Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dim Sum by the South China Sea

“A dream of Manhattan, arising from the South China Sea” – modern travel writer Pico Iyer’s description perfectly captures the East–West paradox that is Hong Kong. From imperial stronghold to opium port, Cold War enclave to today’s global financial hub, this teeming city still delights in its traditional Cantonese cuisine, especially its bite-sized, delicious dim sum.

Prior to 1997 Hong Kong had been a British colony for 155 years, but this vibrant business center remains emphatically Chinese under its Western veneer. While you can shop for Armani suits or be serenaded by a string quartet over afternoon tea at an elegant colonial hotel, the dominant language is Cantonese and the city’s ultra-modern harborside has been laid out according to the traditional aesthetic principles of feng shui.
As stores open and the engines of commerce fire up for the day, in the oasis of Kowloon Park, birds chirp and swoop between fig trees, and senior citizens greet each other after their morning tai chi exercises with “Jousahn, yum cha, yum cha!” – “Good morning, let’s go for dim sum!” When it comes to eating, Hong Kong is the best place in the world to try Cantonese cooking, with its fresh flavors and contrasting textures, and there’s no better way to sample its variety than with dim sum, or “little choices” – dainty portions of fried or steamed snacks. In Hong Kong, dim sum is better known as yum cha – “with tea” – and a pot is an essential part of the meal. Favorite is bo lei, a dark, strong brew said to help the digestion.
The Hong Kong dim sum experience involves wading into a busy restaurant, finding a free table, then ordering from the carts laden with dishes and steamer baskets that constantly cruise by. Har gau dumplings, their shrimp fillings glowing pink through translucent wrappings; little steamed beef balls, smooth, springy-textured, and flavored with minced celery; fluffy steamed buns filled with scented char siu roast pork; aromatic sticky rice steamed in lotus leaves; cheung fun, meat wrapped in sheets of paper-thin rice noodles – the main problem is deciding what not to try, so it’s no surprise that a dim sum brunch often stretches into the afternoon. It’s the perfect way to fortify yourself for sightseeing and, above all in this city built on trade, for shopping, whether browsing in glitzy high-end Central, haggling in hectic Causeway Bay and Nathan Road, or diving into the heady Temple Street night bazaar.
Three Days in Hong Kong
Hong Kong has matchless shopping opportunities, but look beyond them and you’ll discover an engaging mix of modern architecture, traditional temples, street markets, island life, and even fine beaches.
DAY ONE : Explore Hong Kong Island by riding the Peak Tram to the Peak for views over the city, then catch a bus to explore traditional Chinese medicine shops and the smoky Man Mo Temple at Sheung Wan. After lunch, sunbathe or stroll on the south coast’s Shek O beach, then mix with expats over a drink at one of Lan Kwai Fong’s many bars.
DAY TWO : Catch the romantic Star Ferry across the harbor to Kowloon and Nathan Road’s jewelers and clothing shops, then work north through the lively jade, goldfish, and ladies’ markets. Ride the MTR to Diamond Hill’s antique-style Nan Lian Gardens, before returning to the harbor for the classic nighttime view of Hong Kong Island’s skyline.
DAY THREE : Head to Lantau Island and ride the Ngong Ping 360° cable car to the serene, 110-foot- (34-m-) high Big Buddha, then visit the stilt fishing village of Tai O for a chance to see pink dolphins, before returning to Hong Kong Island by ferry.

