The quest was doomed from its conception. I planned to stuff my face with Hong Kong's best har gao, osmanthus jelly, sesame balls and chicken feet – with every manner of dim sum imaginable. But my goal was not merely to discover the greatest examples; that would be too easy. I was after dim sum's deeper meaning, and with it an intimate understanding of the city that made it famous. Given five days and a modest budget, I would channel the spirit of Jean Anthelme "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are" Brillat-Savarin. I would dine my way along a pork-fat-paved path of enlightenment, and that path, I was certain, would lead directly into Hong Kong's soul.
Sure, I was aiming high. I had no idea how easy it would be to get distracted by the deliciousness of the food.
Luk Yu Tea House, a landmark Hong Kong dim sum parlour that opened in the 1930s, seemed a good starting point. Hong Kong yumcha culture – to yumcha is to eat the little dishes called dim sum with tea – never stops evolving. Like the city itself, it constantly absorbs and incorporates new ideas, ingredients and approaches from around the world, jettisoning whatever's considered out-of-date. Luk Yu is the rare spot that hasn't evolved. They still use lard in many dishes (Hong Kong has become health-conscious in recent years), as well as unfashionable foods such as pig's liver. The room is a haven for high-end traditionalists, ringed with Tiffany-style stained glass and polished wood. For years, only regulars were seated in its prime, ground-level space.
A friend had managed to score a ground-floor booth on a Wednesday morning. I was sure that every steamer basket would be filled with old-guard privilege and power.
Better still, the restaurant's har gao are made to order. I studied one of the dumplings as it hung between my chopsticks, its skin so thin and glassine that I could see the striated pink and ivory blush of a prawn and dashes of green scallion inside. Its top was crescent shaped, feathered at its edges, folded as if by miniature fingers into 14 tidy pleats. It was sweet and saline, crisp inside with water chestnut, savoury from a touch of lard.
We ate superlight steamed milk buns filled with roasted pork, and flaky pastries bearing fig-like jujube paste. Another basket brought dumplings draped with slices of pork liver that had been marinated in Shaoxing wine and seared.
It was exquisite, all of it. I had never had dim sum like it.
In 1997, an anthropologist named Maria Tam published a much-cited paper on Hong Kong-style yumcha. Yumcha and dim sum were intertwined with the city's identity, Tam argued. They were a way for Hong Kongers to forge an identity that nobody would ever confuse with Mainland Chinese.
Where the city was often accused of being a cultural void, a classic colonial impotent with a bad case of nowhereness, its dim sum showed otherwise. Hong Kong dim sum was recognized internationally as the cuisine's superior form, far better than the version in Guangzhou, its Southern Chinese birthplace.
And dim sum was political. The great exodus of Hong Kong chefs before the handover in 1997 was "a vote of no confidence for the impending Chinese rule," Tam wrote.
I came to understand just how open the city is to new ideas and ingredients at Cuisine Cuisine, a high-end modern spot in the Mira Hong Kong hotel. Its menu reads like a checklist of modern aspirational living: pan-fried Wagyu beef buns, turnip cakes topped with Parma ham, and more cream and truffles than your average evening at the Plaza Athénée.
Another dish was titled "steamed shrimp dumplings topped with gold leaf." Dining here would be like analyzing Paris Hilton, I figured: all grasping and venality – a luxury shopping spree that you could eat.
I had delicate pastry tarts that came mounded with plump braised abalone, followed by sweet buns crowned with powdery sugar and melted butter. The rice rolls – satiny, slippery bundles of rolled-up rice-flour sheets – came dolloped with homemade XO sauce. The dumplings were stuffed with imported wild morels that had been seared and then mixed with truckloads of butter, garlic, double-cream brie and white wine. They tasted richly dark and woodsy from the mushrooms and voluptuous from the cheese, while the wrapper's mild, refined-starch flavour kept all those flavours rooted firmly in Cantonese.
I'd like to say that the cooking that morning gave me deep and valuable insights into the nature of the city. But it's just one of thousands of Hong Kong dim sum parlours. All I can say for certain is that I loved every single bite.
Yumcha was not originally about the eating. Tea and conversation were its most important attractions. For every cup you drank, you'd get two small pieces of dim sum.
But over time, yumcha transformed from an early morning leisure activity for the rich and idle into a way of life around Hong Kong. Extended families gathered every Sunday around wide, round tables that sat 10 or 12 – a tradition that continues today – and for many friends, teahouses became the default meeting place (finding a Sunday seat at a good yumcha house can be trying).
