by Reno Ong
HONG KONG—If you want to grab dim sum in its traditional form in Hong Kong, you don’t tell people, “Let’s grab dim sum.” It’s odd, a bit like saying, “Let’s grab some cucumber sandwiches and scones,” when what you really want is to sit down to English tea with all the trappings. Sure, people say that — I for one am partial to scones every now and again — but it could mean something else entirely.
Dim sum, which literally means “to touch the heart” in Chinese, has come to mean a light snack or refreshment in modern use. Yum cha, which on the other hand means “to drink tea,” is defined by ritual — sitting down with clients, friends or family, making up for lost times and solidifying relationships. In the Cantonese sense, it is the more commonly used phrase for the dining occasion involving the consumption of dim sum, in which partakers are expected to lounge around for long periods without the pressure of ordering more food items, in a setting conducive to gestures of respect. Pouring tea for elders and social superiors, tapping the table as a sign of thanks, leaving the last piece of each order as a sign of abundance and in deference to others — these details are essential to a culinary tradition that elevates ceremony, sometimes at the expense of the palate.
Outside Hong Kong, the two terms are often interchangeable. In Southern California and Queens, you can utter either phrase and people would know you’re looking for a long brunch or an extended afternoon eat-and-drink session. In the former British colony, however, establishments like Tim Ho Wan (THW) — which peddle dim sum in its most basic form — are drawing a hard distinction between a traditional form and its offshoot.
THW head chef Mak Kwai-pui — who opened the first outlet in 2009 — was a notable defection in Hong Kong’s culinary world. Prior to this endeavor, he was head of dim sum at the venerable Lung King Heen, a three-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel. His move from a well-established fine-dining operation to a hole-in-the-wall of his own conception created — intentionally or not — a reimagining of the culinary narrative.
Mak has created a different model of dim sum that has seen an unusual amount of success. Despite the lack of gloss, two of his restaurants (there are currently four locations in the city; another recently opened in Singapore) have each garnered a Michelin star. They are, for instance, distinctly lacking in ambience when compared with the augustly named Maxim’s Palace City Hall (MPCH), a dim sum restaurant boasting an expansive floor space covered in lush carpeting, a set of crystal chandeliers, a waitstaff that wouldn’t look out of place at prom and an entire wall that’s a window overlooking the city’s famed harbor — often dotted with cruise ships and yachts of the ultrarich.
A couple of blocks away, the THW branch in the city’s Central business district is decidedly low-key. Located at the basement level of the building Batman jumped out of in The Dark Knight, the small store has no windows. Instead of carpeting, there are utilitarian ceramic tiles. Other materials making up the rest of the space are equally budget-conscious: bits of cheap wood here and there, tables and chairs that would put even IKEA to shame. You can forget about chandeliers; the ceiling isn’t even high enough. Yet, despite the spartan environs, THW commands a similar level of popularity as its cousin by the water.
The draw is of course different. The clientele at MPCH expects to dawdle around linen-covered tables while carts of edibles are paraded about for everyone’s benefit. No pressure. Attendees eat as much or as little as they like while savoring the better-than-usual tea — another focal point in proceedings; it is, after all, yum cha — picked out from a selection that typically includes the flowery chrysanthemum and the much stronger pu-erh. All things conducive for ritual: sons, daughters, nephews and nieces pour for the older generation, corporate types feel free not just to talk about business but other things (like, I dunno, soccer?) — generally, nobody feels the need to step out once the food’s gone.
At THW, “eat and get out” may as well be the official tagline. Before even being seated, you’re given a ticket and an order sheet to fill out so the kitchen can prepare the rollout. Table for 12? Unlikely, given how small the place is — that would take up about a quarter of the place. Once your number is called, you sit with your elbows practically touching the other diners, who are — as you will be — eating out of plastic bowls and drinking tea from plastic cups. No selection necessary for the brew, everyone gets the same basic roast served in stainless-steel pots. The food quickly arrives and there’s barely any room on the table (which isn’t covered by white linen but instead topped with paper mats), so the baskets of goods get stacked high. You get a sense that space comes at a premium, and the establishment is looking to squeeze in as many patrons as possible. The mobs waiting their turn seem to demand that, as judged from the future customers overflowing into the restaurant interior.
Frankly, the whole being-there experience is unpleasant. The offerings, on the other hand, make up for it. It goes without saying that the food must be agreeable. The culinary industry in Hong Kong is notoriously competitive, largely a result of exorbitant rental costs, and establishments that don’t meet the minimum standard of edibility are doomed to fail fairly quickly. As such, THW’s multiple branches — especially one in the financial district (incidentally, down the street from the Four Seasons) — are telling of at least some quality. But just how good is the dim sum? Very. In my opinion, some of the best I’ve had in the city, and more often than not superior to those at larger, banquet-hall establishments. And others — who are willing to wait hours for a rushed eating affair despite a number of stress-free alternatives within close proximity — seem to agree.
Tim Ho Wan is often called the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, with menu items focusing on classic favorites like hargow and turnip cake (with a couple of specialty dishes like custard pork buns) starting at less than $2. At a recent outing, I racked up the equivalent of $11, and even then the order could’ve easily fed two. It’s therefore easy to forgive most things about THW — particularly its uninviting environs, which almost explicitly goes against the precedent set by yum cha. That’s not the point, after all. THW subtracts the ritual from yum cha and chooses to focus on another aspect of that culinary mode: making good and accessible dim sum.
Besides, if you don’t like eating on location, you can skip that ordeal altogether. THW offers the convenience of a takeout option, essentially eliminating the prerequisite of human contact, let alone ceremony, in the consumption of dim sum. The Central-area branch in particular has become a favorite among lawyers, bankers and white-collar types looking for palatable options to bring back to the office, possibly eaten in front of a computer monitor and deep in the busyness of the business. The evolution of a social activity into a personal endeavor becomes more evident in this case. THW offers rice boxes — the ingredients of which are taken from traditional dim sum dishes — aimed at individual consumption, a step away from menu items that come in several pieces meant to be shared in a group setting.
It’s perhaps tempting at this point to draw conjectures about the growing isolation of the metropolis, the deterioration of a culinary mode that emphasizes human interaction and the rise of eat-and-leave establishments devoid of that social connection. But that’s not really accurate by reason of evidence. Traditional tea places are still around, the weekend routine of long brunch and afternoon sessions remains pervasive, and it’s still a long wait for tables at most dining halls.
Tim Ho Wan isn’t killing a culinary tradition. It’s merely focusing on one dimension — taste — and packaging it in a way that the modern city can understand. Dim sum isn’t replacing yum cha — it’s an offshoot of the latter catering to a different audience for different needs. And in a city like Hong Kong, always hungry for choice, that can hardly be a bad thing.