When did dim sum turn from a family affair into a hurried and antisocial meal?
- Dim sum has moved away from large breakfast family gatherings in huge restaurants
- Now more of a fast food meal, modern dim sum has lost its communal feeling
When writers talk about food trends, they tend to focus on superficial variations in the market. A couple of fancy new pizzerias open in Hong Kong’s Central business district and suddenly gourmet pizza is the new thing.
Real change, though, doesn’t flip over on the first of the calendar. Like many other things, it tends to evolve over time – in slow, gradual, and almost imperceptible mutations.
In Hong Kong, one of our favourite pastimes seems to be, for better or worse, changing in ways that are quite profound. Dim sum – its tradition and perception – is transforming before our very eyes. And I’m not talking about chefs putting luxury ingredients like foie gras in steamed dumplings, or adding black truffle on lo bak go (steamed turnip cake).
The way dim sum is enjoyed in Hong Kong is being redefined and it’s a dramatic break from local norms and customs. If I want to sound smart, I might say there is a paradigm shift in its cultural, social and gastronomic context.
Dim sum originated on the Silk Road when roadside inns offered snacks to travellers stopping for a break and some tea. In Southern China, it became a breakfast custom and a social gathering opportunity. As people nibbled, they caught up on neighbourhood news and gossip. In modern cities, it’s a weekend lunch excuse for entire families to sit down together after a busy week.
For decades, yum cha automatically implied a big group having dim sum in a large Chinese banquet restaurant. It’s always communal, even if people are reading newspapers or playing with their phone. The point is, they’re still sharing a table.
The tea and the bamboo baskets of steamed morsels are just parts (but the most significant part) of the ritual and conventions of how Cantonese families mingled. But that format is changing.
It started very slowly several years ago when independent shops started offering all-day dim sum, but then the popularity rocketed suddenly. Liberated from the limitations of morning and lunch, a new generation could have char siu bao and chicken feet any time they wanted, including late at night.
They didn’t have to wait until morning or the weekend and they certainly didn’t have to invite along mother and dad, the grandparents, uncles and aunties, and all the cousins. Dim sum could now be a treat to be enjoyed outside its social function.
Unlike large banquet halls like Maxim’s City Hall, these tiny outlets naturally could only accommodate smaller groups. Often you just see couples dining together. Is it coincidence or freakonomics that these dim sum houses gained favour as our city’s demographic morph to smaller families and a low birth rate?
Soon, places like Tim Ho Wan and One Dim Sum even gained the attention of the Michelin Guide, drawing long queues and fostering an eat and go attitude quite different from dim sum’s customary slow and relaxed routine. Customers clearly didn’t mind though. All-day dim sum’s popularity encouraged even more such stalls to proliferate all over the city.
When I visit one of these shops, it is all about filling a har gau craving quickly, without making plans or asking others to join. It’s actually an antisocial experience, even when I am sharing a table with strangers. Maybe more so because of it.
Often I see a lot of elderly couples and even senior singles there and I wonder why they aren’t at the traditional large tea halls instead? Could it be they associate those palatial restaurants with larger family gatherings? Maybe these older folks are estranged from their relations or don’t have any left? It’s quite a sad visual to see elderly Chinese people eating dim sum by themselves.
The new generation may get to indulge any time they want, but it’s not the same dim sum experience on weekends with a raucous big gathering. You decide if this is progress or not.