High-speed ferries dart across the harbor against Hong Kong’s fabulous illuminated skyline

A major hub, Hong Kong International Airport connects directly to much of the globe. The Airport Express train has direct links to the downtown and Kowloon. Buses, the MTR subway, and taxis are comprehensive and efficient.
The Eaton Hotel (inexpensive) is friendly and functional.
Hotel LKF (moderate) is classy and in boutique style.
The Peninsula Hotel (expensive) offers colonial-era luxury.
Find the helpful Hong Kong Tourism Board at Causeway Bay MTR station and Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier (Kowloon);
 Dim Sum Around the World
Naturally, China is the best place to eat dim sum, but cities outside Asia with large Chinese communities come a close second. From London to Sydney and San Francisco, top-class dim sum is increasingly available in gastronomic hubs around the world.
Tim Ho Wan Shop inexpensive
8 Tai Yuen Mansion, 2–20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon; +86 852 2332 2896
The world’s least expensive Michelin-starred restaurant, with lines stretching around the block – take a number and go shopping for an hour. Their flaky barbecued pork buns, richly flavored turnip cake, and perfect har gau are not to be missed.
Din Tai Fung moderate
3/F Silvercord Centre, 30 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon; +86 852 2730 6928
Courteous service, bright, bustling, and everything above average. The specialties are various xiaolong bao (dumplings normally stuffed with pork, though one version here comes filled with taro paste), but save room for the crunchy jellyfish and radish salad.
Luk Yu Tea House expensive
24 Stanley Street, Central; +86 852 2523 1970
Perhaps a little overpriced, but it’s the ambience that makes this not to be missed: pure 1930s teahouse, with ceiling fans, dark wooden booths, and ancient staff wearing crisply starched linen.
Sprawling, overcrowded Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, shares the same energy, language, and cuisine as Hong Kong. But at over 2,000 years old, it has rather more history.
Liwan Mingshijia inexpensive
99 Dishifu Lu; +86 20 8139 1405
This open-fronted cafeteria on Guangzhou’s famous food street is always packed to bursting – sharing tables is inevitable and even Cantonese-speakers have trouble ordering above the din. It is best for exquisitely thin-skinned cheung fun, juicy won ton, and shuang pi nai (custardlike “double-skinned milk”).
Chao Hao moderate
6/F World Trade Centre, 371 Huanshi Dong Lu; +86 20 8769 0888
Smart and sophisticated decor makes Chao Hao a favorite place for indulging in crispy-skinned pork, stewed chickens’ feet, and Hong Kong-style mango pudding, though the specialty dish here is fun gwor – dumplings from northeastern Guangdong province.
Tao Tao Ju moderate
20 Dishifu Lu; +86 20 8139 9632
The roast goose – a Cantonese specialty – and the crumbly char siu rolls alone justify the reputation of this century-old restaurant, which claims to have more than 200 dim sum dishes on the menu. The greatest variety is available after 2:00 PM.
This tiny city-state sitting at the tip of the Malay Peninsula was, like Hong Kong, founded by the British. With its mix of colonial, Chinese, Malay, and Indian heritage, Singapore is one of Southeast Asia’s trading hubs.
Yan Ting moderate
The St Regis Hotel, 29 Tangling Road; +65 6506 6866
Probably the finest dim sum in Singapore, served in suave surroundings by attentive staff. The char siu roast pork is meltingly soft, the har gau dumplings firm and smooth, and their soup stocks awash with complex but subtle flavors.
Chinese migrants came to Australia during the country’s 19th-century gold rushes and stayed to run market gardens and stores. There are good-sized Chinatowns in all state capitals, but Sydney’s is probably the liveliest.
East Ocean Seafood inexpensive
421–9 Sussex Street, Haymarket;
Come prepared to stand in line at this authentically busy, hot, and noisy dim sum legend, which delivers consistently fine scallop dumplings, steamed black-bean spare ribs, and fried vegetable rolls.
Hong Kong expats get positively misty-eyed over their dofu fa (tofu custard).
London’s dim sum scene has exploded since the upmarket and innovative Hakkasan opened in the late 1990s, making Chinese food hip, upping the bar for dim sum cooking everywhere, and making London arguably the best city for Chinese food outside Asia.
Phoenix Palace moderate
5 Glentworth Street, NW1;
You know where you are with Phoenix Palace’s enjoyably familiar dim sum selection – barbecued pork buns, sesame shrimp rolls, and crunchy fried yam dumplings – all cooked to perfection and served in a polite, bright setting.
Yi-Ban moderate
London Regatta Centre, Dockside Road, Royal Albert Dock, E16; A converted warehouse serving first-class dim sum with a stylish Docklands view. Their shrimp and chive dumplings, pork and preserved egg congee, and marinated pork with jellyfish are good enough to make you overlook the occasionally offhand service.
Hakkasan expensive
8 Hanway Place, W1;
Hakkasan’s success has brought it a Michelin star.
The stylish wooden decor invokes a romanticized image of China, which suits the food – venison puffs and flying fish roe have never appeared on menus in dim sum’s homeland. Don’t miss the magnificent seafood dumpling consommé.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest outside Asia and the oldest in America.
Beneath ornate 19th-century buildings, including a dragon-embossed Bank of America, lie dim sum restaurants that are fairly conservative, but with high-quality food.
Yong Kee inexpensive
732 Jackson Street; (415) 986 3759
A carry-out bakery that’s a favorite with local Chinese, with many dim sum offerings – though it’s pretty well mandatory to try their big chicken buns and handmade char siu rolls. There’s no English sign outside, but it’s not hard to find.
Ton Kiang moderate
5821 Geary Boulevard (between 22nd and 23rd Ave.);
Though most of the excellent dim sum menu here is mainstream Cantonese, Ton Kiang is unusual in also serving Hakka dishes from northeastern Guangdong province, on the border with Fujian (Hokkien). Shrimp-stuffed eggplant is a Hakka classic.
Yank Sing moderate
One Rincon Center, 101 Spear Street; This family-run institution has been feeding the community since 1958, building up an enviable reputation for fresh tastes and skillful presentation.
Must-trys are the xiaolong bao, chicken fan gwor dumplings, and steamed rice packets.

