A tea-drinking, small-plates eating, communal-dining ritual; dim sum reflects Hong Kong’s manic pace, culture and identity. Here’s our list of the finest

Like every city with its quintessential dish, from the deli's in New York to fish n' chips shops in London, dim sum has been embraced as representing Hong Kong's identity. Literally meaning ‘little hearts,' it's not hard to fathom why this tea-and-small-bites tradition is a citywide emblem and obsession. In synchrony with the town's frenetic pace, dim sum can be fast and furious. Waiters ferry around trays of a towering bamboo steamers that usually hit the starch-clothed table minutes after you've ticked off an exhausting menu sheet. The selection is vast catering to multiple generations at the table. Each vessel gets un-stacked revealing a plume of steam first then the colourful contents varying from sweet to savoury, steamed or fried or baked morsels, all reflecting a mad diversity in tastes and textures. Chef Lau Chi Man, a top dim sum chef at Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental, says this is the signature of Hong Kong. "We're rich in Asian heritage. We provide the best dim sum which is in line with China's cooking techniques. Local people and foreign visitors are addicted to this bite-sized food which shows great variety in terms of cooking methods, presentations and ingredients," he adds. The ubiquitous har gau dunmpling has prawns centred in a near translucent shell based on tapioca and wheat flour, pursed like a clam. Steamed chicken feat or fong zhou, stewed in sweet and mildly chilli sauce, is another favourite where you devour the pruney skins off the pronged feet then spit out the rest of the bones onto your plate. That and more are washed down with hot Chinese tea where a two-finger tap on the table gestures for a refill. Such theatrical and culinary commotion epitomizes the quirky spirit and foodie fanaticism of Hong Kong.

Today, it's not hard to find respectable yum cha (another reference to dim sum literally meaning 'drinking tea') experience near you. But we've culminated a list reflecting the best but also the evolving nature of dim sum, from Luk Yu shrugging off modern trends with unapologetically calorific old-school dishes, to more mainstream or even progressive options that are just as awe-inspiring.


Fast and the Furious Yum Cha at Super Star Seafood
At the Time Square branch, it becomes instantly clear how this locally beloved chain is a brash, high-volume restaurant. The blinding red interior is ill matched with faux-crystal chandeliers lighting up the dining room like an amusement park. The venue, as big as a basketball court, is packed to the brim conjuring a hyperactive scene of loud banter, clanking teacups and tableware; all typical of a modern day yum cha experience. Credit goes to the Herculean stamina of the kitchen delivering an exhausting 120-something dim sum menu to these masses. Only minutes after ordering those steamers hit the starched-cloth tables.  Mainstream favourites are in abundance, from steaming chicken feet (HK22) to cheung fun (the Chinese version of cannelloni made from rice sheets and various fillings, starting from HK$30). Countless variations of favourites are in full array too like white radish cake (from HK$25 to HK$50) comes prepared either steamed and simple, deep-fried with spicy XO Sauce (arriving in a big nest made of crisped rice vermicelli) or fried with shreads of conpoy (rehydrated scallops). Chiu chow, Shanghainese and even Sze Chuan dishes bolster the small-bites menu with variety. Kids aren't left out either with whimsically crafted sweet morsels like a custard-centred fried honey buns fashioned in bumble bee shapes (served appropriately with honey sides, HK$24), to fluffy Canton-style marshmallows in rabbit moulds rolled in desiccated coconut (HK$16). Respect to Super Star for serving up a vast and thoughtful selection at breakneck speed to a mass and multi-generational crowd.

Shop no. 1005, 10/F, Food Forum, Times Square, Matheson Street, Causeway Bay. Tel: +852 2628-0886.


For the Vintage Trolley Experience: City Hall Maxim's Palace
Like the decades-old colonial clock tower at Queens Pier torn down in 2007, historical and cultural landmarks and activities at Star Ferry don't last very long. But the decades-old trolley dim sum experience refuses to be wiped out of city memory, still a proud, well-preserved attraction at City Hall Maxim's Palace. The push cart, stocked with steaming sweet or savouries, are wheeled around a dining hall, a fading sight in yum cha parlours of 21st century Hong Kong. Treasured like local beacon, this vessel has become a theatrical enhancement to the dim sum experience luring countless tourists and locals alike. The Maxim's group recognises what it's got hence the heavy investment in upgrading the experience of late. Grumpy old ladies driving the carts, or the unvarnished dining hall once in glaring red, white and gold interior, are all in the past. This operation has become a more polished affair at inoffensive creamy beige seatings, matched with peach-coloured carpeting, plus silverware teapots on linen-ed table tops. Even the trolleys have been given a modern flourish installed with little flat screen TVs showcasing its contents. The ladies behind the wheel have suddenly become mannered, even smiley. English translated dim sum dish tags are posted at the front of the vehicle making it easier for foreigners to make their selection (back in the day, they were left to peek under the steamers and point at their preference). The selection is excellent and well portioned, like the fat beef balls (HK$34) perfumed in coriander leaves and studded with diced water chestnut, each morsel resting on a bed of bean curd sheets. More fine and luxe versions are making an increasing  presence on the menu, such as whole conpoy stuffed with cucumber (HK$56). Expansive views of Victoria Harbour also trumps this dim sum experience well ahead of the rest.

