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Hong Kong’s Dim Sum Can ‘Touch the Heart’

<i> Henderson is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer. </i>

Doing dim sum in Hong Hong is like doing deli in New York City. It’s not only the thing to do, it’s the place to do it best.

This tradition is hardly a trend. It has been an integral part of Cantonese cuisine since the 10th Century. While the literal translation of the Chinese characters is “to touch the heart” (and some dim sum is so good, it does just that), dim sum is interpreted as light snacks, both savory and sweet. The bite-size morsels are commonly consumed from early morning to midafternoon, and always with a pot of tea.

Fresh from the kitchen, dim sum is placed in small, round bamboo baskets and wheeled about restaurants on trolleys the size of large trays. Servers hawk their offerings in Chinese as they move past tables. Fortunately for famished foreigners, there is nothing like smiling, pointing and other symbols of sign language to procure morsels of choice.

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Dim sum prices vary according to the quality of ingredients, the skill of the kitchen and the amount of labor utilized in preparation. Naturally, a luxuriously appointed restaurant where you order off a menu charges more. The good news is that regardless of where you consume it, dim sum is generally an inexpensive meal. In neighborhood eateries, a meal might run $5 per person, while in haute hotels or fancy restaurants, sophisticated selections cost each diner about $15. Just be sure to make a reservation for the latter establishments.

Perhaps the most famous dim sum spot in Hong Kong is the Luk Yu Tea House. It is indeed famous, but not necessarily for the cuisine. At Luk Yu, what you get is atmosphere.

Although Luk Yu has only been at its current location for about 16 years, it was constructed to look as it did in 1925. The multilevel, wood-paneled restaurant is replete with brass spittoons, antique wooden coat racks, ceiling fans that bravely attempt to move the humid air, and unsmiling waitresses carrying trays of dim sum hung from straps around their necks--much like the cigarette girls of yesteryear. In fact, in the old days, that is how dim sum was transported.

If you’re not a regular (and of course, you’re not), it may not be easy to get anyone’s attention. When the dim sum finally arrives--there are usually about 20 selections available--it will seem like pretty standard stuff. Dishes such as har gau (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (minced pork and shrimp dumplings) and cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun) appear regularly, while specialties include steamed turnip pudding and deep-fried taro dumplings.

So what if the food is less than remarkable? Luk Yu is an institution and an adventure. To visit Hong Kong and not experience Luk Yu is like going to Manhattan and skipping the Empire State Building.

Looking for a bit more luster? There is plenty of polish at Lai Ching Heen in The Regent Hong Kong hotel. This must be the swankiest restaurant in town.

The jade place settings alone, said to cost about $1,000 each, are worth the visit. The luncheon menu only offers about six dim sum selections, but it is possible to call ahead and order a special meal for a wider variety. It is worth the phone call. Lai Ching Heen’s cutting-edge chef takes dim sum to a new level. Scallops envelop fresh pear, crisp spring rolls are stuffed with shredded roast duck, and chicken with banana is wrapped in rice paper.

For those out exploring Hong Kong, it is worthwhile to stop in any Jade Garden restaurant. Unlike American chains, each has its own personality. “They’re very local,” said the concierge at my hotel, which in my book is a recommendation. I like Jade Garden near the Star Ferry on Kowloon because it offers a dazzling view of Victoria Harbor. Expect some 70 varieties of dim sum, including such exotic fare as steamed duck’s tongue, steamed lotus paste buns, chicken feet and tripe.

A Regent Hong Kong sous-chef tipped me off to the 30-year-old Treasure Sea Food Restaurant. It is both a find and hard to find. Located in Mongkok on Kowloon, this boisterous restaurant is patronized by neighborhood residents. Diners clad in thin cotton sweaters and pants cluster together, sipping tea and reading newspapers. The clatter of dishes competes with the sing-songy voices of waitresses yelling the contents of their trolleys, and patrons demanding to consume them. Grab a vinyl chair, forget about getting a napkin, towel or plate, and concentrate on reveling in simple, distinctive food.

Exotica abounds, from fish heads steamed with black beans to deep-fried chicken feet and pig’s blood soup. Less adventurous palates should stick to the ultra-fresh seafood, such as firm, fat shrimp trapped inside steaming dumplings.

The elegant Fook Lam Moon Restaurant on Johnston Road (actually, there are two) is to Hong Kong what Spago is to Los Angeles. It is ranked as one of the best restaurants in town, is frequented by the elite and is a springboard for sous-chefs who fine-tune their craft before moving on to top positions at other restaurants.

At the Johnston Road location, dim sum selections are vast (about 45 varieties) and include standard fare, as well as exotica such as steamed mashed mud carp dumplings with vegetables, preserved gizzards and duck’s tongue, chilled marinated baby octopus, jelly fish with sesame and grilled chicken feet marinated in vinegar. The large dessert selection is particularly notable. Expect deep-fried water chestnut fritters, steamed sponge cake with olive kernels and chilled mango pudding.

On weekdays, Spring Moon in the tony Hong Kong Peninsula hotel counts local business people as 60% of its patrons. Lunching ladies of leisure garbed in bright silk dresses can also be spotted in the plush dining room.

There is a good reason why so many locals frequent Spring Moon. The innovative dim sum--up to 10 varieties are offered daily--is sublime. Barbecued pork pie is buttery-rich. Deep-fried taro cakes stuffed with curried chicken (a departure from the usual pork filling) arrive crackling on the outside, soft and moist on the inside. Chive juice colors shrimp dumplings green, while siu mai goes upscale with prized strands of shark’s fin.

The hot newcomer on the dim sum scene is The Golden Leaf, tucked inside the Hotel Conrad Hong Kong. This restaurant is rich in teakwood and antique pottery. The menu offers a small selection of both traditional and contemporary dim sum, including shark’s fin pork dumplings with black mushrooms, miniature barbecued pork buns and a marvelous dessert of tiny egg yolk buns that traditionally are steamed, but here are fried.

By the way, since tea is to dim sum what peanut butter is to jelly, here’s a tip to ensure refills. When the pot is empty, turn the lid upside down or askew and the server will automatically refill it. And when it is time for the bill, lay the chopsticks across one another on a bowl or plate. It’s much easier than saying, “Check, please,” in Cantonese.

GUIDEBOOK

Hong Kong Dim Sum

Recommended:

Luk Yu Tea House, 24-26 Stanley St., Hong Kong, call locally 523-5464.

Lai Ching Heen, The Regent Hong Kong, Salisbury Road, Kowloon, 721-1211.

Jade Garden, Star House, 4th Floor, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon, 730-6888.

Treasure Sea Food Restaurant, 623 Nathan Road, Mongkok, Kowloon, 780-5252.

Fook Lam Moon Restaurant, 35-45 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong, 866-0663.

Spring Moon, The Peninsula Hong Kong, Salisbury Road, Kowloon, 366-6251.

The Golden Leaf, Hotel Conrad Hong Kong, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Hong Kong, 521-3838.


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