Whenever I think of Hong Kong, I immediately start salivating like a Labrador that has spotted a clumsy toddler clutching a handful of Goldfish crackers. C & I only spent three days there in February 2009, but we managed to stuff ourselves with an exquisite selection of vegetarian dim sum, which is a rarity everywhere but in NYC and–oddly–Sydney, Australia.
It’s astounding to me that the Bay Area, with its healthy and demanding population of vegetarians and vegans, doesn’t have a single restaurant dedicated to meat-free dim sum. Certainly, places like Yank Sing (SF), Big Lantern (SF), and May Flower (2156 University Avenue, Berkeley–sticky rice with veggie chicken wrapped in lotus leaf!) have a good number of vegetarian items on their dim sum menu, but you either have to hunt for them among traditional dishes like chicken’s feet and beef tripe, double-check that they aren’t peppered with pork or dried shrimp “for flavor,” or hope that they retained their delicate texture after a stint in the freezer. Hey, if the Bay Area can support vegetarian restaurants specializing in Filipino cuisine, Southern comfort food, and sushi (Cha-Ya: 1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 762 Valencia Street, SF), there’s no reason it can’t have just one vegetarian dim sum parlor. Any enterprising restaurateurs or dim sum masters out there willing to take on this no-brainer?
Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (7th floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) was our first introduction to what Hong Kong has to offer. Located on the seventh floor of a building overlooking Victoria Harbour and its famous (albeit fog-enveloped) skyline, it featured several dozen freshly made dishes, among them pan-fried spinach and porcini mushroom buns; rice rolls filled with your choice of golden mushrooms and pumpkin or vegetarian abalone and shredded chicken; BBQ “pork” buns; eight treasure sweet rice pudding. Dishes made with egg white were obviously marked. We ordered eight dishes and hoovered up every last crumb, yet were able to waddle out of there with clear heads and invigorated bodies–look, ma! No dim sum hangover and no need to sprawl out under the table for a nap! Since we couldn’t bear the thought of not trying everything on the menu, we came back on our last day. It was a wonderful (but sad) end to our first Hong Kong visit.
I can’t tell you much about dim sum culture, but I do know that the Cantonese term dim sum (or dian xin in Mandarin) literally means “little hearts,” referring to the bite-sized morsels served at dim sum. I’ve also heard the term yum cha (Cantonese for “eat tea”) bandied about in conjunction with dim sum. So we headed to Lock Cha Tea House in surreal Hong Kong Park (think Sea World sans dolphins, penguins, and orcas) to “eat tea.” The tea house doubles as a tea shop, or vice versa, and you select tea from a boggling menu. The tea is then prepared at your table with a multistep ceremony featuring several tea pots, cups, and bowls and a dextrous server. C got organic black tea; I got yellow tea. I wish I could tell you more, but the notes I took at the time were embarrassingly spare, no doubt because I’m not a tea connoisseur.
I can tell you that we ordered an array of dim sum that was tasty but less-refined than that of Kung Tak Lam, perhaps because they were mostly on the heavy, fried side. By the end of the meal, we were barely able to finish everything, but we soldiered on and did. The highlight was glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste in a heady jasmine tea broth. I loved them so much I tried recreating them at home on multiple occasions–but failed each time. This just means I’ll have to go back. I suppose there are worse things in life to do.