Hong Kong, though once controlled by the British, remains quintessentially Chinese, though its role as a port and trade center reflects a mix of cooking styles from a wide range of Chinese regional cuisines.
In terms of Chinese culinary history, dim sum are relatively new on the scene. Since the 10th Century, however, the Cantonese have acquired a dim sum repertoire of around 2,000 varieties of the teatime snacks. The larger specialist dim sum restaurants will usually prepare up to 100 of them on any one day. So a visitor to Hong Kong need never eat the same dim sum. But visitors do, once they discover particular favorites such as har gau (shrimp dumplings), cha siu bau (barbecued-pork buns) or tsun guen (real spring rolls).
At most dim sum restaurants throughout Hong Kong, the scene is much less sedate and business-like than that of the Luk Yu Teahouse. Once again, a visitor should seek out dim sum and yum cha experiences between the main meal periods. Otherwise the conversational bustle (amplified by uncarpeted flooring in old-style restaurants), the rush for vacant seats, the clatter of dim sum servers pushing their trolleys among the crowded tables, and the hustle of shouting, gesticulating waiters can be an overwhelming introduction to Hong Kong residents' love of food, gregariousness and cheerful noise-making.
Many of the finer dim sum selections, however, may not be available during the quiet spells, when the harassed dim sum cooks take a break from their literally steaming kitchens.
First, one must be prepared to do polite battle, and grab the first vacant chairs available in a dim sum restaurant. Then, you should not be shy of summoning all the dim sum trolley ladies as they wheel their fare around the room. Everybody else will be doing the same, or asking them what dim sum items are hidden in the trolley's bamboo baskets or covered dishes. If you cannot speak Cantonese, no one will mind if you lift up the lids of the baskets and dishes to see what is in them.
Keep the emptied baskets and plates on your section of the round table: they are the "counters" your table waiter will use to calculate your final bill when you leave. Alternatively, you will be given a small card which waiters and waitresses will stamp with a small, numbered chop each time you choose a basket or plate of dim sum. A polite way to let the restaurant know that you have finished is to lay your chopsticks across each other on your bowl or plate. If the waiter is dashing hither and thither so much that he misses your sign, grab his attention the best way you can!
Do the same if your teapot has run out of its strong and cheering Bo Lai tea. You will have been given your first pot once you are seated—probably in a very unceremonious way if the restaurant is packed and your waiter is worn to a frazzle.
There is a polite way to ask for the teapot to be refilled with fresh hot water: by lifting the lid off and letting it hang loose by the wire or cord that binds it to the pot, or balanced in the handle.
Should you see fellow dim sum customers washing their cups in the first pouring of tea, do not be alarmed. This is the traditional way to heat and cleanse the cup, the waste being poured into the nearest empty container.
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This page modified January 2007
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