The first thing I did stepping off the plane into Hong Kong was to head for dim sum. Luckily, Crystal Jade was right in front of the exit, dim sum conveniently at hand. In short order, Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings in my stomach, I stepped into a bold new world ready to chow through the chinese.
As any Wikipedia-fed fool will tell you – dim sum means touch the heart and started up as a tea-time snack in Canton. Now that dim sum has worldwide recognition and is starting to challenge noodles as the flag bearer of Chinese food, I figure I should put some focus into it in its native land. Of course, it turned out to be harder to get in Hong Kong than I thought. Firstly, the Chinese insist on this whole daytime business – most places start at ungodly hours (even 5am was bandied around) and by the time the average conference goer (as in, I myself) has gotten himself out of his suit (as in, 2pm) the average shop is not in the mood to touch hearts.
Then there was this little matter of what dim sum is. Unlike the dumplings that every Mumbai resutaurant from China House to Mainland China leads you to expect – most dim sum in Hong Kong are not dumplings. To top it all, the trolleys that New York taught me to expect are conspicuously absent here. A final straw - Wikipedia informed me, somewhat smugly, that the Xiao Long Bao dumplings I had eagerly lapped up were from Shanghai and indeed, were buns not dumplings. Life seemed more complicated than I started out with.
A little research on Hong Kong Dim Sum did, in fact, reveal it to be a big part of the food here. The tourism board has a guide about it, and every travel book worth its name lists places where the ‘experience’ can be had. Lots of options surfaced, though most seemed to be owned by the conglomerate named Maxims, who does every conceivable kind of Chinese food and even Starbucks in Hong Kong. I finally chose Serenade Chinese, whose prime inside the modern architectural landmark of the Hong Kong Cultural Center apparently makes it a favourite venue for weddings. It was also open late – which in dim sum land is till 4:30pm. Of course, as it turned out it was also owned by the Maxim empire.
Serenade duly handed me a nice long colourful sheet of tick mark choices, all nicely numbered and categorized. A few ticks later, dishes started landing up at regular intervals, starting with a nice, full pigeon that tasted great but was horribly hard to eat with chopsticks.
The obligatory dumplings were there (in vegetable form, no less), but most of the dishes were not what New York and Mumbai had led me to expect.
Two dishes, in particular, were spectacular. Turnip cake with conpoy was a cake of turnip strips that had an addictively chewy texture reminiscent of potatoes, but loaded with flavour and that added conpoy twist. Conpoy is, by itself, a fairly interesting ingredient – scallops dried and then cooked leading to a slightly stronger version of scallop flavour with an asparagus texture. I was to encounter conpoy again later, but this one – apparently a classic combination – was quite worth the money.
Then came the star of the show, another classic Hong Kong dim sum that was one of the best bites of my entire trip. Steamed chicken with fish maw and black mushroom. Fish maw is another of the Chinese fascination with entrails – in this case the spongy, lung-like floatation bladder of a fish. The maw soaked up the wine and chicken stock and whatever else went into the steaming of the dish, and burst it into your mouth at the first bite. Add the chicken and a single black mushroom, and ‘spectacular’ came into my mind more than once as I slowly demolished it.
There were many other dim sums that I would like to have tried. Figurine dim sums were on the menu, and I later discovered that they are quite a speciality – dim sum in intricately elaborate shapes. Then, there was a long list of dessert dim sum (mostly puddings and soups) that also seemed worth trying. I however, had to stop before touching the heart spilled over to touching a heart attack.
Serenade is definitely a restaurant worth visiting. I've been told the centerpiece of the Maxim empire is the Maxim's City Hall (which overlooks us from across the bay on the Hong Kong side) is a more traditional venue carts and all. The dim sum, however, is similar but this one avoids the lines, stays open till later and is conveniently located near an MTR station.