Posts Tagged ‘cuisine’

A Practice of Patience for Little Delights at Hong Kong’s Hole-in-the-Wall Tim Ho Wan (添好運)

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Tim Ho Wan (添好運點心專門店)
Tsui Yuen Mansion Phase 2
2-20 Kwong Wah Street, Flat 8, G/F (near Waterloo Road, behind Kwong Wah Hospital 廣華醫院)
Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong
(852) 2332-2896

Hours: Sun-Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Vegetarian-friendly: not especially
BYOB, no corkage fee
Average for meal/person (no taxes and 10% service charge): HK$40-HK$60
Cash only and no bookings
Rating: ◊◊◊½ (extremely good)

Other locations:
9-11 Fuk Wing Street
Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, Hong Kong
(852) 2788-1226
Hours: Mon-Sun: 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.

Shop 12A, MTR Hong Kong Station, Podium Level 1, IFC Mall
8 Finance Street
Central, Hong Kong
(852) 2332-3078
Hours: Mon-Sun: 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Framed awards at Tim Ho Wan (添好運)

The Far East continues to entice and intrigue the traveler with its magnificence, majesty, and mystery, and Hong Kong (香港), the jewel of Asia, is no exception. As one of the two Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of the People’s Republic of China, this commercially vibrant metropolis mecca, situated on the southeast coast of China, exudes energy, excitement, and exuberance. Originally a mere humble “barren rock” housing sleepy fishing villages, the “Fragrant Harbour” of Asia has evolved, transformed, and flourished dramatically, over the course of more than one hundred fifty years, into a prosperous and influential world city of food, fashion, finance, and fun. Governed under the principle of “one country, two systems” and driven by its economic freedom (in fact, the freest economy in the world for eighteen consecutive years) and entrepreneurial dynamism, Hong Kong, along with London and New York, is buzzing and booming and continues to be one of the most hip and happening hubs in the world. With a population of over seven million inhabitants in a land area of 1104 square kilometres which includes 262 outlying islands, the former British colony is dense, dynamic, and diverse. Due to its geographical location and rich history as an international city of commerce, this compact, cosmopolitan city-state of paradoxes thrives on a mesmerizing and magnetic fusion of Eastern and Western heritage and cultures—a sophisticated synthesis of the old and new, the traditional and modern, which create and define the distinct identity and colourful character of the City of Light and Life.

I had always wanted to visit Hong Kong but have never found the opportunity to fulfill my Southeast Asian wanderlust. Until this past spring. So together with my mother, I packed my bags and hopped on the plane, and after sixteen and half hours of tolerable flying time, we arrived at the Chep Lap Kok Airport (赤鱲角機場), in Hong Kong. Although I was bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, I was elated and exhilarated to be in Asia’s most international metropolis and could not wait to celebrate my ancestral roots and to explore and experience life in the innovative and enterprising global city.

And of course, I wanted to savour the food. Esteemed as the culinary capital of Asia, Hong Kong boasts over twelve thousand eateries, and this brash, burgeoning destination is a heavenly haven for food lovers and epicurean aficionados. Culinary treats abound everywhere you go; you find them in every corner of the cosmopolitan city, from dai pai dongs (大牌檔) and cha chaan tengs (茶餐廳) to food courts in colossal shopping malls and penthouse restaurants with breathtaking waterfront views of Victoria Harbour. From street to haute cuisine fare, the staggering array of cuisines is astounding. Hong Kong, the “World’s Fair of Food,” offers not only delectables from every region of China but also a stunning gamut of authentic cooking styles from other parts of the globe, ranging from Thai, Japanese, Malaysian, and Indian to French, Spanish, African, and Mexican. With such astonishing diversity of dining options, it was impossible to sample all during my stay, but my mother and I managed to visit a substantial number of gastronomic spots which piqued our curiosity and captured our imagination.

