Posted by: Sam Olsen | August 31, 2012

Touch my foody heart


The Repulse Baywas one of HK’s finest hotels right from the time of its 1920 construction, until it was torn down 60 years later. Photos of the old place reveal a large matron of a building, homely yet rather stern in an Imperial kind of way. It seems to have had numerous wings, all with colonnaded balconies that hinted at the classical style so common in British buildings in this part of the world. Coinciding with the rise in the number of the island’s motor cars was good for the hotel, allowing as it did the city dwellers an easier and quicker way down to the south of the island. No doubt the winding night-time road back to Central wiped out a number of them after an evening on the gin pahits, but the large numbers of businessmen and travellers from across Asia that were discovering the Repulse Bay made sure the hotel was never short of custom.




Sadly Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels (the owners of the still-standing Peninsula Hotel) demolished the Repulse Bay in the early 1980s. The reason, as ever in HK, was to make more money. No matter how many visitors the hotel had, they would never be able to compete with selling the land off for flats to be built, which was exactly what happened. Bizarrely, and for an unknown reason, a few years later the company rebuilt part of the hotel. Rumours persist that the current building is only two-thirds the size of the original, but although it cannot be that hard to prove, no one seems to know the truth.

Although the hotel is gone, part of the heritage remains in the form of a rather lovely restaurant, the Verandah. It was here in January 1996 that I first tasted dim sum.



It is not often, after early childhood, that we encounter a totally new type of food that we like enough to become a beloved staple. Yet these wonderful gastronomic encounters do happen. My mother for example remembers her first taste of yoghurt on a Reading market stall in the 1960s; it has been an addiction ever since. For me, the first time I encountered those tasty little dumplings will be a date my taste buds shan’t forget.


Originally eaten as just a snack – the name means ‘touch the heart’ rather than ‘fill you up quick’ – dim sum has become a staple of Cantonese cooking, especially here in Hong Kong. I vaguely knew this as I tucked into endless plates and baskets of goodies, the extravagant number of courses a novelty to someone only used to starter, main course and pudding. White buns filled with sickly sweet barbeque pork; prawn balls wrapped in a translucent skin; red roasted pig ribs; lotus leaf envelopes stuffed with glutinous rice; small squares of fluffy turnip cake; fresh, light spring rolls; salt and pepper squid strips. All consumed with an unbecoming greed. Except for the ‘Phoenix Claws’, aka chicken feet. I’m still not sure where the idea for that came from.


Just enough for one

It’s not just the food that’s a pleasure. The etiquette involved with eating dim sum may be slight, but they do turn the whole event into something more than an exercise in stopping hunger.


Take for example the tea. It is customary to pour the tea for your fellow diners before yourself, as it is in England or in many a civilised country. A unique twist though is that the diners thank you by tapping your bent index finger if you are single or, if married, tapping two digits., a ritual meant to symbolise bowing.


The practise is said to have been inspired by a certain Emperor, who one night decided to go out to eat incognito with some pals. When he poured his friend some tea, the man wanted to thank his Emperor for the privilege of having his cup filled so tapped on the table so as not to blow his boss’ cover.


On the other hand, it is probably a lot more likely that it just evolved as a time saving device. Why say “thank you” when you can just tap a little, thus not having to stop eating for even a second. Anyone that’s seen a hungry Chinese person scoffing dim sum can easily understand this.


(Talking of tea, here is an interesting question: why don’t Chinese teacups have handles on them? Apparently it’s to warn the potential drinker if it is cold enough to drink: too hot to touch, too hot to swallow, or so goes the theory. It was probably the Emperor’s idea too.)


Everyone in Hong Kong eats dim sum. Every morning on the way to work the small mom and pop restaurants have hundreds of locals queing outside, waiting for their white buns or phoenix claws or whatever. Steaming pots of congee, or rice porridge, sit behind the counter, ladels dipping in and out every other second.

The posher version of dim sum is eaten at restaurants in a slightly less frantic way. Short-bobbed old women trundle trolleys up and down shouting out their wares, waiting for a customer to raise a hand. As not a single one of these ladies speaks English, the expat sometimes has an interesting surprise when he lifts the lid of his basket: steamed tripe is not to everyone’s taste. These higher class restaurants are normally super busy, especially on weekends, so it can be an ordeal just getting to the table, let alone ordering the right thing. But the effort is really rather worth it.











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