chef, this is a dumpling of prawns and bamboo shoot wrapped with a skin made of wheat starch and tapioca flour. It must have at least nine pleats to prove the chef’s prowess.
Lai wong bao: This popular steamed sweet bun, always eaten warm, has a soft, buttery custard in the centre. This classic has a relatively recent rival called lava bao or lau sa bao, meaning ‘flowing-sand bun’. This creation yields a rich sweet-salty molten filling of butter and salted egg yolks. Delicious.
Lo bak gou: Also known as ‘radish cake’, this favourite is made with grated daikon radish, rice-flour batter, shiitake mushrooms, lap cheong sausage, dried shrimp and fried shallots. It’s steamed in a mould, cooled and then sliced before being pan-fried to yield a crisp crust and creamy interior.
Loh mai gai: Wrapped in lotus leaf for its unique fragrance, this dim sum of steamed glutinous rice, chicken, shiitake, lap cheong, dried shrimp and sometimes roast duck is heavenly.
Si jup jing pai gwat: This Cantonese classic of steamed pork spare ribs with chillies and fermented black beans is a perfect foil to the dumplings and buns. These should be tender and succulent.
Siu long bao: Better known as xiao long bao, this steamed dumpling from the ancient town of Nanxiang on the outskirts of Shanghai has a history of more than 100 years and is renowned for its thin skin encasing juicy pork and umami-packed broth. Made properly, it is a revelation.
Siu mai: This classic open-faced steamed dumpling contains chopped pork and prawns wrapped in wonton pastry. Richer fillings include shiitake mushrooms and abalone. Some older establishments serve siu mai topped with liver, called ju yuen siu mai.
So pei char siu bao: Made famous by Tim Ho Wan’s dim sum master Mak Kwai Pui, these soft barbecue pork buns have a crackly sugar topping. You will savour the memory long after you’ve tried one of these creations.
Wo tip: The Cantonese equivalent of the Shanghainese guotie and Japanese gyoza, this pan-fried pork dumpling with its more resilient pastry is known in the West as a pot-sticker. Often eaten with red rice vinegar, the perfect wo tip must have a crisp base to contrast its succulent filling.
Wu gok: Another work of art, these gossamer-like deep-fried taro dumplings shaped like an egg are filled with minced pork, prawns and dried shrimps, and accented with Chinese five-spice. Look out for just-cooked taro dumplings, which are initially brittle, then soft before yielding to a meaty juicy filling.