Caveat Emptor ~ Readers beware: This blog post is unashamedly aimed at our foodie readership.
Hong Kong is ground zero for one of the world’s most unique delicacies ~ little morsels of heaven which only share “packaging” as a common element. Packaging here refers to the one bite-size cuisine that originates from Hong Kong and has, to our great pleasure, spread around the globe alongside the migration of Chinese populations over the ages.
It is one of those foods that are either “obvious” to those who know it, or an unknown for those not blessed with a Cantonese speaking, dim sum savvy population in their midst. There are both “classics” in dim sum, which can be found in any Chinese restaurant that offers dim sum, and a restaurant’s own twist, or “special” dim sum… While dim sum halls in the West tend to offer limited variation, in a food-crazy city like Hong Kong, with a dim sum restaurant pretty much on every block, it takes culinary creativity to distinguish oneself.
And so, we decide to make the most of our short stay in Hong Kong.
How much dim sum can we eat in three days?
We decide that most of our meals, if not all, while in Hong Kong, will naturally consist of dim sum.
Here is our own three tier hierarchy of dim sum….
Level one: Traditional dim sum in large halls ~ It’s all about the carts!
One of the sure signs that you are in a worthy dim sum restaurant is that the service of dim sum is provided by carts that stream out of the kitchen, pushed by waitresses who navigate expertly the tables of eager diners. The dishes are typically categorized and priced as small, medium or large.
A shiny metal cart comes your way, with round bamboo steamers stacked vertically like the high rises of Hong Kong. The anticipation of lifting up a lid to see the surprise contents is part of the fun of the experience of eating dim sum. For us a lucky lift of the lid may yield a veggie and nuts filled succulent dumpling and a less lucky lift might unveil bright orange chicken feet.
These are the most classic dim sum, and there is a good reason for this ~ they seldom disappoint. The yellowish dim sum on the left are ground shrimp and pork, the white ones are filled with perfumed steamed small whole shrimp in a delicate paper thin wrapping.
We have enjoyed dim sum in this cart-based context in many places during our Green Global Trek ~ Singapore, Tokyo, Peru, Panama, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Montreal.
In fact, dim sum halls, have become a family tradition for us. After all, Jews and Chinese have a very common cultural denominator ~ celebrations always equal good food and lots of it!
Level 2: Traditional dim sum, elevated ~ smaller restaurants
There would be little to report if we had only had “the classics”, delicious as they may be.
In fact, Hong Kong allows us to graduate to level 2, by which we refer to dim sum that is better than the already normally delicious bite; it has to be unique in some ways. There are many, many, smaller restaurants, and their distinctive feature is that they feature some dim sum that are uniquely their own twist on classics. Not the large “halls”, more the 4-8 table type of place…
No carts here, but a superlative menu to be sampled…
Level 3: Western version of dim sum…
We read about a dim sum restaurant in the trendy Soho neighborhood of Hong Kong, which advertises itself as Hong Kong’s “hippest dim sum”. We should have stopped right there, but curiosity got the best of us, and we go off to find out what hip dim sum might be. The restaurant is French-owned, and as the French are notorious for their culinary achievements, it seems like it should have worked. It did not, for us.
First of all, it is important to consider price. One of the great dimensions of dim sum in is that it is so consistently affordable. In Hong Kong, the dim sum we had was priced in the $1.50 ~ $2 per basket price range. Typically we might eat 4 or 5 baskets of dim sum, and wind up with a $10 meal for 2 people.
This being a French-owned place, the owner probably figures that his market is comprised almost entirely of expats and travelers, and so every dim sum dish is $8. But wait, it’s $8 for 2 bites, whereas dim sum is always served in portions of 3 or 4 to a basket. The problem with this pricing is that one quickly becomes sensitive to the tab. There is no reason to spend $30+ for a dim sum meal in Hong Kong when the whole city offers a plethora of delights for under $10.
At the end of three days we have certainly had our fill of dim sum and are ready to leave Hong Kong, lest our waists increase too significantly.
Our recommendation: If you are lucky enough to live anywhere near a Chinatown, the odds are dim sum is in your midst. Dim Sum is definitely habit forming, and one needs to cultivate this habit, early and often!
But WAIT!!! We manage to squeeze in one more dim sum before we leave for the airport!
Habit forming, as we said…