Dim sum and the rise of the independents

Independent dim sum restaurants build a strong following, writesJanice Leung

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2012, 3:35pm

Said to have originated in the royal palaces of China, dainty plates and baskets of dim sum were popularised in small tea houses or rest stops along trade routes in Guangdong at the turn of the last century.

Initially, tea was what drew customers in and the food was merely intended as a snack. Nonetheless, the food soon took centre stage, to the extent that the tea now served with dim sum can be a watered down afterthought. (Today, we still call the act of eating dim sum "yum cha", which literally means to drink tea.)

These small plates are now a favourite for breakfast and lunch, and usually consumed in large restaurants with lengthy menus. And what's old seems to be new again, and in recent years, and small, independent dim sum shops have sprung up once more.

This chapter in recent dim sum history can be traced back to 2009, to a dim sum chef named Mak Kwai-pui. On a backstreet of Mong Kok, amid motorcycle repair shops and neighbourhood estate agents, Mak opened an equally humble dim sum shop.

His experience in the kitchens of high-end eateries such as Lung King Heen ensured that the quality of his food was high, but the location and down-to-earth, quick service format kept prices low.

Word spread like wildfire. This little hole-in-the-wall was, of course, Tim Ho Wan, which gained further fame as the world's least expensive one-Michelin-star restaurant.

It has since become a minor chain, with three more outlets around town (in Sham Shui Po, Central and North Point). The queues at all of them can easily lead to waits of an hour or more, yet many find it hard to resist the airy, baked barbecue pork bun, with its salty-sweet crispy top, or the steamed glutinous rice parcels, wrapped in lotus leaf.

The success of the original shop in Mong Kok has caused the landlord to raise the rent and, as a result, this branch will close next January and move to a larger premises in Tai Kok Tsui.

Tim Ho Wan's story inspired a new crop of independent dim sum restaurants to crop up, such as Dim Sum Square. As with many independent dim sun shops, the team behind this packed 30-seater in Sheung Wan, including owner Tse Kin-hoi, are veterans of the food and beverage business.

"We've all worked in large Chinese restaurants and hotels," Tse says. The reason for opening up his own business was simple: "I saw the success of other small dim sum eateries, and we decided to try it ourselves".

On weekdays, it draws an impressive crowd from nearby offices, while on weekends, locals in the area stream in.

Everyone loves its steamed custard buns, the hot, runny centre of which threatens to burn impatient tongues.

The deep-fried spring rolls wrapped in steamed rice paper are a textural roller coaster - first, you bite through the slippery veil of the rice paper, then it's the sharp crunch of the spring roll, and lastly, you reach the soft core of scallions and pork.

Superior Steamed Rice Roll Pro specialises in one type of dim sum, rice paper rolls. Although it also offers other items such as turnip cake, it's the eight varieties of rice paper rolls that people come back for.

The barbecued pork rolls are the only offering that you'll often see on other menus; the others are more creative, such as roast duck, fresh fish slices, zucchini and mushrooms, and the minced pork with chives and preserved vegetables.

"The minced pork in our signature rolls is slow cooked in a special sauce, inspired by the lurou style that is popular in Taiwan [with soy sauce, sugar and spices like star anise]," says owner Wong Tim-fat.

As to why it specialises in one type of dim sum, Wong says: "We just thought that there weren't many shops specialising in rice paper rolls and thought a clear focus might attract people."

Attract people it has, and in the 17 months since its launch it has already been awarded a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin guide, an indication of good value. Its popularity has also led to the opening of a new branch across the street from the original.

Wong has more than 20 years of experience in the kitchens of Hong Kong's busiest large-scale Chinese restaurants, including Sportful Garden and Lei Garden.

Dim Sum King in Tin Hau is open 24 hours a day. Spokeswoman Joanne Lee Hok-kwan says: "A lot of taxi drivers come at night, between shifts. Our best-sellers are the classics that you'll get in any restaurant big or small - siu mai, prawn dumplings and minced beef balls. People often just want the simple things they know best."

Apart from their round-the-clock service, Lee believes that another reason that customers prefer small dim sum shops is because "we're easily cheaper than large restaurants because we don't charge for tea, sauces and other sides that you're automatically charged for at large restaurants". Beverages, including tea, are on a user pays basis.

"You could have three plates here for the price of only one or two at a traditional restaurant," Lee adds, and yet "there isn't much difference in the quality of our food. Our food is freshly made and we steam to order."

To think of dim sum as fast food may seem counterintuitive, given the obvious care and skill that goes into each pleat in a dumpling, for instance.

Dim sum also means more than just food to Hongkongers. Sunday brunch is a bonding session with the family over a few hours of eating. But if all you want is a steaming basket of siu mai, or a supper of baked pork buns, this new wave of dim sum shops is exactly what you need.