Preserving the art of making dimsum

Mr Chui Kwok Hing in the kitchen of Sun Hing restaurant, where he starts his day at 1.30am. He is following in the footsteps of his 85-year-old father, making dimsum from scratch.
Mr Chui Kwok Hing in the kitchen of Sun Hing restaurant, where he starts his day at 1.30am. He is following in the footsteps of his 85-year-old father, making dimsum from scratch.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Amid dearth of young talent, some HK chefs are striving to keep handmade tradition alive

HONG KONG • For the past 60 years, Mr Chui Hoi has risen in the early hours of the morning to prepare bite-size steamed morsels for his small but popular dimsum restaurant in Hong Kong.

Sun Hing opens its doors at 3am, seven days a week, with a loyal clientele ranging from students to the elderly filling the 60-seat restaurant in the western district of Kennedy Town.

At 85, Mr Chui is committed to handmaking his dimsum - parcels of meat, seafood and sweet fillings served in stacks of bamboo baskets - saying that freshness is key to their success. But many in the industry fear the traditional art of making dimsum is dying as restaurants choose factory-made versions to save money and meet demand.

"Fresh handmade foods are delicious after they are steamed, but many are made in factories now," said Mr Chui.

Younger chefs are less interested in the hard work it takes to prepare dimsum, he added - it is usually eaten in the morning, so cooks must get up in the night to prepare.

"Young people think being in this industry means no freedom because you have to get up early and the hours are long," he said.

At Maxim's Palace in the harbour- front City Hall building - a favourite with locals and tourists - chandeliers sparkle over dimsum diners in the buzzing banqueting hall.

But, like Mr Chui, Maxim's supervising chef Mr Tang Leung Hung said there is a dearth of young talent to produce its handmade fare.

"The problem with the industry is the manpower. Young people are not willing to join us," he said.

"Many of them have turned to hotels' Western restaurants and sushi restaurants for jobs instead of Chinese ones," he said, adding that younger people see these as more fashionable and with better hours.

Dimsum - which means "touching the heart" - is a Cantonese-style cuisine from southern China, often served with pots of tea. Typical dishes vary from parcels of ground pork and shrimp siew mai to sweet treats. Once mainly part of a leisurely weekend ritual that could take hours, many dimsum joints in Hong Kong now have a quick-fire approach, including takeaway kiosks inside subway stations.

With demand growing and rental costs high, mass-produced buns and dumplings imported from mainland China are a way to increase the volume and cut costs.

But there are those who are actively seeking to prevent this culinary art from dying out. In the kitchen of Hong Kong's famous five-star Peninsula hotel, teenagers don chefs' whites to knead dough and fill intricate parcels as part of a cooking contest.

"We need to attract youngsters to join this trade. Craftsmanship is what is needed," said Mr Frankie Tang, executive chef of Peninsula's Spring Moon Restaurant and organiser of the contest. Of the five finalists, 17-year-old Wu Cheng Long won after making dishes such as crunchy lotus-seed pastry and a spring roll filled with fruit.

"We should make people not forget (how to make) dimsum. We should continue to develop this tradition," said Cheng Long, who won HK$25,000 (S$4,500) cash and a one-year apprenticeship at the hotel. There is also hope among the city's food experts, who say dimsum's enduring popularity at home and increasing appeal abroad will inspire young chefs.

Several of the city's local dimsum restaurants have received international accolades, including Michelin stars. "The tradition (of eating dimsum) is still thriving... On Father's Day, for example, you don't go to a Western fast-food restaurant, you go to 'yum cha'," said Hong Kong food blogger K. C. Koo.

"Yum cha" - Cantonese for "drink tea" - is the name for the meal during which dimsum is eaten, washed down by hot tea.

Mr Koo added that it is important to preserve the handmade tradition as it is a key facet of Cantonese culture. "I have confidence that there will be new blood as the market is there," he said.

Back at Sun Hing restaurant, Mr Chui's 48-year-old son, Mr Chui Kwok Hing, is following in his father's footsteps.

"I come in at 1.30am. Sometimes, I feel like I have migrated to another country as the hours are upside down," he said of the exhausting routine. But he sees a reason for waking up in the dark. "People like to have dimsum in the morning, to be energised with some tea before going to work... I feel happy when people think the food is delicious."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2015, with the headline 'Preserving the art of making dimsum'. Print Edition | Subscribe