Hong Kong is reputed as the world capital for Cantonese cuisine, so we were naturally inclined towards Guangdong-style cooking, and no trip to this engaging travel destination would be complete without a hearty taste of the Southern Chinese tradition of dim sum (點心), one of the quintessential cornerstones of Cantonese culture, if not also an integral part of Hong Kong’s culture, tradition, and identity. There is an enormous multitude of dim sum outposts, including street-side food stalls, in the gastronomic oasis, each offering a fascinating and tantalizing glimpse of the extensive and continually expanding dim sum repertoire, a dazzling culinary legacy of approximately two thousand “little hearts” or tea-time tidbits that touch the heart to date, dishes which come in a vast range of shapes, sizes, textures, and forms, ranging from traditional mainstays to unconventional creations inspired by the chef’s flights of fancy. But for one of our yum cha (飲茶) outings, we decided to try the Chinese tapas-style fare at Tim Ho Wan, which first opened its doors in 2008. Deemed as the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant since it garnered the coveted honour in 2010 and repeatedly every year since then, the dim sum eatery, whose rather auspicious name, incidentally, means literally “to add good luck,” is the brainchild of owner and chef Mak Kwai Pui (麦桂培) aka Pui Gor, who left his post as dim sum master at the prestigious triple-Michelin-starred establishment Lung King Heen (龍景軒) housed in the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in hopes to set up his own modest venture in Kowloon (九龍) where local people could savour high-quality dim sum delights at extremely affordable prices. Unlike most dim sum places which customarily serve such victuals until mid-afternoon, this bring-your-own-wine locale churns out a variety of morsel-sized comestibles morning, afternoon, and evening, and like many Hong Kong restaurants specializing in dim sum, it dispenses with the old-style, dish-laden push-carts in favour of the printed à la carte menu sheet. This humble hotspot, which does not take any advanced table reservations, continues to be a huge hit on the dining scene, so popular among locals and tourists alike that it draws an estimated number of nine hundred customers per day, and the perennial lineups have become legendary. With the recent additions of two other branches positioned in Sham Shui Po (深水埗) of Kowloon and Central District (中環) of Hong Kong Island, this informal dining establishment has become extremely accessible to the masses. With luck and a Michelin star, Tim Ho Wan has rocked the world. But does it really live up to its hype and reputation? My mother and I were about to find out what the cooked-up commotion was all about.

Seating ticket at Tim Ho Wan (添好運)

Worried that certain dim sum items may be completely sold out later on in the day and that the inevitable wait time may be extremely long and tedious, we decided to yum cha during off peak times on an off peak day at the original outpost, which was tucked away in a discreet alley in the hustling and bustling neighbourhood of Mong Kok (旺角), the largest shopping district in Hong Kong and the most crowded shopping district in the world. So on a warm, sunny Monday morning, we headed, with map in hand, to the tea-and-small-plates destination. When we arrived at the dim sum joint at 10:48 a.m. HKT, there were already people huddling outside the much hyped hole-in-the-wall hideaway, which opens daily at ten o’clock in the morning. This was not the lineup to get in the restaurant; this was just the queue to get a ticket to secure a table (or seat) in the dining room. When we found the opportunity to approach the maîtresse d’-gatekeeper for a seating ticket for two, we were given a miniscule piece of paper scrawled with the number “61” on it. When my mother asked approximately how long would we have to wait, the lady said unhesitantly, “Two and a half hours.”

“What! Two and a half hours!” exclaimed my mother in disbelief and dismay.

I could neither believe what I just heard. I have waited in queue at banks, grocery stores, other Chinese dim sum restaurants in other parts of the globe, even outside the Japanese izakaya Kazu in Montreal which has also been notorious for its regular lineups. But none of these incidents had prepared me for this prolonged exercise in waiting. Two and a half hours. Wow.

“I don’t want to wait that long for dim sum! Let’s not yum cha here. There are so many other reasonably-priced places with no lineups around the area to grab a bite. Why do we have to go here? This must be a tourist trap…”  And on and on my mother complained.

This particular scene involving a non-local Asian parent who was vocal about her discontentment and her non-local foodie daughter who was frustrated with her mother’s behaviour during their very first visit to Tim Ho Wan has probably been re-enacted countless times in various variation forms in front of the outpost’s entrance.

