HONG KONG, Sept 16 — Steam gets in your eyes.
Our waiter lifts the lid from the bamboo steamer and that’s when we all share a magical moment, diner and server alike. The vapour and the aroma promise delicacy and delight, and if the dim sum within can match these expectations, if the looks on our faces signal pleasure, then the floor staff must surely beam with pride, even if they had no hand in crafting these tiny treasures.
A dim sum restaurant’s reputation is made at the table and everyone has a part to play. We don’t see the goings-on in the kitchen, where deft fingers flatten and fold, crimp and press, but we taste the end result of the cooks’ years of training, of the seconds taken to form each dumpling, never handling them longer than they should.This is old Hong Kong: old, traditional Cantonese flavours; old school décor, all yellows and golds the better to illuminate the dishes against the patterned white of our table cloth; old money, mid-morning yum cha (literally “drink tea” or brunch with Chinese tea and dim sum). This is Wan Chai, where dim sum time is the best time of day.
It doesn’t seem that way, not at first. Exiting the MRT station, we are greeted by a chaotic scene: old flats and restored heritage buildings jostling for space with office towers and hotels. Our American friend Jess, who had moved here from Taipei for work, whom we haven’t seen in far too long, had made reservations at Fook Lam Moon, a venerable titan in the local restaurant scene.
Revered by Hong Kong elites for their Cantonese cuisine, Fook Lam Moon was founded by Chui Fook Chuen who began his culinary career cooking for a former Qing Dynasty era bureaucrat. Chui then started his own catering service Fook Kee in 1948 before opening the now legendary restaurant in 1972.
The interior certainly harkens back to the good old days. We arrive well after lunch, after the first few rounds of customers have left for their afternoon naps, to nurse their immoderation; one bamboo steamer too many.
As we enter, we are greeted by warm and polite staff who lead us to our table. Though it’s a bit late for yum cha, we still spot several tables with well-heeled diners. Fook Lam Moon means “fortune and blessings come to your home” in Cantonese but the restaurant is more commonly known as Fook Hou Fan Tong — the Cafeteria for the Wealthy.
This looks like no cafeteria I’ve ever been to.There is no hollering of orders. There are no impatient customers waiting for a table, breathing down the necks of those who took the trouble to rise earlier. In fact, this is very different from my first memory of dim sum: one of those shophouses along Jalan Ipoh, the sort where tables threaten to spill out into the road (and often do, on busy weekend mornings and at the wee hours of night).
Of course, I must have had dim sum before that, back in my hometown before moving to the capital. But that remains my first real yum cha memory: deep conversations with close buddies over the din (and the drama of the vehicles of less law-abiding patrons being towed away). Biting into a fluffy cha siu bao (barbecued pork bun) still triggers memories of those Jalan Ipoh nights, and of good friends who now live a continent or two away.
Today we have the good fortune of being in the same city and continent as our friend Jess. She hasn’t changed a bit, as gracious and modest about her achievements as ever. We are all healthy, with very healthy appetites for the bamboo baskets of dim sum that will soon arrive once we fill up our order chits. No brusque dim sum trolley pushers here.
Those would probably be frowned upon by the ladies who lunch here. Dim sum culture is synonymous in some circles with tai tai culture, but one doesn’t need to be a spouse of the affluent to enjoy fine dim sum. Jess is a hardworking, financially independent woman who knows her wor tip (pan-fried potstickers) from her ham shui gok (egg-shaped pork croquettes).
We begin not with dim sum but with a nourishing bowl of the soup of the day. Today’s broth is double boiled — a whole fish with “stuffing”, including beans, brown rice and radish, that our server will bring to the table later to show they haven’t skimped on the ingredients — full of deep flavours that can only be coaxed out with time and a steady fire.
Our first bamboo baskets offer up the two usual suspects: har gow and siu mai. The former, translucent steamed dumplings filled with large fresh shrimp, are given a slight crunch thanks to the inclusion of sun jim (bamboo shoots). The tiny petalled sacks of siu mai, on the other hand, are practically decadent with real hai zi rather than imitation crab roe atop the juicy pork.
As we sip on tea in between bites, we ponder on which language to converse in. We are fluent in Cantonese (which is best in Hong Kong, judging by how vastly service quality improves with its usage) but Jess only speaks English and Mandarin. Somehow she has managed to survive seven years on the island without ever becoming fluent in Cantonese, despite her best attempts.
We decide on Mandarin, both as a nod to her Taiwanese heritage and thanks to Fook Lam Moon’s impeccable service whichever language patrons converse in (as it should be, though that’s not always the case elsewhere).
It can be fun hearing our server announcing the song wat sin ha cheong and Jess rebrand it as shuang hua xian xia chang; the steamed rice rolls with fresh shrimps taste as delectable whichever name we choose.
I am disappointed they have run out of wu gok (taro dumpling) — my favourite, with its crispy lace-like husk — but I forget my dismay when the flaky chasiu sou (barbecued pork pastry) arrives. We enjoy more of its rich, caramelised filling in the form of a plate of mat zhap chasiu, the honey glaze giving the pork a seductive sheen.
Dim sum are meant to be delicate but they can easily fill you up, depending on what you order. Prime candidates for belly widening include the yiu ju zanju gai (steamed lotus leaf wrapped glutinous rice with dried scallops and chicken) and hiongjin lorbak gou (pan-fried turnip cakes with preserved meat). By comparison our gravy-slicked bean curd skin dim sum feels almost light, as silken as the finest Japanese yuba.
We end our sumptuous meal with a sweet note: the molasses-like malai gou (steamed traditional brown sugar sponge cake), fungwong qinzhang gou (steamed layered cake with salted egg yolk) and the must-order danwong linyong bao (steamed lotus seed paste buns with salted egg yolk), if only for the lava oozing effect everyone enjoys.
The golden hue of the salted egg yolk is yet another reminder of the good fortune of old friends meeting again and the blessing of health (truly fook lam moon, no?). As the years pass, our palates may have become more refined but at the end of the day, it’s about yum cha, it’s about friendships that last across time and continents.
Fook Lam Moon Restaurant
35-45 Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Open daily 11:30am-3pm; 6pm-11pm
Tel: +852 2866 0663