Dim sum has long been my favorite meal. The food of course is key: who can argue with any meal that delivers endless bite-sized parcels of amazing flavors? But it’s more than that. There’s the sharing; the tasting of many, many, things without being restricted to choosing just one dish; and, the fact that for me, dim sum often means eating with family.
Literally translated, dim sum means ‘touch the heart’ – so perfectly named. It originated as a snack, not a meal, and is most clearly associated with Cantonese cooking, particularly in Hong Kong. So, being in Hong Kong, surrounded by family and eager to do my duty as a food writer, I asked a couple of cousins, their other halves and a crew of kids aged 5-11, to meet us for Sunday dim sum.
We debated whether to go the traditional route and head to Maxim’s at City Hall, where you have to stand in line for a table and they bring you cartloads of different food that you get three seconds to peruse and choose, or to eat at a restaurant with a great view of Victoria Harbor and the ability to make a reservation. We opted for the latter: Victoria City Seafood in Citic Tower, with its glorious view (construction and all) made even better by the sunny spring day.
We arrived to find my cousin Tessa, her husband, Javi, and their two boys, already picking out a couple of items “just to keep the kids happy“. (Sure, we believe you.) The perfect thing about dim sum is that the food arrives at a fast and furious pace and doesn’t let up until you lean back in your chair, clutching your full belly and looking around for a place to lie down. The prompt arrival of char siu bao (steamed BBQ pork buns) and wonderfully delicate steamed vegetable dumplings got everyone’s attention, including the antsy kids.
Just as Tessa was describing that frantic feeling that settles on you during dim sum – otherwise known as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) – and doesn’t actually leave until you have tried everything at the table, her brother, Mark, his wife Steph, and their two children showed up. Afraid he’d missed out on the ordering, Mark quickly grabbed a copy of the menu and starting getting down to business. The excitement levels and anticipation continued to rise like mercury on a hot day.
Part of what drives dim sum FOMO is the fact that each plate contains 3-4 servings and you have to act quickly to spin the Lazy Susan and get in prime position for your favorite things. Of course, in reality you can re-order anything that needs replenishing, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the feeling that you better act quickly. Imagine our excitement as the first dish was placed in the center only to find it was… chicken’s feet. Uh, no thanks. A favorite of my dear Granny, who ate them often for dinner, and apparently full of collagen and therefore incredibly good for you, I have to say, I’m not a fan.
No matter, quickly on their heels (pun intended) arrived salt and pepper tofu (insanely delicious), braised greens (healthy), pan-fried turnip cake (so good!), baked crispy char siu bao (how is it possible to make heaven taste even better?!) and even turnip pastries.
We also enjoyed har gow (almost transparent shrimp dumplings), cheung fun (steamed rice noodle rolls), pork siu mai (more steamed goodness) and honestly, a number of other divinely tempting treats, including one that was dressed with tahini and another you enjoyed with Worcestershire sauce. It was really hard to say no to anything, apart from the chickens’ feet which the men gamely sucked the goods off, one scaly toe at a time.
And while the Chinese aren’t known for their sweet tooth or pastry-making skills, there are a few things that they do and do really well. One is the beautifully bright yellow egg custard tarts. As pretty as an Easter picture with light flaky pastry, even so, they are a slightly acquired taste to the Western palate. Monkey didn’t much care for them, but he wolfed down the airy steamed sponge cake.
And I just couldn’t get enough of the glutinous rice dumplings with black sesame paste. Sprinkled with peanut sugar, chewy and gloopy, but truly, only in a good way, and filled with the most unctuous sesame paste, I’m pretty sure we ended up ordering an extra plate of these little gems.
Without question, the number one favorite item at lunch was the char siu bao. Even at the end of the meal we were still ordering three more baskets – none of us could get enough. It’s the unbeatable combination of the slightly sweet, ‘light as air’ steamed dough, encasing piping hot, barbecued pork that just can’t be beat.
Just like any high, FOMO wears off, and as we started to settle into our seats, we all agreed that one of the secrets to enjoying dim sum is to make sure you have lots of people at the table – 10 in our case – so you can order widely and try as many things as possible. May the FOMO be with you.
You can find Victoria City Seafood at 5/F Citic Tower, 1 Tim Mei Avenue, Admiralty, Hong Kong, Tel: 852 2877 2211