Green Global Trek guide to dim sum ~ Hong Kong!

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.

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The concept of dim sum “halls” is just that ~ large, cavernous rooms where carts navigate the tables.

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Strategic positioning of your table is key ~ ideally you want to be able to catch the carts as they emerge from the steam-filled kitchen.

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Bamboo circular steamers piled high In the kitchen.  The hot steam rises through each layer of bamboo, cooking the dim sum evenly as it rises through the stack.

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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.

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In this particular dim sum hall, there are so many tables that diners do not feel the pressure to eat and run. It is a lingering type of dim sum hall, evidenced by the newspaper reading. Man, this is SO Ben’s style! (Clearly he is not the only one who likes to read the newspaper with his breakfast).

 

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And the carts, they keep coming, and coming… it is a bitter-sweet experience ~ Eventually, one does get full, and yet, the carts, they keep a-coming… Oh well, there is always the next dim sum meal, especially when in Hong Kong.

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…

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We come across this small dim sum restaurant with anticipation… in the early morning hours of our first day in Hong Kong. The owner and dim sum master proudly serves us his creations.

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Don’t let the blue plastic chairs fool you. This place, where one eats curb-side, is one of the top dim sum places we have ever eaten at… AMAZING!

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Lightly crisped fragrant leek dim sum… These alone are worth the trip to Hong Kong.

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Called “shark fin”, for its appearance, not its content, this dim sum is… superlative! Chopped peanuts and crunchy veggies are complemented by the soft melt in your mouth texture of the wrapping. The trick with dim sum is to steam it just right ~ (over steam it and it becomes soggy ~ a catastrophic outcome for dim sum…)

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The size of the bamboo steamers speaks volume about the quantity that this small joint prepares and steams…

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Crispy turnip cakes, pan-fried to perfection on the side walk. Delicious. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, savory and light = perfect.

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up at 6:30 a.m., early bird gets the choice dim sum!

 

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Another example of a creative dim sum that we select ~this one has a cooked quail egg inside the wrapper, resting lightly on top of juicy minced pork.

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.

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The black wrapping around a dense mushroom center comes from squid ink. Very creative and certainly tasty, but again this “dim sum”  tastes like Italian food.

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!

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Another key attribute of dim sum ~ it’s served up fairly quickly. So if you gotta have dim sum in a hurry, it’s within the realm of the possible, in Hong Kong.

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And voila, yet another bite-sized culinary masterpiece. Crunchy vegetable, paper thin pouch… Delicious!

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Seems we squeezed in to this popular dim sum spot just before the crowd hit. As we leave, the queue is around the corner. You can see that the relationship between the dim sum and the Hong Kong population is strong. In a hurried, economically buoyant Hong Kong, time is almost always short. But… one WAITS for dim sum if one must…

Habit forming, as we said…

Bon appetit

 

28 thoughts on “Green Global Trek guide to dim sum ~ Hong Kong!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Anabel there are definitely way more shrimp and pork dumplings than vegetarian ones, yet there are always a few veg ones on almost every menu. I also often order bok choy at a dim sum restaurant, to add some greens to the meal.

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Glad you enjoyed Caroline! I think I put on 5lbs in three days. Sigh. Totally worth it.

      Peta

  1. Gilda Baxter

    Dim sum…those little parcels are mouth watering delicious. I love how you explained the different levels. From my experience in often the most humble places will serve the most delicious local food. I don’t care about plastic chairs, it is all about the food and being among local people. Hong Kong is now firmly on my list😄. Just to let you know I have moved my site to self hosting…scary. Find me at http://www.travellerinterrupted.org

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Gilda! Yes its so often the little “hole in the wall” places that serve up the terrific, authentic food. Glad we helped put Hong Kong on the list for you.

      I will check out your new site! Thanks for commenting.

      Peta

  2. joannesisco

    First – I love the way you give yourselves little mini challenges when you’re travelling … like, how much dim sum can we eat in three days? This is brilliant, and adds a new level of interest to a destination. If I remember correctly, you did this recently with gelato in Rome too. I must try this!!

    I live in a Chinese neighbourhood and I’m not a stranger to dim sum, but here I have to admit … I rather not eat it.

    Leaf Lard Bun? Duck feet in Bean? Pork feet with tofu? Nope – not going to happen. I guess all too often I’ve had the unpleasant surprise inside the steamer rather than the delectable :/
    Your pictures however make them look divine – especially the leek.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Joanne, thats pretty funny!

      Yup your memory is correct re Rome and the gelato. When it comes to a specialty food in its authentic home city, well, we just feel the need to take full advantage…

      Ha ha there are some pretty scary dim sum too, as evidenced by the menu. I definitely like the simple and always look for and find veggies as well as order the chinese broccoli. (Always on the menu.)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Much appreciated.

  3. Bun Karyudo

    I’ve been lucky enough to visit Hong Kong a few times and I love dim sum. The examples in your post all looked and sounded delicious, but the French-owned restaurant is one I’d probably give a miss. I like French food, but I always get annoyed at having to pay so much for an amount of food barely visible with the naked eye on a plate the size of the solar system.

  4. Sue Slaght

    I am almost ashamed to admit that I have never had Dim Sum. It seems ridiculous to write it. Definitely it must be a sign that we need to travel more right? I now have a much better understanding of what it is and why I am missing out!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Sue, no shame needed, only the need to try. We gotta get you some dumplings soon, girl. Will be very happy to be the ones to “introduce you” to dim sum!

      Actually the most dim sum we have eaten has been in Chinatowns in the U.S. not while traveling.

      Peta

  5. Alison

    Oh, this post made me hungry! Glad to see some cool veggie options for the dim sum. The leek ones look so delicious! Since we don’t have a trip to Hong Kong planned in the near future, do you have a favorite place in Chicago that you like to go?

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Yes, Alison, we do! We have tried a few places in Chicago’s Chinatown and our favorite, by far, is Phoenix. It’s a very large dim sum hall and on the week ends, there is usually quite a wait. Try to get there between 10 and 11. Enjoy!

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Yes the see through dim sum was very novel and deliciously crunchy. Well you just have to keep trying new dim sum places to progress up the dim sum ladder.

      Peta

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Hi Dave,

      Where is here? It’s a great position to be in…”overdue for dim sum” ~ now you can rush over and savor some asap.

      Peta

  6. Adam pollack

    So Jealous! Thanks for documenting all the varieties. The “shark fin” looks incredible. Must have been a special experience to go to the epicenter of dim sum after so many dim sums in other places.

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks! So glad you enjoyed the post….which we knew you would of course and thought about you each time we tried one of the crearive types of dim sum.

      I like that ” the epicenter of dim sum. Well put!”

      Peta

  7. Johnny Oh

    A dim-sum treklet, what fun! .I should think finding good dim-sum restaurants is half the pleasure, a bit dim-sum in itself. Also, once you know you’re in a good one, all the more tempting to trust your instincts when they pop the lid and you’re not quite sure what it is. Go with your gut? Thanks so much for the entertaining blog!

    1. GreenGlobalTrek Post author

      Thanks Johnny, glad you enjoyed reading this post about dim sum. Life is positively bleak when there is no dim sum within driving distance!!

      P&B

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