Dim sum order sheet at Tim Ho Wan (添好運)

Eventually, the complaining ceased. Instead of loitering around the urban hideout, we picked up a copy of the bilingual dim sum order sheet found near the entrance and strolled around the neighbourhood saturated with nearby shopping centres and street markets—the “Sportswear Street” (波鞋街), the “Ladies’ Market” (女人街), and an open-air fresh food market, to name a few. To save some time, we deliberated over what we would order from the limited list of twenty-eight dishes and checked off the selected menu items on the order sheet. We did not want to miss the call of our table number, so we returned to the dim sum location one and three-quarter hours later and inquired about our table. And we were in luck: by 12:40 p.m. HKT, less than the stated approximate wait time, a table was available for us. We finally entered the dining venue, joining other patrons who were already rewarded for their patience.

Reminiscent of a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳) with its casual, canteen-like interior, the cramped no-fuss eatery of only twenty seats is unassuming and unarresting. Black chairs, laminated tables set with black and red plastic tableware and paper placemats summarizing various principal specialties, and framed awards and a large illustrative poster which decked the walls provided the frugal and unexciting décor and furnishings of the fanned milieu.

In synchrony with the metropolis’s relentless rhythm, the confined quarters, crowded with customers sitting elbow-to-elbow to one another, was teeming with action. The friendly wait staff dressed in chartreuse green polo shirts were briskly and efficiently working the floor, while chef Mak, also in a similar top, was multi-tasking at a fast and furious pace in the small, semi-open kitchen. And diners who were fanatic foodies were documenting their dishes and other food-related memorabilia with their cell phones, smartphones, iphones, digital cameras, and other recording devices in between bites. In the midst of a multilingual cacophony of conversations and the wafting aromas of food, the busy yum cha scene at Tim Ho Wan was a mirror reflection of Hong Kong’s manic society with its organized chaos and controlled frenzy.

We were escorted to our designated table, a tiny table intended only for two. Again, it was the luck of the draw; we felt fortunate that we didn’t have to dap toi (搭檯) with total strangers, even though table sharing is a common custom in Asian casual eateries as a way to optimize every possible seat in the dining space. Although the length of time to get a table (or seat) at Tim Ho Wan was incredibly long, the wait time for the ordered food, thankfully, was not. From the moment we handed our marked order sheet over to the maîtresse d’, it did not take very long for the central act of our dim sum ritual to commence. Pu-erh tea (普洱茶) was soon poured, and within minutes, the first dish and subsequently the other small bites arrived at our table. Made with fresh and fine quality ingredients, the culinary delights were prepared à la minute and served in a frill-free fashion.

Crispy baked barbecued pork buns (酥皮焗叉燒包)

The one menu item on which I have absolutely been fixated was Mak’s signature pork buns, his main claim to fame, about which people in Hong Kong and around the world have undisputedly been talking, writing, and raving. Ever since he had introduced his original “golden treasure” to the Hong Kong food scene, it has become all the rage, so popular that it continues to sell like hot cakes; an average of seven hundred and fifty dishes are sold on a daily basis. And indeed, the famous bread roll was the very first plate of our shared multi-snack meal. Presented as a trio on a white ceramic serving plate, the meat-stuffed pastries, freshly baked from the oven, were not the traditional steamed or baked barbecued pork belly buns, which we were accustomed to savouring. In his newfangled reworking of the classic Cantonese finger food, the crispy baked barbecued pork bun, 酥皮焗叉燒包, as it has been called, was a cross between a char siu bao (叉燒包) and a bo lo bao (菠蘿包). Baked barely golden and encased in a delicate, crisp, sugar cookie crust, its texture redolent of cornmeal, the pillowy soft Mexican bun variant, lighter and fluffier than its baked “pineapple bun” cousin, was filled with a scrumptious, unctuous sauce handsomely interspersed with succulent, tender nubbles of slow-roasted honeyed pork belly. Intensely flavourful, his sweet and savoury iconic creation, the pièce de resistance of our repast, was indulgently delectable and utterly irresistible. And it was one of the most memorable highlights of my gastronomic getaway in the gourmet paradise of Hong Kong.

