Hong Kong’s disappearing dim sum: why old-school trolleys and pig liver siu mai are being replaced

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Tam Kwok-king, general manager and director of North Point’s Fung Shing Restaurant, has been in the restaurant business since 1954, and has a wealth of information about Hong Kong’s yum cha history.

The opening of Fung Shing Restaurant in Causeway Bay in 1954. Photo: handout

“Back in 1954, when Fung Shing opened in Causeway Bay, the restaurant had only about 14 tables,” says Tam.

“People who came to lunch would order dishes with rice, just like a typical Chinese meal. Dim sum were ordered like an appetiser.”

In the early days, there wasn’t a lot of variety, he says.

“There were only half a dozen types of dim sum: har gow [shrimp dumpling], siu mai [pork dumpling], char siu bao [barbecued pork buns], ma lai go and some other simple dumplings. We didn’t even have cheung fun (rice rolls) yet – our kitchens were too small back then.”

Those who remember the dim sum carts might recall that the dishes weren’t sorted according to sweet or savoury. Rather, the egg tarts would be found on carts carrying items such as baked char siu bao, while ma lai go would come out in steamers alongside har gow and siu mai.

“That’s because the carts would carry whatever was ready from the station in the kitchen,” says Tam, explaining that Chinese restaurant kitchens are separated into steam, wok and baking stations.

Dim sum being steamed in the kitchen at the Jade Garden Restaurant, in 1976. Photo: SCMP

“So the server with the cart to carry steamed items would go in and take what’s ready from the steaming station. The clear carts that showcase fried or baked items would do the same for their items.

“It wasn’t sorted by whether the item was savoury or sweet but what was ready.”

So San-yuk, executive dim sum chef of Man Yuen Restaurant in Wong Tai Sin, explains why the carts started disappearing and “pick and choose” menus became the ordering system that is prominent in most yum cha restaurants in Hong Kong today.

“Customers wanted to have freshly made dim sum and not something that’s been in the cart for hours,” says So. “We have a big glass window so that diners can see into the kitchen; they can watch us making the dim sum.

So San-yuk is the executive dim sum chef at Man Yuen Restaurant in Wong Tai Sin. Photo: Jonathan Wong

“So it takes a little longer to get the food because we only cook dishes when they’ve been ordered.”

And it’s not just the trolleys that have become scarce. Baked sago pudding has a surprisingly long history in Hong Kong. According to Tam, the dish was created in a restaurant called Shan Kwong Inn, in Happy Valley.

“Shan Kwong Inn had been around since the 30s, before the war and was where my master worked,” he says. “It really was an inn rather than just a restaurant because it had a dozen rooms for people to stay in.

“Back then, they hired a Western chef from Guangzhou and he would make baked items like baked bread pudding. My master was the one who decided to use sago pearls instead of bread and bake a similar pudding for diners at the Chinese restaurant.

Old-school dim sum at Fung Shing Restaurant, including pork liver siu mai, pig’s stomach, and large soup dumplings. Photo: Llewellyn Cheung

“When Shan Kwong Inn closed in 1953, most of the staff came to work for Fung Shing.”

Other dim sum items we are seeing less of include pork liver siu mai, classic ma lai go and jumbo soup dumplings. According to So, making liver siu mai is not only labour intensive but also, because offal is considered a cheap ingredient, the restaurant cannot charge much for it.

At the end of the day, the dish is too uneconomical for most establishments to serve.

Our youngest chef is 60 years old. There’s a real danger we won’t have anyone making dim sum the traditional way within 10 years

Tam Kwok-king, Fung Shing Restaurant general manager and director

Tam agrees. “Items like jumbo soup dumplings are particularly hard to make,” he says of Fung Shing’s signature kwun tong gao. “The dim sum master needs to get the consistency of the dumpling skin and filling just right, so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart in the wrapping or steaming process.”

In some restaurants, chefs simply serve the large dumpling in soup as a way to get around the challenge.

Another reason these more labour-intensive dim sum items are disappearing from menus, both Tam and So say, is because of the difficulty they have hiring apprentices.

“Our youngest chef is 60 years old,” says Tam. “There’s a real danger we won’t have anyone making dim sum the traditional way within 10 years.”

Pork liver siu mai has become too uneconomical for most establishments to serve. Photo: Llewellyn Cheung

This has been a problem for Chinese restaurants for a while, so much so that the Chinese Culinary Institute (CCI) now provides systematic training for young, aspiring chefs where they can finish with an internationally recognised accreditation upon completion of the dim sum course.

This course has produced some superstars in the Hong Kong culinary scene, such as Edwin Tang, who has earned Cuisine Cuisine in Tsim Sha Tsui a Michelin plate, as well as Jayson Tang, the chef behind one-Michelin-star Man Ho Chinese Restaurant in Admiralty.

Attracted to the accreditation and the steady starting salary it commands, CCI graduates usually gravitate towards larger institutions such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club or international hotel brands such as Mandarin Oriental and the Ritz-Carlton for the benefits and opportunities they offer.

Not only that, larger institutions provide the opportunity to learn from some of the most recognised names in the industry.

Edwin Tang Ho-wang, Chinese executive chef at Cuisine Cuisine, The Mira, Hong Kong. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Man Ho Chinese Restaurant executive Chinese chef Jayson Tang. Photo: Jonathan Wong

However, Tam feels that standardised training can be as much a hindrance as a help.

“We would take apprentices and mentor them depending on their talent,” explains the general manager. “Even if somebody graduated from a course, they might not be taught the same way we do things here. You have to learn from the ground up.

“If you were talented you could learn everything in three years. If you’re not, you wouldn’t make a single dim sum on your own at all.”

Dim sum chef Man Hong-sing of North Point’s Fung Shing Restaurant. Photo: Llewellyn Cheung

Man Hung-sing, the dim sum chef of Fung Shing Restaurant, recalls entering the kitchen in 1967.

“I was just a kitchen hand and I would watch the dim sum chef work from afar and try to copy what he did with a piece of dough. Back then we weren’t even allowed to use real ingredients to practise because we might waste it,” Man recalls.

“When you’d finished all your work and the chef could see that you could do a decent job with the dough, only then would he let you near the dim sum counter to work. That was how we did it back then.”

The industry is at something of an impasse between the old and the new. New entrants come through a standardised education system that doesn’t seem even to acknowledge the old guard.

Fung Mun (left) was a mentor to Tam Kwok-king (right), who is now general manager and director of North Point’s Fung Shing Restaurant.

While the young guns are forging their own path for Cantonese cuisine and dim sum, there are still some legacy skills that won’t be passed on to the next generation.

However, all is not lost. According to Tam, some older women have entered the fold. “These ladies are a bit older and don’t want to go to school. They’ve started learning in our kitchens, we’ll see how they turn out.”

Can the dawn of a new era of dim sum be headed by a league of female chefs? We’ll keep a close eye on this development in the years to come.

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