FROM TRANSLUCENT DUMPLINGS WITH FRAGRANT FILLINGS TO THE FLUFFIEST BARBEQUE PORK BUNS, IT’S FULL STEAM AHEAD AS WE GO IN SEARCH OF HONG KONG’S BEST DIM SUM.
New York has its hot dogs and its delis, London has its chippies and curry houses. In Hong Kong, nothing captures the cultural identity quite like dim sum.
What started as a teahouse tradition in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) remains an important culinary custom, particularly in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong (or Canton) Province in southern China.
These days there is a dim sum parlour to fit every pocketbook in Hong Kong: from cheap and cheerful teahouses to the fanciest of hotels; from the smallest and noisiest, to the most elegant and refined.
For me, there’s no better way to start your day in Hong Kong than watching a parade of metal carts laden with bamboo steamers zig-zagging around a restaurant, as waitresses shout out their wares.
From the humble siu mai (pork dumpling) to the fluffy cha siu bao (steamed pork buns), these meticulously hand-crafted creations are a treat for the eyes as well as the palate.
Dim sum is traditionally a weekend meal, but in Hong Kong you can expect to find it served all day, every day. And there’s no shortage of places to eat.
Here are just a few of my favourites from recent visits:Maxim’s Palace, City Hall
With floor-to-ceiling windows that frame Victoria Harbour, this is probably the most scenic dim sum experience you can have in Hong Kong.
Maxim’s was actually the first place I was taken to for dim sum back in 2006 – and I have been back almost every year since.
The restaurant has received a makeover in that time to update the ornate décor, although the faux grand chandelier and the grumpy waitresses pushing the metal trolleys are still part of the charm. Given the place seats up to 500 diners in one sitting, they’ve probably got a right to be grumpy.
Maxim’s is the place to come for the vintage trolley experience: there can be up to 18 silver carts going around at any one time.
Some trollies have tiny LCD screens that showcase their contents while most others have items written in English on the front. And despite their grumpy reputation, I’ve always found the waitresses to be more than helpful.
As with any good dim sum restaurant, you are served a big pot of tea as you sit down. I always default to the house offering which is usually jasmine tea – but there are often better teas that can enhance the flavour profile of the food you’ll be eating.
Of course, that’s where the term ‘yum cha’ comes from. It means to drink tea. When your tea is being poured, it’s customary to show gratitude by tapping two fingers – your index finger and your middle finger – in front of your cup.
As for ordering, well I often stick to the same reliable dishes, and I always order way too much.
A typical sitting with friends at Maxim’s might include har gau (steamed prawn dumplings); siu mai (open-topped steamed pork or prawn dumplings); haam sui gai (a deep-fried glutinous rice dumpling stuffed with pork. I often call them footballs because of the shape); cha siu bao (steamed bbq pork bun); and cheong fan (rolled rice noodles).
Australians with a hankering for that old yum cha favourite – the ubiquitous mango pancake – will be bitterly disappointed. It turns out the yellow-orange rolls stuffed with mango and coconut cream are an Australian invention.
There might be a host of better dim sum experiences across Hong Kong, but for me Maxim’s offers one of the widest dim sum offerings I’ve encountered, and it’s always hot and super fresh.
There are Maxim’s branches everywhere, including one at the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal at Sheung Wan. But City Hall will always be a favourite for me.
Location: 2nd floor, City Hall, 5-7 Edinburgh Place. Walk to the back of the IFC building and out the doors. You’ll find City Hall just 500 m away.
Lin Heung Tea House, Central
This is one of the loudest, most chaotic and confusing dim sum experiences you’ll possibly have. It’s a truly old-school Cantonese tea house experience in the heart of Hong Kong, and a nice change if you’re not a fan of the chain store dim sum restaurants.
Just be aware that the staff speak very little, if any, English and there’s no table service at all. So, unless you’re with a local who can do the ordering for you, like we were, there will be lots of pointing and lid-lifting until you get the right dish.
It’s hugely popular with the locals who come to read their newspaper while supping tea and eating the tasty morsels being wheeled around on metal carts – from western favourites like siu mai and har gow to the more adventurous dishes like liver cheong fun.
When you first sit down, you might notice many diners will rinse their utensils with hot water or hot tea at the table before they order. This is a tradition that has continued since the days of poor hygiene, so don’t be alarmed.