Split-opened, crispy baked char siu bao

Rice, the predominant staple in traditional Chinese cuisine, appears in many guises and preparations due to its simplicity and versatility. Among the various rice comestibles featured on the dim sum menu, including standard dishes such as the porridge-like congee with century egg and lean pork 金銀蛋瘦肉粥 and the steamed glutinous rice with chicken, lap cheong (臘腸), and black forest mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaf 古法糯米雞, we settled on one of the three steamed rice delights, 蟲草花雞粒飯. Unveiled piping hot in a deep, stainless steel bowl, an ample bed of freshly steamed white rice cushioned tender niblets of marinated chicken interlaced with orange threads of luxurious cordyceps militaris, highly prized for its purported medicinal properties. In its simplest cooked form, the non-stodgy fragrant rice, which alone was amazingly flavoursome, lent a harmonious counterbalance to the profound umami tastes of the poultry meat and the winter-worm-summer-grass fungus. Simply satisfying.

Steamed rice rolls with pork liver (黃沙豬潤腸)

Among the other assorted rice-inspired small plates listed on the eclectic menu, the timeless steamed rice roll was offered with four different variations, including the usual suspects of fresh shrimp, barbecued pork, and minced beef. However, it was the unconventional pig’s liver ju cheung fun (黃沙豬潤腸), which caught our eye and palate that day. The deceptively simple specialty, freshly steamed and merely finished with a liberal drizzle of the requisite warm, sweetened soya sauce upon serving, was executed brilliantly, a true testament to Mak’s refined culinary techniques and talent. Arranged snugly together on a white, round-edged, rectangular plate, the three slippery and supple, handcrafted rice-flour sheets, which glistened with a lustrous sheen, were subtly redolent, silky smooth, and phenomenally thin, with just the right amount of delicate resilience. Peeping through the gently folded, translucent veils, the embedded pieces of pork offal which mingled with scant shreds of cilantro leaves were so tender and velvety that they melted in our mouths. We were totally blown away. An impressive showstopper.

Steamed beef crystal dumplings with carrots and potatoes (金薯牛肉餃)

Tapas-like delicacies in dumpling form have always been a universal favourite, and we succumbed to two different types of steamed dumplings, both served in bamboo steamer baskets. In Mak’s unpretentious iteration of the ubiquitous siu mai (燒賣) standby, cup-shaped nuggets made with a blend of ground pork tenderloin and chopped shiitake mushrooms were topped with studded nubs of fresh plump shrimp. Dressed with the typical creased, silken skin of wheat-flour-based dough, the unadorned steamed pork and shrimp sacks, 鮮蝦燒賣皇, which came in the customary group of four, were moist and meaty. However, we admired and adored immensely the sophisticated steamed crystal dumplings 金薯牛肉餃, handmade miniature masterpieces which not only showcased Mak’s skilled dexterity and imaginative creativity but also revealed an East-meets-West twist. Dainty and delicate, the three crescent-shaped, sturdy gow gee (餃子) were nimbly sealed in thin, glassy wheat-starch casings with multiple pleats gathered on one side, each stuffed with a medley of finely chopped beef, carrot and potato brunoise, and thinly chopped chives. Similar to the steamed Chiuchow-styled fun guo (潮州粉果), the inner filling inflected with a New World accent provided a playful counterpoint to the yielding, al dente dumpling wrapper. Well-balanced in flavour and texture, the petit, portly parcels were palate-pleasing and pleasurable. Commendable.

Steamed beef and enoki mushroom rolls (黑椒金菇肥牛卷)

