Hong Kong’s dy­ing art

With more restau­rants choos­ing fac­tory- made dumplings, a recipe is needed to save Hong Kong's hand­made dim sum.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - By DEN­NIS CHONG

FOR the past 60 years, Chui Hoi has risen in the early hours of the morn­ing to pre­pare bite- size steamed morsels for his small but pop­u­lar dim sum restau­rant in Hong Kong.

Sun Hing opens its doors at 3am, seven days a week, with a loyal clien­tele from stu­dents to the el­derly fill­ing the 60- seat restau­rant in the western district of Kennedy Town. At 85 years old, Chui is com­mit­ted to hand­mak­ing his dim sum – parcels of meat, seafood and sweet fill­ings served in stacks of bam­boo bas­kets – say­ing that fresh­ness is key to their suc­cess.

But many in the in­dus­try fear the tra­di­tional art of mak­ing dim sum is dy­ing as restau­rants choose fac­tory- made ver­sions to save money and meet de­mand.

“Fresh hand­made foods are beau­ti­ful af­ter they are steamed, but many are made in fac­to­ries now,” says Chui.

Younger chefs are less in­ter­ested in the hard graft it takes to pre­pare dim sum, he adds – it is usu­ally eaten in the morn­ing, so cooks must get up in the night to pre­pare.

“Young peo­ple think be­ing in this in­dus­try means no free­dom be­cause you have to get up early and the hours are long,” he said. At Maxim's Palace in the har­bourfront City Hall build­ing – a favourite with lo­cals and tourists – chan­de­liers sparkle over dim sum din­ers in the buzzing ban­quet­ing hall.

But, like Chui, Maxim's su­per­vis­ing chef Tang Le­ung- hung says there is a dearth of young tal­ent to pro­duce its hand­made fare.

“The prob­lem with the in­dus­try is the man­power. Young peo­ple are not will- ing to join us,” he told AFP. “Many of them have turned to ho­tels' western restau­rants and sushi restau­rants for jobs in­stead of Chi­nese ones,” says Tang, with younger peo­ple see­ing them as more fash­ion­able and with bet­ter hours.

Teenage hopes

Dim sum – which means “touch­ing the heart” – is a Can­tonese- style cui­sine from south­ern China, of­ten served with pots of tea.

Typ­i­cal dishes vary from parcels of ground pork and shrimp siu mai to sweet treats in­clud­ing cus­tard buns and ma lai go steamed sponge cake.

Once mainly part of a leisurely week­end rit­ual which could take hours, many dim sum joints in Hong Kong now have a quick­fire ap­proach, in­clud­ing take- away kiosks in­side sub­way sta­tions.

With de­mand grow­ing and rental costs high, mass- pro­duced buns and dumplings im­ported from main­land China are a way to up the vol­ume and cut costs.

But there are those who are ac­tively seek­ing to pre­vent a culi­nary art from dy­ing out. In the kitchen of Hong Kong's fa­mous five- star Penin­sula ho­tel, teenagers don chefs' whites to knead dough and fill in­tri­cate parcels as part of a cook­ing con­test. “We need to at­tract young­sters to join this trade. Crafts­man­ship is what is needed,” says Frankie Tang, ex­ec­u­tive chef of the Penin­sula's Spring Moon Restau­rant and or­gan­iser of the con­test.

Of the five fi­nal­ists mak­ing dim sum from scratch, 17- year- old Wu Chen­g­long won af­ter mak­ing dishes in­clud­ing crunchy lotus- seed pas­try and a spring roll filled with fruit.

“We should make peo­ple not for­get ( how to make) dim sum. We should con­tinue to de­velop this tra­di­tion," said Wu, who won HK$ 25,000 ( RM13,500) cash and a one- year ap­pren­tice­ship at the ho­tel.

Cul­tural her­itage

There is also hope among the city's food ex­perts, who say dim sum's en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity at home and in­creas­ing ap­peal abroad will in­spire young chefs.

Sev­eral of the city's lo­cal dim sum restau­rants have re­ceived in­ter­na­tional ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing Miche­lin stars.

“The tra­di­tion ( of eat­ing dim sum) is still thriv­ing... On Father's Day, for ex­am­ple, you don't go to a western fast food restau­rant, you go to ' yum cha',” says Hong Kong food blog­ger KC Koo.

“Yum cha” – Can­tonese for “drink tea” – is the name for the meal dur­ing which dim sum are eaten, washed down by hot tea. Koo adds that it is im­por­tant to pre­serve the hand­made tra­di­tion as it is a key facet of Can­tonese cul­ture.

“I have con­fi­dence that there will be new blood as the mar­ket is there,” he said.

Back at Sun Hing, the el­der Chui's 48- year- old son Chui Kwok- hing is fol­low­ing in his father's foot­steps.

“I come in at 1.30am. Some­times I feel like I have mi­grated to an­other coun­try as the hours are up­side down,” he says of the ex­haust­ing rou­tine.

But he sees a rea­son for wak­ing up in the dark. “Peo­ple like to have dim sum in the morn­ing, to be en­er­gised with some tea be­fore go­ing to work,” he told AFP.

“I feel happy when peo­ple think the food is de­li­cious.” He adds that he wants to pre­serve the restau­rant's hard- won rep­u­ta­tion.

“My dad is al­ready 85 years old but he still works here – as the young gen­er­a­tion, we should try to be even bet­ter.” – AFP Re­laxnews

At the Sun Hing restau­rant in the Kennedy Town district of Hong Kong, dim sum is still hand- made the tra­di­tional way even though more and more restau­rants on the is­land are switch­ing to fac­tory- made ones.

A wait­ress serves bas­kets of dim sum on a trol­ley in a restau­rant in Hong Kong. Al­though yum cha is still a pop­u­lar pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, the tra­di­tional art of mak­ing dim sum is dy­ing

At 85 years old, Chui is com­mit­ted to hand­mak­ing his dim sum, say­ing that fresh­ness is key to their suc­cess.

Chui’s son, Kwok- hing, joins a core of ded­i­cated chefs de­ter­mined to pre­vent the hand­made tra­di­tion from dy­ing out.

— Pho­tos: AFP

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