SisterB and family came to visit over Christmas, and top of their list of things to do was "go for dimsum and have some of those meat buns". If you are visiting Hong Kong, you should follow their lead and make sure to keep at least one lunchtime free to go and eat dimsum.
What is dimsum ? I first asked that question in London's Chinatown, as many of the restaurants there advertise that they serve dimsum. The Chinese man I spoke to said "dumplings", which meant I didn't try them until several years later when I came out to Hong Kong (if you know what an English dumpling is like, and then imagine trying to eat a whole lunch of them, you'll know why!).
If you make a direct translation of the two Chinese characters, you get Dim=Touch, Sum=Heart -- you'll see tourist guides telling flowery tales of how "the food is so delicious it touches your heart". I'm not sure if anyone knows why that combination of words really got chosen , people just know that dimsum means the type of meal where they serve, umm, dimsum !
Here's a bunch of pictures that should give you an idea of what you are in for. Each plate or basket only has two or three small helpings so can try a whole bunch of different stuff. The idea is similar to Spanish tapas, though the food obviously isn't ! I'd recommend you start with the "Steamed BBQ Pork Buns" ("Cha Siu Baau" in Cantonese) that SisterB was looking for, as these always seem to be a favourite. Otherwise anything on that list should go down well. Even the chickens' feet taste good if you can ignore what it is that you're eating.
Your hotel should be able to recommend you some local places to try dimsum, and your hotel restaurant probably serves them too. There are some local recommendations provided below.
Some restaurants have little carts that the servers push around, each one stacked up with a selection of different dimsum. These are the easiest on new visitors, as you can just lift up the lids and point at what you fancy (each stack of baskets is all the same food, so there's no need to look beyond the top layer). Other restaurants will have a printed slip listing all the different types of dimsum on offer. Usually these are written in Chinese, so you might want to print out the page of pictures shown above, and take that with you to point at. Worst case, just ask for their recommendation and you probably won't go wrong.
If you are staying here longer-term, trips to eat dimsum will be fairly common. You'll most likely be asked if you want to go to "Yum Cha", which literally means "Drink Tea", but expect to eat dimsum as well. Expect to see a different crowd of fellow diners, depending on the time of day and day of the week that you go. If you end up having pre-dawn dimsum after a night on the town, you'll be sharing it with other early birds who are getting ready to start an early shift, or grandads taking their songbirds out for an early morning walk. Later in the morning it moves to people meeting for breakfast after morning-exercise, or just meeting up with their friends as part of their daily ritual. Mayhem breaks out around 12:30 on weekdays, when the lunchtime rush starts -- the volume in the restaurant at this time is similar to playtime in a school playground.
Weekends are different again, as many families make it a habit to meet for dimsum on a Saturday or Sunday. Some restaurants deal with the crowds by making you collect a ticket at the door, and wait until your number is called. Other places take a survival-of-the-fittest approach and let you find your own table. This means you have to decide which table is closest to asking for their bill, then go and hover over them until they go. The standard way around this is to nominate someone to get to the table early and grab the table -- this explains the tables you see that are set for eight but just have dad sitting alone with a pot of tea and the racing section of the newspaper.
Enjoy yourselves, and if you find a good restaurant please write in and let us know.
From Mr B:
My first suggestion is to eat at the City Hall Maxim's Palace -- it's convenient for visitors, and although there is usually a queue to get in (make sure you get your numbered ticket when you first arrive), the food is always good. More details can be found here.
My favourite place for Dim Sum is the Ho Choi restaurant in Sheung Wan -- but I always have to wander around a couple of blocks before I find it, so that'll have to wait until I've got the address clear.
Suggestions from readers:
If you have any recommendations of visitor-friendly restaurants or dim sum-related stories, all contributions are gratefully received !