'Xiao long bao' dumplings . (Bloomberg/Paul Yeung)
A New Yorker going to Hong Kong for an authentic dim sum experience may walk away a little deflated: Largely gone are the traditional carts, loaded with delicately flavored bite-size dishes, that diners flag down as they pass by in many U.S. eateries. In the home of the cuisine, they’ve largely been relegated to history and replaced with à la carte menus.
What you’re guaranteed to see in both cities, however, are such traditional dishes as steamed buns stuffed with sticky-sweet pork, xiao long bao dumplings filled with scalding soup, and chewy chicken feet that will test the carnivorous mettle of the more timid meat-eaters. Sweet sits alongside savory, often in the same bite-size dish, washed down with plenty of jasmine tea.
The methods of presentation are changing, but the rules governing how you eat dim sum remain the same everywhere. We asked the world’s first Chinese cook to earn three Michelin Stars, Executive Chef Chan Yan Tak of Hong Kong’s Lung King Heen restaurant at the Four Seasons on what to do—and more importantly, what to avoid.
Nibble, don’t gobble
“It’s better to take small bites rather than eat a whole piece of dim sum in one gulp. The flavors are enjoyed more when consumed slowly. With xiao long bao [delicate pork dumplings filled with a piping-hot broth], pick them up just a bit below the very tip, where the dumpling skin folds together. It's best to take small bites and let the dumpling cool a bit between bites. Foreigners will often eat them in one bite and burn their mouths that way. The soup can be really hot.”
Go easy on the soy sauce
“Most kitchens prepare their dim sum seasoned, so you shouldn’t need extra, but it depends on how you like your food. Some like it saltier or spicier. Otherwise, dim sum should be well-seasoned on their own. I prefer to go light. I guess foreigners prefer stronger flavors. What they consider to be well-seasoned probably would be too salty or rich for our tastes. And what we like they probably think is too bland. The same goes for sweets. Some of our customers prefer their desserts to have less sugar.”
The spoon can be used for more than broth
“It’s best to use your spoon to give better support—lay the bone on the spoon and maneuver with your chopsticks. Bite off the meatier parts first and eat your way around the bone. Afterward, you can dispose of the bone on your plate. Fine dining restaurants will help you change plates after each course. If you dine in a dai pai dong (a traditional Hong Kong food stall), there’s really no etiquette. You can use your hands to eat and place the bone directly on the tablecloth. Just enjoy the food.”
Keep your chopsticks to yourself
“Don’t serve others with your chopsticks. It’s just as simple as this—some people might not want to share your saliva. You can always ask for another set for passing food to others. And don't play with your chopsticks—don't tap your teeth or poke inside your mouth with them. It’s fine to ask for a fork. Even some of the younger kitchen hands we have here can’t use chopsticks properly. We sometimes half-joke that we’ll need to test our new hires’ chopsticks skills.”
Learn the secret codes
“When you want to say thank you, tap your index finger and your middle finger together on the table twice. That represents a bow. And if you run out of tea or hot water for your table, move the teapot lid aside and the waiter will come and give you a refill.”
Don’t over order. You can keep going back for more
“There’s no recommendation for how much you should order, just order as many dishes as it takes to satisfy you and keep ordering until you’re full. And don’t ask for a doggy bag. It makes a big difference when you steam dim sum for one minute more or one minute less. You should eat them hot. Their flavors will totally change if you warm them by microwave at home.”
— With assistance by Fion Li