2/F, Low Block, City Hall, Central. Tel: +852 2521-1303.


A Haute Selection at Man Wah
In the land of fancier and more progressive dim sum, Man Wah is king. Long-serving traditional favourites for decades, the chefs at the Mandarin Oriental restaurant have also evolved originals in such worldly and luxe flair tucked in with sea urchin, Wagyu beef, King crab meat and more. Sure to impress the most hard-to-please eater or food geek, chef Lau Chi-man employs painstakingly detailed craftsmanship based on complex preparations, and often unlikely but intriguing flavour combinations. His proudest achievement is the ultra-fine Wagyu beef puff (HK$98), a 96-layer puff pastry that is currently Man Wah's hot seller. "Of course, the recipe and cooking method is a secret but the multi-layer puff makes it extremely crispy and a perfect match with the beef inside," he says. Presentation here is artful as dim sum food porn at best. Chef Lau regularly updates the selection to incorporate seasonal ingredients to make keep the selection exciting and dynamic. That includes newer entrees like wild fungus and wolfberry dumpling (HK$68), crispy prawn dumpling paired with goose liver and wasabi (HK$78) or golden taro puff with scallop immersed in red wine sauce (HK$68). 

25/F, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road, Central. Tel: +852 2825-4003.

Untouched by Time: Luk Yu Tea House
Luk Yu has benefited from a few notorieties, including real estate tycoon Harry Lam gunned down, Godfather-style, whilst having dim sum back in 2002. But most relevant to the restaurant's success is how it mercifully refuses to adapt to modernity, especially current lean-and-low-cal times. Jumbo chicken bun (HK$32), a rare sight these days, is unapologetically rich and calorific: a fist full of chicken (dark and light meat alike), with sautéed mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs and dried shrimps, are buried deep in a massive steamed bun exterior, the wholesome dish taking up the entire cavity of the bamboo steamer. Xiu mai's are hearty too and, like most of the 35-something menu, appear unfamiliar compared to the more processed variety prevalent in Hong Kong today. From the four types of xiu mai offered here, try the pork version (HK$35) with the pursed dumpling topped with pork liver, flared like wings, bringing pronounced offal flavours to each bite. As has done since the 1930s, Luk Yu is old-fashioned all the way which, for the first timer visitor, offers a profound culinary retrospective of the city back in the day. That history isn't just storied from the food. The colonial three-floor restaurant, from the ceiling fans to the worn and decades-old feel from the teak and rosewood furnishings, can tour you back there. Few restaurants epitomize Hong Kong's city culture, colonial chic and even crime like Luk Yu does.

Try to book the private rooms (minimum is six people) in the second floor decked with antique saloon-like doors. 24-26 Stanley Street, Central. Tel: +852 2523-5463.


For Die Hard Fans Only: Tim Ho Wan
Arguably this is the hottest dim sum arrival Hong Kong has ever witnessed. Like Obama, Tim Ho Wan practically sprung out of nowhere, got the public infatuated in a short period of time that within months of its arrival, surprised everyone by being inaugurated with a Michelin star by 2010. But the eatery, opened by a former chef of Lung King Heen (the tripple Michelin-starred eatery at the Four Seasons), isn't without its pitfalls. This Mong Kok operation is infuriatingly tough to get into currently fit only for the pathologically patient and forgiving. Queues spill out on the street. The average wait time has creeped up to 90 to 120 minutes since its star acclaim. There's not much décor to speak of, more like a bare and small hole-in-the-wall. There's not much service either, the staff passively nudge diners to speed up as countless visitors lining up outside are eye-balling your table. But if you manage to get in, you'll be confronted with a focused menu of two dozen or so offerings. Incredibly wallet-friendly prices (each item on average is around HK$12 to HK$20 each) has led the press to dub this restaurant as one of the cheapest Michelin dining experiences, not just in Hong Kong but to the rest of the world. Cha siu bao (HK$12) is its best known showstopper, a variation of the standard steamed variety, here in a crusted sugary top (reminiscent of a pineapple bun in any local neighbourhood bakery) centred with the sweet and savoury pork filling. Despite the restaurant's well-documented acclaim and allure, we recommend visiting once the hype simmers down or check out its second outlet, which just opened this month in Sham Shui Po.

8 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon. Tel: +852 9332-2896. Or visit the latest branch at G/F, 9-11, Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po. Tel: +852 2788-1226.