Meat-oriented victuals, not to mention delicacies revolving around head-to-tail cooking, were also included in the menu of nibbles and noshes, and we gravitated towards three different appetizer-like comestibles, all served in white, round, shallow plates poised in steamer baskets with pungent aromas permeating from the bamboo slats. Crowned with a few steamed rings of red chile pepper, the pai gwut specialty, 豉汁蒸排骨, another enduring dim sum favourite, was a small serving of steaming hot pork sparerib tips marinated in a piquant black bean sauce. The meat was tender and toothsome, and we picked the bones clean without much effort. Off the beaten track, the beef enoki roll dish, 黑椒金菇肥牛卷, took inspiration from its Japanese counterpart. Here, neat bundles of wilted enoki mushrooms, pleasantly crunchy in texture, were thickly swathed in slim sashes of chewy, fat-marbled beef. Steeped in a soy-based sauce intensified with black pepper, the three chunky logs were robust and earthy. However, it was the humble ngao yuk kao (陳皮牛肉球), which turned out to be the standout number among these three snack-like items. I had never really held this particular classic mainstay in high regard until that day when I tried Mak’s version. Steamed on a shared piece of bean curd skin, the trio of beef balls were flecked with grace notes of coriander and water chestnuts and heightened with pronounced hints of preserved tangerine peel. Cooked rare, the pink, ping-pong-ball-sized orbs of finely minced meat, irregular in shape and dimply in surface, were velvety soft and remarkably springy. My mother and I have sampled many interpretations of this time-honoured dim sumstaple, but these Cantonese meatballs were the lightest rendition that we have ever encountered. With a generous splash of Worcestershire sauce upon serving, the saporous spheres, juicy and slightly sweet, were emphatically delicious. Sensational.

Steamed beef balls (陳皮牛肉球)

Up until this point in time, we had consumed copious amounts of savoury, small-portioned concoctions. We did order one other dish, and that was a sweet treat. From the very limited but varied selection of sweet delectables, including the celebrated steamed sponge cake ma la gao (滑馬拉糕), and the hot sweet chestnut and pumpkin cream, 南瓜栗子露, a graceful spin on the exclusive Fujian and Chiuchow golden pumpkin pudding, we were tempted to order the pan-fried red bean cake freckled with sesame seeds, 豆沙煎軟餅, the well-loved Teochew-styled mochi specialty, but in the end, we surrendered ourselves to the chilled medlar and petal crystal cake, 晶莹杞子桂花糕, an elegant riff on the popular Hong Kong dessert more commonly known as “osmanthus jelly.” And we were not disappointed. Regal and ravishing, the alluring “Whispers of Love” (蜜语仁心), presented on a red, round plate, was pleasing to the eye as to the palate. Served with two tiny, plastic forks, the three amber-hued, rectangular cubes of transparent jelly were embellished with suspended dragon-like strands of golden tea olive blossoms and capricious punctuations of orange-ruby-toned goji berries, imparting a simple yet dramatic touch to the seductive, mysterious delicacy. Not too sweet, the jiggly, gelatine tidbits were flowery fragrant and flavourful, with pronounced notes of the fruity-floral apricot aroma of the romantic osmanthus fragrans lingering in the mouth after each morsel. The divine dim sum “dessert” was refreshingly cold and light, befittingly capping off our abundant feast of sumptuous small dishes on a high, lush note.

Medlar and petal crystal cake ( 晶莹杞子桂花糕)

It is not very frequent that we dine on patrician plates at plebeian prices in spartan surroundings and minimal elbow room, but our leisurely lunch affair of “little hearts” at Tim Ho Wan was truly an enlivening and enthralling experience, igniting a colourful collection of indelible impressions and memories of our Asian travels. At the heart of dim sum lies the culinary art of dim sum, and Mak, who remains modest and unfazed by his celebrity status, shares not only his world-class gastronomic creations but also his uncompromising passion for great food, deep dedication to dim sum excellence, and strong spirit of culinary creativity. We appreciated his detailed workmanship, straightforward honesty, and genuine sincerity, all embodied in the little emblematic delights filled with big, authentic flavours.

Replete with fabulous food and traditional tea, and replenished with ebullient energy, we were ready to resume our sightseeing excursion in my mother’s native Hong Kong. When we departed the restaurant with our takeaway bag, there were still people filing in front of the door, waiting to be called for the next dining session. We were rather relieved to leave the tight premises, happily vacating our coveted table to the next pair of expectant diners. The unexpected protracted wait for the food at Tim Ho Wan was truly an exercise in patience, but sometimes the best things in life are worth the wait. Would I return to this little locale to relive the recent yum cha ritual experience? Yes, definitely. Why, for those glorious golden treasures—the crispy baked barbecued pork belly buns, of course.

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