On the hunt for Hong Kong’s best dumplings
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 booking.com, 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.