The soft yellow ball has googly eyes and when you pierce it with a chopstick, it oozes salted egg-yolk custard. Barbecue pork buns come in the form of pink and white pigs. This playfulness might seem trite to some, and an outright abomination to others, but the plates at Yum Cha in Hong Kong’s Central aren’t only full of fun, they’re really rather good. This is an evolution in dim sum that takes tradition as its base and punks things up a bit. There are chicken wings, deboned and glazed like a toffee apple, and winter melon that’s been soaked in orange juice for two days.
Dim sum literally translates as ‘dot heart’ or, if one were being a little more lyrical ‘heart’s delight’. The idiomatic equivalent is, appropriately, ‘hit the spot’. Eaten as part of a yum cha (morning tea), dim sum originates in Guangdong in mainland China, but by the early 20th century Hong Kong became the ‘dot heart’ capital and chefs here began to create their own delicate pieces to add to what was already an exquisite series of delicacies.
To discover dim sum that takes itself a little more seriously than squidgy faces, I climb a few culinary levels up to the dizzy heights of the three-Michelin-starred T’Ang Court, across Hong Kong’s ‘fragrant harbour’ in Kowloon, where chef Kwong Wai Keung has been cooking since 1988. The char siu pork is the best I’ve ever tasted — delicate, moist and fragrant. It comes with pan-fried rice-flour rolls and a spicy XO sauce made from dried shrimp, scallops and chilli. But it’s the crab meat puff — two ethereally thin slices of pork fat stuffed with threads of white crab then deep fried — that blows me away. It takes technical skill to master this dish and chef Keung demands that everyone on his team learn how to do it when they first come into his kitchen.
For a completely different dim sum experience, I join the queue at Tim Ho Wan, where I somehow strike it lucky and don’t have to wait the two hours of myth. This place began as a hole-in-the-wall shop in Mongkok, but chef Mak Kwai-pui is a dim sum master and soon the accolades — including a Michelin star — rolled in and he rolled his franchise out, while keeping the prices down. I have beautiful pork and shrimp siu mai, prawn dumplings and more than one cha siu bao (baked bun with barbecue pork). My Hong Kong Chinese friend Kam persuades me to try braised chicken feet with abalone and I wonder why I’ve been so ridiculously squeamish about them before.
Hong Kong is a culinary crossroads of a place. A Former British colony, it stood apart from mainland China, but much of its food came from that country’s many regions. It came to be heavily influenced by its Western occupation and also by the cuisine of Japan. With space at a premium — almost eight million people live on this small landmass — people dine out more than they eat at home, where ‘the wok is large but the sink is small’.
I queue up, then squeeze in at a communal table in Mak’s Noodle on Wellington Street in Central to try the wonton noodles. I can immediately taste why some people come to slurp at these bowls every day. Up a flight of stairs in Tsim Sha Tsui, at Spring Deer, I watch the flashing of the cleaver and the fast carving of a whole roast duck that glistens like it’s been thickly varnished. I realise that it’s here with this knife that the skill lies — slicing the bird so we can taste the skin, the fat and the meat all at the same time.
Using an Octopus card — a bit like London’s Oyster but instead for convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and cake shops — I crisscross the city on the easy and efficient MTR underground system, in search of slippery ju cheung fun (rice rolls) with spicy sauce, pineapple buns and custard tarts.
Over in the New Territories, I explore the town of Tai Po, where old streets still have character and locals ride around on bicycles. There’s a fabulous multistorey food market with a wet fish and seafood section, stalls selling fruit, vegetables, meat and san cho yeuk (medicinal mountain weeds). Upstairs, there’s a cooked food centre. But my Tai Po pilgrimage is largely motivated by roast goose and a restaurant called Yat Lok. This is the sister of the Michelin-starred Hong Kong island branch, but since it has no star rating it’s cheaper and, many would argue, serves better food. Again there are queues, again they’re worth it. This is the home of a justly famous roast goose, made even more famous following a visit from chef Anthony Bourdain for his television programme No Reservations, during which he stated: “That’s worth flying all the way to Hong Kong for.”
The goose is marinated in 20 different ingredients including soy sauce, ginger, cloves, star anise and sesame oil. The taut, crispy skin looks almost laminated and it’s here that you’ll find the most concentrated flavour — below this is a layer of melty fat, juicily sitting on top of rich, heavy goose meat. We eat this with rice but also ask for a bowl of noodles, which come in a broth made from goose juice. Bourdain is perhaps guilty of hyperbole when he states how far he’d travel for Yat Lok goose, but I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s worth going from Hong Kong island to Tai Po for. discoverhongkong.com
Five food finds
The Hong Kong version of this tart includes a set custard. They’re served in cha chaan teng (tea houses) across the city.
A speciality of Guangdong, roast goose came to Hong Kong with migrants from the mainland and is widely revered.
Hong Kong-style milk tea
Ceylon black tea, evaporated milk and sugar, sometimes served on ice, often in a glass. Usually part of lunch.
No actual pineapple, just sugar, eggs, flour and lard combined to make a sweet bread roll with a crispy sugar crust.
Gai daan zai are made from a batter of egg, flour, sugar and are formed into balls (or sometimes the shape of a goldfish).
A taste of Hong Kong
A guided tour of the old streets of Sham Shui Po, a working-class area that manages to retain history and tradition. Start with milk tea and a pineapple bun, and hop around stalls and restaurants trying roast goose and snake soup. Check out the handcrafted duck egg noodles stretched on a bamboo pole.
HOW MUCH: A tour for one, including food and drink, costs £77.
Modern Hong Kong cuisine in a hidden alley in trendy Sai Ying Pun, created by chef David Lai, celebrating local culture. Fish is sourced daily, and salads and vegetables are local. For examples, try the fragrant foraged herbs and heirloom vegetable ‘garden’ with hot vinaigrette.
HOW MUCH: A chef’s selection of eight dishes is £67.
Sing Kee Seafood Restaurant
Head out of the city to Sai Kung and walk along Seafood Street on the waterfront before turning back to this well-priced, Michelin-starred restaurant serving traditional Hong Kong-style seafood. Deep-fried abalone is the signature dish and razor clams, lobster and scallops all feature.
HOW MUCH: There are great-value set menus; a basic set menu for two is £62 while a ‘Michelin menu’ for four, including abalone, mantis shrimp, steamed grouper and other dishes is £174. G/F, 33-39 Sai Kung Tai Street, Sai Kung, New Territories. T: 00 852 2791 9887.
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)