This is also one of the few dim sum restaurants where you actually have to get up with your order card and go to the cart to choose your dim sum – mainly because the restaurant is so crowded and the metal trolley just doesn’t reach all the tables. At times, there can be five or six people haggling with the old aunty behind the steaming cart.
The decor here is simple, like 1950s simple, but that adds to the charm. And don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a table with others – that’s just the way it is.
Location: 162 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong.
Famously the ‘world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant’, Tim Ho Wan is run by an ex-Four Seasons chef who keeps prices low to keep the regulars coming in.
My first Tim Ho Wan experience was back in 2009 when they opened a tiny 20-seat dim sum diner at Kwong Wah Street in Mong Kok (pictured above). (In 2013, the original restaurant at Mongkok was relocated to Olympian City.)
I remember we got there around 10am and the queue was easily 50 deep. I’m glad we took a ticket and waited though, because it was well worth the experience.
These days Tim Ho Wan has four restaurants across Hong Kong (including a takeaway shop on the podium level at IFC mall) and others in Singapore, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Sydney.
The secret of their success is apparently steaming the dim sum to order rather than making big batches of dim sum in advance. That’s why everyone is presented with a checklist to order their dim sum delights.
I enjoyed Tim Ho Wan. It’s fresh, reliable dim sum that’s relatively cheap. I’m just not sure why there’s so much hype.
Locations: Shop 72, G/F, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road,Tai Kok Tsui Shop 12A, Hong Kong Station (Podium Level 1, IFC Mall), Central G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po Shop B, C, & D, G/F, 2-8 Wharf Road, Seaview Building, North Point.
The people at Michelin-starred Lei Gardens certainly know how to capture an audience. Why else would they have nine restaurants located in densely populated shopping areas?
Whether you’re shopping at Elements, Causeway Bay or at IFC, you’ll find a Lei Gardens restaurant serving some of the best dim sum in Hong Kong.
Like any chain, the quality and appeal differs between locations. Personally, I think the dim sum at the Wan Chai restaurant is head and shoulders above some of its other locations.
The restaurant at Elements is always busy, so it might be wise to book.
Locations: Shop 2068-70, 2/F, Elements, 1 Austin Road West, Tsim Sha Tsui; One Harbour View St, IFC, Central; 326-338 Hennessy Rd, Wan Chai; 10/F, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay; Houston Centre, 63 Mody Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui East; 121 Sai Yee St, Mong Kok; Shop 628 & 631, 6/F, New Town Plaza Phase 1, 18 Sha Tin Centre Street, Sha Tin; Shop 13, Ground floor, Hoi Lei Garden, Tuen Mun; Shop F2, Telford Plaza 1, Kowloon Bay.
Ming Court,Cordis Hotel (previously Langham Place Hotel)
Located on the sixth floor of the five-star Cordis Hotel (formerly the Langham Place Hotel) in bustling Mong Kok, Ming Court is one of only 13 restaurants in Hong Kong to be awarded two Michelin stars.
Ming Court is fancy and refined and its weekday deluxe dim sum menu sets it apart form the crowd. It includes glutinous dumplings infused with shao xing wine, which gives them a distinct nutty flavour.
Other favourites included the rice pasta roll with barbecue pork or fresh prawn and chives. And I quite liked the pan-fried turnip cakes.
You can’t go wrong at Ming Court for quality or choice. But the restaurant is popular so book ahead.
Location: 6th Floor, Cordis Hotel, 555 Shanghai Street, Mong Kok.
Jasmine Garden, Langham Place
Part of the Maxim’s Group, Jasmine Garden is located within the Langham Mall (Argyle St) and offers traditional dim sum until 3pm.
Like Ming Court across the road, it’s more of an upscale dim sum experience, with crisp table cloths, fancy crockery and dim sum supposedly made to order. I thought it was aimed mainly at the tourist trade, but there were plenty of locals dining here as well.
Jasmine Garden doesn’t take reservations but there is a really efficient ticketing system when you arrive. Just punch in the number of people in your group and you’ll get a ticket with a number.
When your table is ready it appears on the screen. Despite its popularity, the tables turnover pretty regularly.
Location: 8 Argyle St, Mong Kok, Level 3, shop 35, Langham Place shopping mall.