Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Dim Sum Diaries (Part II - Dim Sum)

Have been tasked to write a report on our Good Eats Exercise in Hong Kong. Here it is. Like the Gospels (though not nearly as interesting or important), it's not in chronological order.

Dim Sum
The advance party of our jolly contingent landed at Hong Kong International Airport at 1029 hours and was promptly shot at by a pale-faced member of the airport staff...with a thermometer gun. Well-trained to withstand such psychological warfare from the locals, the advance party proceeded unfazed to identify a suitable dim sum feeding ground for the main contingent: a branch of Maxim's in the Departure Hall. The ladies still toddled around with little metal carts, touting their wares at each table; like yum cha back in the old days in Singapore when Mayflower was still in business and Red Star was known by all. The char siew bao had just the right bite, solid juicy char siew (not burnt, not too sweet, not stained too red, not too much fat, not barbequed too long) nestled in firm fluffy white clouds.
A similar offering at Luk Yu, that grand dowager of Hong Kong teahouses, was a bit too solidly built, probably able to withstand being hurled by a gentleman at his philandering spendthrift son without soiling their respective tailored cloths. But they were still a world away from that soggy oversteamed overly-sweetened mess we get from the glass-cases in Singapore coffeeshops. Even the baos from shops along the street, where you can rest your weary feet and soak in some tea after a long browse in the night markets, were quite good. No glimpse of dodgy red-stained mince but thick slices of barbequed pork sitting in heavy meat liquor with a hint of pork belly.

The bamboo trays in which the baos were steamed imparted a finishing fragrance to the superior ingredients and preparation; perfume that enveloped like a cloud when the lids were lifted.

Of all exotic things that always seem to taste like chicken, the chicken feet (ordered by the main contingent) tasted like...feet... My comrades informed me that they were luscious.

The egg tarts I could appreciate, were heavenly: a flaky crust with the right crunch that melted in the mouth and a custard that did not taste overwhelmingly like the horrible steamed egg that children used to be force-fed in the questionable belief that such muck was nourishing.

Didn't like the egg tarts at Tai Cheong Bakery though. Chris Patten's favourite, we're told. But what kind of taste did the good man have? A public schoolboy's it seems. Nice enough crust (not flaky but firm and buttery) on the tarts (ignoring the burnt bits) but the custard was steamed to a jiggly death and whiffed of puke. Just what a proper Englishman, who likes his veggies boiled into submission, would adore.

Luk Yu's siew mai was quite alright. Thin tight skin and juicy filling. Not too salty.

Even the Maxim's Fast Food one was lovely (though can't say the same for the rest of the "Happy Meal"). The skin was even more thinly stretched over the silky pork within. The best chee cheong fun we had was at Maxim's. Buoyed by a modest sea of soya sauce with a touch of fried shallot oil, they practically slithered down our throats. The XO chee cheong fun at Hang Fa Lau was interestingly spicy (too la for the Hong Kongers though).

Unfortunately, the experiment with a hole-in-the-wall at Stanley failed miserably. The skin was too floury and thick. Accompanying sauces were interesting though: the usual black sweet sauce, fried shallot oil and toasted sesame seed sprinkles and peanut butter!

For an authentic old Hong Kong yum cha experience, Luk Yu beat all for old world atmosphere: Sikh doormen, booths out of a Wong Kar Wai movie, ancient worn wood-panelling and antique glass, regulars known by name, their personal teapots prepared in anticipation of their arrival, leisurely reading the morning papers…

Dim sum has certainly come along way from the time when imperial physicians in the 3rd century considered it anathema to combine tea with food, warning that such practice would lead to excessive weight gain. In Hong Kong, dim sum, though universally enjoyed, is not quite a great social leveller. In fact, its place and pace of consumption implies class-differentiation: at dirty street corners, wearily, by tired manual labourers looking for a quick bite before heading home, and unhurriedly, with the morning papers, in poshy stiff teahouses by the leisure classes.

Yum cha which was apparently conceived by weary travellers along the Silk Route, soon found its home in the dainty nibbles of the imperial courts and finally came to Hong Kong in the postwar period when Hong Kong experienced an influx of refugees from mainland China. Then yum cha was largely an activity of single males, who met over their breakfast tea to socialize or exchange tips about jobs. As these first-generation immigrants settled down, got married, raised families, and became grandparents, yum cha transformed into a family activity. It served to draw together family members who now lived and worked in different parts of the territory, and reinforce the institution of the family. Food anthropologists probably typify yum cha as a ritual to fortify cultural identity, like the Japanese tea ceremony. Not sure we felt more Chinese after all that dim sum, but even as unreal-Chinese, we seemed privy enough to certain cultural nuances to appreciate the experience more than the neighbouring real-gwei-lo.

There is talk of course, that Hong Kong dim sum is past it's prime: that Hong Kong chefs and dim sum masters have all migrated to London, Singapore and Canada, leaving the substandards behind to hold the fort. Haven't had a free weekend to yum cha in Singapore all these years to test this theory.

The Dim Sum Diaries (Part III - Birds and Pigs)
The Dim Sum Diaries (Part IV - Noodles and Rice and some noodling around)
The Dim Sum Diaries (Part V - Snacks)

Photos courtesy of LMG and KMD. No dim sum were harmed or photoshopped in the writing of this post. All were eaten.

Hong Kong International Airport
Departure Hall

Maxim's Fast Food

Luk Yu
26 Stanley Street, Central

Tai Cheong Bakery
Lynhurst Terrace, Central

Hang Fa Lau
D'Aguilar Street, Central

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