May 10, 2012|
Dim sum is an inevitable strand of every Hongkonger’s cultural DNA. This age-old tradition of sharing bite-sized morsels family-style is as alive and well as ever, and har gow, siu mai and char siu bao are pretty much mandatory dining vocab for anyone who calls this city home. While the practice of yum cha (meaning to drink tea, a term that’s interchangeable with eating dim sum) itself has remained intact, it’s interesting to observe how the gradual evolution of dim sum etiquette over the years reflects the ever-changing values and needs of modern day diners.
“The tradition of dim sum dates back to the days of the Chinese emperors and the Silk Road teahouses,” says Ricky Wu, Chinese executive chef of Man Ho at SkyCity Marriott. But even so, it was really the people of Guangdong who mastered the art of dim sum and adopted this unique cuisine as their own. The culture of the noisy teahouse—filled with colorful customers who (at least back in the day) brought in chirping birds in cages and stacks of newspapers to while away the hours—is proudly, staunchly rooted in Hong Kong.
But how did dim sum get so popular with Hongkongers in the first place? “Dim sum has much to offer when it comes to variety and flavors. It’s the Chinese version of French hors d’oeuvres,” says Wu. “Dim sum is part of Hong Kong culture and tradition. It’s when families or friends take time off to gather, usually on the weekend, to catch up or just to enjoy a meal together.” Chef Tang Man-ming of Dim Sum Bar agrees. “Daughters and sons who have moved away would reunite with their parents during the weekend,” Tang says, and dim sum is the traditional way to celebrate such an occasion.
Dim sum used to be a hearty affair. Buns made with lard and dumplings stuffed with fatty pork were popular, common treats, according to Wu Chi-keung, the vice head chef of Maxim’s Group’s dim sum division, Jade Concepts. Cholesterol and fat content never used to be an issue, and people happily ate what was on their plate. There was once a time when ordering siu lam (roast fatty pork brisket) buns, lap cheung (sausage) buns and dai bao (massive pork and meat-filled buns) all together was de rigueur, adds chef Chan Yan-tak of three Michelin-starred Lung King Heen. How times have changed. “Customers nowadays are more concerned about health,” Wu Chi-keung says. “All Maxim’s dim sums have no MSG added, and use less oil, sugar and salt. Dim sum under Jade Concepts stores, such as Jasmine and The Square, are also using rice bran oil that carry more vitamin E than other oils, without the harmful cholesterol.”
Senior vice president and managing director at Heichinrou Group, Billy Cheong, whose company owns the Yokohama-originated, Chinese-operated Heichinrou restaurants and Metropol restaurant in Admiralty, is quick to confirm this trend towards dim sum that’s lean and green. Cheong’s dim sum chefs pay attention to everything from the oil content of deep-fried foods to the use of artificial coloring and seasonings. “We never use chemicals, MSG or artificial additives [in our dim sum],” Cheong says. For instance, a new squid siu mai dish—recently introduced as part of Heichinrou’s light summer menu—has all the trappings of a regular siu mai in terms of shape and texture, but blatantly deviates from the familiar bright yellow skin. Cheong explains that the color of siu mai is typically due to artificial flavoring, and only rarely do restaurants engage in the traditional practice of dipping the dumpling in egg yolk to give it that signature yellow color. To reinforce the emphasis on health, Heichinrou is also currently offering a poached egg dish that has the yolks removed and replaced with mashed eggplant instead, as well as a surprisingly light deep-fried egg dough dessert that uses honey instead of sugar syrup.
“I can claim that we were the first ones, in 1988, to use gold leaf [in our dim sum],” Billy Cheong proudly tells us. “The gold leaf was imported from Japan, and after we started using it, every restaurant started to copy us. There were gold leaf cakes, gold leaf pasta. I can say that before 1988, no one used gold leaf.” Nowadays, gold leaf-topped har gow and siu mai are a common item on menus in the higher-end dim sum restaurants—dishes that have also paved the way to more creative, sophisticated dim sum presentation over the years. And presentation definitely matters, especially in this age of instant tweeting and virulent social media, so chefs are bending over backwards to come up with ever more unique ways to present their dishes. Spring rolls are slowly morphing from short, stubby things to long, skinny sticks, Man Ho chef Ricky Wu observes. Dishes can also be put into decorative “cages” or plated on creative flatware instead of served in plain old bamboo steamers.
Apart from Japanese aesthetics and creative presentation, chefs are also looking west for inspiration. “We’ll use truffles and foie gras in our dim sum,” Lung King Heen’s Chan says. “We cater to our customers’ tastes. If our customers don’t accept a certain dish, we’ll take it off the menu. If they like it, we keep it on.” Chef Tang from Dim Sum Bar includes western-style dim sum items on his menu, and they have proved popular. “We have spring rolls with cheese, dumplings with lobster bisque. Our customers have given good feedback on all these dishes,” he confirms. Dim Sum Bar also serves a hybrid siu mai with black truffles sprinkled on top.
Discerning diners today also appreciate a touch of Asian luxe in their dim sum. Pastries and snacks with abalone and other Chinese delicacies like lobster and crab are not uncommon, especially at the fancier establishments. Man Ho has an especially popular lobster dumpling—a creative play on the traditional hargow—that is packed with 600 grams of lobster meat (that’s a whole lobster!) and is easily five times the size of a regular har gow. It’s so hefty that it requires a fork and knife to disassemble. Lung King Heen, meanwhile, serves an equally indulgent abalone puff that continues to draw in diners.
Calling out for a specific dish, or fighting with others over a bamboo steamer, used to be part and parcel of the dim sum experience—when trolleys stacked full of delectable snacks pushed by grouchy, squawking matrons were the delivery mode of choice. Nowadays, you’re more likely to be ticking off boxes on a piece of paper than waving down a trolley lady for your order of cheung fun.
There are practical reasons for the demise of the trolley. “I think in the future, in core areas like Central and Admiralty, Metropol will be the only restaurant still using serving trolleys,” says Cheong. Why? Metropol is in the minority because it owns its own premises, but Cheong predicts rent would be too high for any other restaurant to be able to keep the practice going, since using trolleys requires hiring additional staff at a high cost. But trolleys aren’t just an unnecessary novelty that drains funds, Dim Sum Bar’s chef Tang explains (although his own restaurant is trolley-free). During high-volume periods, trolleys actually help with faster turnover. So for the majority of restaurants without this longtime staple, other concerns take precedence. “People now prefer to have their dim sum freshly prepared upon ordering,” Man Ho’s Ricky Wu says. “With trolleys, the dim sum might lose their freshness. Also, it’s a safety issue to have too much flammable [gas]-powered equipment [like trolleys] in the dining area.”
Whether you pluck baskets from trolleys or order a la carte; chow down on har gow that’s naked or adorned with gold leaf; prefer your buns fat-laden or fat-free—it all comes down to one thing: a mealtime tradition that’s sure to endure, even if it’s acquired a couple of flourishes along the way.