Food City

On the hunt for Hong Kong’s best dumplings

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WHEN I WAS PREG­NANT with my first child, I ex­pe­ri­enced crav­ings. Not crav­ings for pick­les and ice cream, mind you, but crav­ings for dim sum. I’d call my then hus­band and in­form him that dim sum was what I wanted for din­ner – at least three times a week. He’d du­ti­fully pick me up, and we’d drive a few min­utes across town to a lit­tle spot near the Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket neigh­bour­hood in Toronto. Nowhere else would do.

I was ad­dicted to those pretty lit­tle parcels, cheap and cheer­ful dumplings that most of us tend to eat at brunch – let’s call it the Chi­nese ver­sion of tapas, shar­ing plates with easy-to-pro­nounce names like Shui Mai and Har Gow, stuffed with minced veg­gies or bar­be­cued pork or shrimp and water chest­nuts. I’d crave the sight of stacked bam­boo steam­ers, piled up and ready to open up like so many presents, to un­wrap and then to eat. I felt rather cos­mopoli­tan at the time, a global ci­ti­zen of sorts, crav­ing an “ex­otic” cui­sine rather than that run-of-the-mill stuff all the other ex­pec­tant moth­ers told me they had wanted. Lit­tle did I know there was so much more.

Fast-for­ward about 10 years and a long week­end in Hong Kong loomed on the hori­zon. Hong Kong is known for many things: its Bri­tish-colo­nial past, its Chi­nese present and its attitude to the fu­ture, among them. A for­ward-lean­ing cul­ture, its reach-for-the-sky-scrap­ing view em­braces peo­ple from around the world. It’s a mag­net for ex­plor­ers, ad­ven­tur­ers, cul­tural en­thu­si­asts and culi­nary fans. I’m one of those fans; the food drew me to it.

Since that trip, I’ve re­turned to Hong Kong of­ten and I’ve dis­cov­ered there’s more to it than just dim sum. It’s part of a greater foodie col­lec­tive. “Can­tonese cui­sine is a culi­nary art orig­i­nated from the Guang­dong (Can­ton) prov­ince [that bor­ders Hong Kong],” says Ip Wai Hung, the ex­ec­u­tive sous chef at the city’s two-Miche­lin-starred Ming Court at the Cordis ho­tel. “It fo--

cuses much on the nat­u­ral flavour and fresh­ness of food in­gre­di­ents and uses less sea­son­ings com­pared to other Chi­nese cui­sine.” This may be why in­trepid food cul­ture hunter, the chef An­thony Bour­dain of CNN’s Parts Un­known, con­sid­ers Hong Kong “a great place to ex­pe­ri­ence China in a rel­a­tively ac­ces­si­ble way.” He is ab­so­lutely right.

This re­gional cui­sine is ap­proach­able; not scary or in­tense, and it starts with sub­tle flavours. “Can­tonese is all about us­ing fresh­est in­gre­di­ents in sim­ple ways, like steaming fish, seafood with just gar­lic and scal­lion, meats flash-fried in a wok,” says the born-in-Lon­don, England, raised-in-Scar­bor­ough, Ont., Alvin Le­ung, a.k.a. De­mon Chef of Master Chef Canada fame. “[Din­ers] no­tice when some­thing has been frozen.”

And when it comes to trav­el­ling to sa­ti­ate our culi­nary cu­rios­ity, I’m not alone. Ac­cord­ing to search en­gine book­, my fel­low Cana­di­ans – 69 per cent, in fact – cite food and drink ex­pe­ri­ences as a driver for their hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion choice, and Hong Kong tops the list. “Canada is a smor­gas­bord of cul­tures, and that’s what makes it spe­cial and what makes me so proud to be a Cana­dian,” says Le­ung. “But Hong Kong of­fers an eye-open­ing va­ri­ety. The city is food heaven. As an open port, I can ac­cess any in­gre­di­ent I need, and there are cus- tomers from all over the world.”

So when, ex­actly, did dim sum en­ter the Can­tonese mix? Al­though foodie his­to­ri­ans can’t pin­point the tim­ing ex­actly, it’s said it’s been a tra­di­tion since an em­peror and his fam­ily, in their jour­ney to Can­ton from the north some 2,500 years ago, paved the Silk Road with tea­houses so that they could in­dulge in the sub­tly flavoured del­i­ca­cies and dumplings that were, at the time, ex­clu­sively cre­ated for the royal house to take with their tea. The trend stuck and now dim sum is de­cid­edly a Hong Kong spe­cialty.