Today, the variety of Hong Kong dim sum parlours is seemingly infinite. They're divided by price range (at the upper end you can spend $100 a person; at cheaper spots you can fill up for $5), service style (trolleys or à la carte?), atmosphere (formal or real-life Hunger Games?), clientele (triad bosses or mahjong-loving grandmothers?), specialty (some places are known for only three or four dishes) and culinary style.
Over five days I grazed between high-end spots and supercheap-but-excellent ones, such as Lin Heung Tea House, a sprawling and perpetually crowded place, where the most eager customers barge into the tiny, steam-filled kitchen to find their favourite dishes. (I recommend the steamed palm sugar cake.)
At One Harbour Road, one of the most respected dim sum restaurants in the city, everything was incredible. One Harbour Road juts like the prow of a luxury liner over Victoria Harbour. It is a two-level labour of finery and elegance, of Italian china table settings and a purse stool at every seat. The cooking here is fresh and sensational. The house XO sauce, as one of my friends put it, is "pure chopped, dried, expensive seafood," and the soy isn't just any old soy sauce: One Harbour Road uses only first-pressed.
The rice-flour roll was one of the most incredible things I ate in the city: slippery pasta rolled up around fresh, barely cooked scallops mixed with dried ones. I can't decide whether it tasted more like a top French chef's take on Cantonese cooking or a top Cantonese chef's take on French. Either way, I couldn't stop eating it. Another steamer basket – made of fine China, not bamboo – brought dumplings filled with baby corn, carrots and juicy hunks of grouper, just barely cooked in the steam.
There was little more to the har gao, meantime, than top-quality prawns and gossamer wrappers and a lashing of fresh white pepper. They were plump, pink and intoxicatingly simple.
It was at One Harbour Road where I gave up trying to read too deeply into all those dishes. I had learned far more about the city from reading the South China Morning Post and from talking with people than I could ever learn from the contents of steamer baskets.
In the time I was there, thousands of students and workers had blockaded three different areas of the city in hope of forcing a measure of democracy from Hong Kong's Beijing rulers. It was all that anybody could talk about. Could dumplings reflect all the anxiety, anger, frustration and hope that I saw in the streets and down at the main Occupy site? I couldn't see it. Food means everything to me, but sometimes you need to look beyond the table if you want to know what's really going on.
On my last day in the city I went with friends to the working-class Sham Shui Po neighbourhood, one of the few remaining areas that hasn't been gentrified beyond recognition. It's a last bastion for many of the city's mom-and-pop bakeries, noodle makers, tofu factories and microspecialist restaurants.
Tim Ho Wan, our destination, is in some ways an outlier: While the company started with a single, 30-seat restaurant, it is now a chain with locations not just in Hong Kong but also in Singapore. It is popularly known as the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant – and thanks to the cheap part it fits just fine into Sham Shui Po.
The decor is neither fancy nor traditional; the tables are formica and there are plastic stools for chairs. The pace of service is harried. The lines to get in can stretch longer than an hour. The cooking, though, is astonishing: fragile, Chiu Chow-style dumplings containing pork, peanuts, chives and water chestnuts; sticky rice packed with fermented Chinese sausage into banana leaf packets; whisp-light cake squares sweetened with palm sugar. We ate cool cubes of osmanthus flower jelly that had red goji berries suspended inside them, sighing at how good they were.
The best dish of all was Tim Ho Wan's barbecue pork buns – they tasted of dark, Chinese black beans and burnt sugar, butter, soy and citrus, richness and sweetness and mellow acidity, wrapped up around the unmistakable flavour of slow-roasted pork.
The bill for five of us, for one of the most exhilarating food experiences in Hong Kong, came to less than $54.
As we left, the crowd outside had swollen to 60 or 70 people. Two women who looked to be in their 80s were seated by the door, waiting to get in.
"Wah, gwailo doh lei sic, gun hai ho jeng ahhh!" one said to the other as she saw us. "If the foreigners are here this place must be great!"
I didn't want to read too much into it; I'd given up on that sort of thing. But about the restaurant's greatness, she was absolutely right.
Hong Kong's finest
Luk Yu Tea House: 24-26 Stanley St., Central
Cuisine Cuisine: 118 Nathan Rd. (inside the Mira Hong Kong hotel), Tsim Sha Tsui
One Harbour Road: 1 Harbour Rd. (inside the Grand Hyatt), Wan Chai
Tim Ho Wan: 9-11 Fuk Wing St., Sham Shui Po
The writer's flight and hotel stay was covered by Hong Kong Tourism. It did not review or approve the article.