Chefs make their selection from lantern-lit market stalls piled high with artfully displayed produce

On the Menu
Char siu bao A steamed bun, light and fluffy around its savory stuffing of barbecued pork.
Cheung fun Thin, light rice noodle sheets folded around shrimp or roast meat fillings and flavored with a soy-oil dressing.
Chun goon “Spring roll,” the best-known dim sum outside China, though not so popular at home. Usually stuffed with pork shreds and bean sprouts, and served with a sweet-and-sour sauce.
Dan ta Flaky pastry cup filled with egg custard. Macau’s Portuguese-influenced version is grilled on top.
Fan gwor Clear-skinned dumplings from Chaozhou (Teochew) in China’s eastern Guangdong province. Usually filled with seafood and light-flavored vegetables.
Foong jow Literally “phoenix talons,” actually chickens’ feet, prepared in various ways. The skin has a classic, gelatinous crunchiness, but they’re fiddly things to eat, with dozens of tiny bones.
Har gau Steamed, clear-skinned shrimp dumplings; the shrimp should be slightly crisp and the wrapping light. A yardstick for a fine dim sum kitchen.
Jook Bland rice porridge, perked up with savory ingredients; an ideal complement to richer dim sum dishes. Sometimes known by its Indian name, “congee.”
Law bak go Fried turnip-paste patty flavored with dried shrimp and lap cheung sausage.
Mong gwor pu deen A refreshing, un-Chinese dessert of Southeast Asian origins, comprising puréed mango pulp set with gelatin.
Nor mai gai Chicken pieces steamed inside a glutinous rice packet, wrapped in a scented lotus leaf. They tend to be rather heavy and filling.
San jook ngau yuk Steamed, springy-textured beef balls, served with a distinctive, aromatic soy sauce.
Siu mai Ubiquitous, open-topped steamed pork-and-shrimp dumplings. Inevitably ordered because of their good looks, they can be delightfully firm and juicy, but are often rather heavy.
Woo gok Crisp and curiously “hairy’” fried taro croquettes, filled with minced beef. Surprisingly filling.
Xiaolong bao Addictively tasty steamed pork and shredded cabbage dumplings from Shanghai. They fill with broth during cooking, making eating tricky – bite a hole in the side to drain them first.

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