Hong Kong's traditional dim sum gets Instagram-worthy

Pig-shaped roasted pork rice flour buns in bamboo steamers are on the menu at a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong.
Pig-shaped roasted pork rice flour buns in bamboo steamers are on the menu at a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HONG KONG • Keung Mak has dedicated his life to dim sum.

For more than two decades, the chef has travelled through the kitchens of traditional Chinese restaurants in his native Hong Kong that specialise in "little pieces of the heart", one of many English translations for the signature meal of small plates and hot tea.

Hong Kong's 7.5 million inhabitants continually pack more than 1,300 restaurants serving steaming baskets of shrimp dumplings (har gow) and barbecue pork buns (char siew bao).

"The dishes haven't changed in a century," says Adele Wong, author of the book, Hong Kong Food & Culture.

Now, some customers are as bored with eating the dim sum classics as chefs like Keung are with preparing them.

In 2016, he broke with centuries of tradition and began pushing the meal's boundaries at Social Place in Tsim Sha Tsui, a dense hub of high-end restaurants, shops and hotels on the Chinese side of Hong Kong.

Social Place, which has nine locations across Hong Kong, China and Taiwan, has revamped dim sum for a new generation of diners: the millennials who pick where to eat based on Instagram feeds and who approach each meal like a photo shoot.

Keung's creations first satisfy the eyes, then the stomach. One of these is a dumpling the shape and colour of a mushroom, filled with julienned king oyster fungi, ginger and truffle.

The pillowy white pau, or bun, is Keung's muse.

He has transformed it into a pig's face with a snout, eyes and little pink ears, filled with purple sweet potato instead of roast pork.

For those who want traditional pork, called char siew, Keung uses it to fill a turtle-shaped pastry.

Another unconventional signature dish is the jam-filled, sugar-crusted red "Bayberry" dumpling, with a mint sprig for a stem.

Keung's custard bun replaces the gelatinous egg filling with a thick liquid that oozes out like lava - the dim sum equivalent of molten chocolate cake.

The bun is black from the charcoal baked into the batter - a popular, if medically unproven, health craze - and a bit spongier. Most dishes at Social Place are cooked without oil or fats, a nod to the restaurant's younger, more health-conscious consumers.

Instagrammable dim sum is spreading quickly around the world, but Hong Kong is the epicentre of the craze.

Yum Cha, arguably the most famous of Hong Kong's Instagram-oriented dim sum chains, also specialises in pig-shaped buns and hot custard molten buns. Customers appear to enjoy poking holes in the dumplings' "mouth", resulting in what general manager Kenneth Ng calls "a hilarious puking effect".

Not to be outdone, the chain Dim Sum Icon serves "pooping" chocolate buns.

Crystal Lotus at Hong Kong Disneyland features a red bean bun crafted to look like Olaf from the movie Frozen (2013), plus other edible Pixar and Disney stars.

"In the past, older people would bring kids to yum cha," Keung says. "Now, it is the other way. The kids bring their parents and grandparents."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2019, with the headline 'Hong Kong's traditional dim sum gets Instagram-worthy'. Print Edition | Subscribe