Or that’s what I assume has happened, since it was all carried out in rapid Cantonese (not that the speed matters when the number of Cantonese words I know is two). Everything has been Cantonese since I arrived at this small dim sum place in an industrial-ish area of Kowloon, purportedly the cheapest Michelin-star-festooned restaurant in the world.
I hear tell of crazy lines and long waits, but I am shuttled in within five minutes, albeit coupled with this strange lady and shown to a tiny table barely big enough to take my jacket off at without knocking all of the silverware on her side into her lap. I smile and nod at her, but she doesn’t look up once. She looks everywhere except at me: at her menu, at the six girls next to us who have so many pork buns on their table that they line the edges like Christmas lights, at the ceiling, at the waitstaff, at the rain.
So I look at my phone. It’s evening in Los Angeles, a reasonable time to text friends, so I text friends. I text them a picture of my menu, because I think that’s what someone at a famous and decorated restaurant might do. I’d just as soon play the game of ‘Who Can Avoid Eye Contact The Longest?’ with my tablemate, who seems vaguely disapproving of my menu-capture, except I have the handicap of facing a wall instead of the rest of the restaurant. Luckily, her shortribs arrive before too long, and I have those to stare at. Dim sum-style short ribs have always tasted somewhat spam-like and looked somewhat pimple-skinned to me, so I haven’t ordered them. I’ve ordered the most white-girl-ish order possible: BBQ pork buns and shrimp dumplings.
These shrimp dumplings are first example of something I run into time and time again in Hong Kong: there is something magical in the rice wrappers. I’ve been eating dim sum all my life - in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Beijing, in Guangxi, even in Osaka - and never knew the wrappers didn’t have to be at least kind of gummy. I never even noticed the gumminess until its absence here in Hong Kong, where the rice wrappers serve their purpose by holding in the goodies, provide a mild chew, then magically disintegrate into nothing when they’re no longer needed. Once the shrimp’s skin bursts and that salty ocean flavor, tempered by wine, garlic, and pork fat, floods the mouth, the wrapping just disappears as though it was never there. It wouldn’t want to interfere.
I see this here, at Tim Ho Wan; I see it in the green glass dumplings at Sai Yung Kee, which LOOK fat and substantial, but melt all the same; I see it at Mak’s Noodle, a no-nonsense diner where the only hint to its fame is the laminated newspaper write-ups stuck under the glass of the tables (and the presence of a branch at the Peak Galleria, but I don’t know that yet).