Here, even hole-in-the-wall mo­mand-pop shops are crit­i­cally ac­claimed, the com­pe­ti­tion for the best dumpling fierce. Opaque rice-or egg-noo­dle discs would be stuffed and sculpted into bloom­ing flow­ers, tiny duck­lings, baby bun­nies, twobite gold­fish – flights of fancy to add a de­light­ful bit of the­atre to the mix. Some were egg-yolk yellow, some a spinach green and some wrap­pings

so sheer you could make out al­most all the in­gre­di­ents in­side.

At Ming Court, Chef Ip and his team cre­ate pan-fried dumplings so pretty, shaped like a teardrop and im­printed with a del­i­cate fern­like pat­tern, I hes­i­tate to take the first bite. But bite I do, the golden-seared crust giv­ing way to an ex­plo­sion of earthy mush­room good­ness. Veg­e­tar­ian never tasted or looked so good – and it def­i­nitely didn’t taste like this in Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket back in the day. Wait, maybe bet­ter, the lay­ered silk tofu, topped with a shim­mer­ing blan­ket of gold leaf, mud­dles on the tongue like, well, silk.

Le­ung, for all his molec­u­lar moder­nity, kills it like no other with his take on tra­di­tional Can­tonese street food with his“X-t re me Chi­nese” cui­sine a this three-Miche­lin-starred Bo In­no­va­tion (three stars be­ing the high­est hon­our a chef can achieve). “X-treme is not meant to be scary,” he says. “It should be ex­cit­ing, exot- ic, ec­static. This is the thing I want to achieve in my food.” An egg waf­fle ar­rives at ta­ble in a pa­per bag. We tear it open and are treated to a bub­bly warm crunch, dot­ted with scal­lions. Who said you can’t be messy at a Miche­lin-starred resto? Ex­cept it is chef’s ver­sion of an­other is­land na­tion’s clas­sic that most blows my mind. In Tai­wan, food­ies have been known to hunt the is­land top to bot­tom for the best xiao long bao, or soup dumpling. Tiny, broth-filled noo­dle pack­ets that ooze with flavour and a bit of fun.

This, how­ever, is not enough for Le­ung. He’s taken this street clas­sic to a whole new level – with sci­ence. The X-treme xiao long bao ar­rives in a pair, perched on spoons with matte black han­dles, rest­ing on a black lac­quer-filled sawed-off bit of tree trunk as a plat­ter. Some­how, Le­ung’s molec­u­lar prow­ess has coaxed the broth into a per­fect orb, as per­fect as a freshly cracked egg yolk. It is trans­par­ent, show­ing off its pre­cious pale yellow de­li­cious­ness within its thin-skinned walls. A soli­tary red stripe cuts through the dumpling’s axis – is it pep­per? Is it tomato? As I pick up the spoon, I’m so ut­terly hyp­no­tized by its de­mon-like stare, I for­get to ask. Pop. Turns out it is pre­served gin­ger.

Yet, it is on the street where Can­tonese sees its most last­ing cul­tural im­por­tance, a so­cial net­work­ing that’s as tra­di­tional as the food it­self. “Hong Kong peo­ple are sur­rounded by var­i­ous cuisines in this gourmet par­adise,” says Ip, “we have grown up in Can­tonese cui­sine cul­ture. Yum cha, or the act of tak­ing Chi­nese tea and hav­ing dim sum, is the con­nec­tion with fam­ily and friends – a col­lec­tive mem­ory of all Hong Kong peo­ple.” And, now, me.

Clock­wise from be­low: the golden din­ing room at Ming Court; a rare serene re­flec­tion of the city in Hong Kong har­bour; X-treme xiao long bao, Le­ung’s take on the soup dumpling at Bo In­no­va­tion; Chef Alvin Le­ung

Drunken Shrimp Dumpling, Shao Xing Wine, Steamed at Ming Court, the two-starred Miche­lin Can­tonese restau­rant at the Cordis Ho­tel

For the au­thor’s list of where to get Miche­lin-starred dim sum, go to www.ev­ery­thing­zoomer. com/hong-kong-3-ways.

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