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by Rose Maramba

Dim sum, which? There are at least two thousand types of dim sum all over China with their wildly diverse ingredients, flavors, textures, and cooking styles, methods and techniques. But talk about dim sum and what easily comes to mind ahead of all the other types would be the steamed buns. In particular, the superpopular cha siu ba which is filled with barbecued pork and steamed to make the bite-sized delicacy white and fluffy.

Then there’s siu mai, a staple dumpling made with pork, shrimp, mushrooms and, occasionally, fish paste. Renown dim sum Chef Mak Kwai Pui, co-founder of the Tim Ho Wan restaurant, says in an interview with Gourmet  that siu mai is “the easiest” to prepare but that it would take “a lot of skill” to turn it into something “outstanding.”

Veggie dumplings at Tim Ho Wan, Sham Sui Po

With veggies laying siege to foodie establishments, steamed green vegetables, and stuffed eggplants and the like have also made their presence felt on the dim sum menu.

Marco Polo’s caravan on Silk Road, 1380

At this late date, and after all that’s been said, one would think that there isn’t much left to say about dim sum (derived from the Cantonese word meaning appetizer) which has been around teahouses along the Silk Road since 2,500 years ago. But wait, let’s not jump the gun here. How about if we tell you that the ubiquitous dim sums are worth Michelin stars? That’d probably be news to quite a few.

Michelin star

Dim sums have been around so long a talented and ambitious chef would rather look elsewhere for a new and untried dish to pry a longed-for star from the Michelin firmament. (Talking about Michelin stars, Tim Ho Wan asserts on its website: “In the restaurant world, there is no higher recognition than the Michelin star.”)  Or that a chef who already has been awarded a Michelin star isn’t likely to make a bid for another star on the strength of dim sum.

A dim sum meal of congee with dried fish and mushrooms, poached lettuce, and chu-chau style dumplings back when Tim Ho Wan was at its original location in Mong Kok

After all, innovating to give dim sum a new twist that would grab the attention of Michelin inspectors is practically next to impossible. Any way you stir-fry, deep-fry, steam, tweak or pat a dim sum into shape, you can’t make it impact like, say, the dessert invented by the world-famous three-Michelin star El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain that mimics soap bubbles so light they’d float away if they weren’t battened down.

One-Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan Kowloon  attracts long queue

Not that he was looking for breathtaking inventions but Chef Mak Kwai Pui left his job at the Lung King Heen restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong in 2009 to blaze a trodden trail, relying on his culinary savvy to make the tired old bun over into an exquisite dish. For the endeavor, he had the Lung King Heen for inspiration which, specializing in seafood and dim sum, was the world’s first Chinese restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. But Mak shunned the uppity milieu in the lavish hotel.

Partnering with Chef Leung Fai Keung, Mak created a twenty-seater hole-in-the-wall eatery in the densely-populated working-class Mong Kok district. They called it Tim Ho Wan (“Add Good Luck” in Cantonese).

Tim Ho Wan kitchen at the time the restaurant won its first Michelin star (2010)

And what do you know? Right the following year, in 2010, Tim Ho Wan plucked a Michelin star for its own. In its 2010 edition, the Michelin Guide declared Tim Ho Wan the cheapest-starred restaurant in the world! And they kept their star, too, for a solid dozen years, up to 2021! Each and every one of the five new Tim Ho Wan branches in the erstwhile British Crown Colony is starred. (Tim Ho Wan moved to Olympian City in 2013, claiming that the rent at its original location in Mong Kok had gone up and they didn’t want to pass the hiked rental on to their loyal customers via pricey menus. In a way, it was Tim Ho Wan’s attempt to keep its reputation as the world’s most affordable Michelin-starred restaurant. A Bib Gourmand in disguise?)

Which only goes to show that the dumpy dim sum, when prepared with consummate craftsmanship, could convert into an award-winning dish.

Tim Ho Wan at Plaza Singapura, Singapore

Still and all, Tim Ho Wan has so far been incapable of adding one or more stars to its name. Making do with just one star, Tim Ho Wan set its sights on expansion. Franchising has turned the dim sum restaurant into a charismatic global chain. You just can’t resist – can hardly resist – the allure of even a solitary Michelin star. With resounding success, Tim Ho Wan’s first foreign foray was into Singapore, then Hanoi, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila.

Tim Ho Wan in Makati, Metro Manila

Today, more than sixty Tim Ho Wan franchises have made their home in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States, and Europe. (Note, though, that Tim Ho Wan’s parent company still wholly owns its Hong Kong restaurants.)

There you have it folks, the starry dim sums! Who’d have thought. . .



Featured image (Dim Sum/Jason Leung, Unsplash. Frame/Marjan, Pixabay)
Veggie dumplings/See Ming Lee, CC BY-SA2.0 via Flickr
Marco Polo on Silk Road/Creques Abraham, PD via Wikimedia Commons
Michelin star/Nicolaos Dimos, CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Dim sum meal/Benketaro, CC BY2.0 via Flickr
Long queue, Tim Ho Wan, Kowloon/N509FZ, CC BY-SA4.0 via Wikipedia
Tim Ho Wan kitchen 2010/Kent Wang, CC BY-SA2.0 via Flickr
Tim Ho Wan Singapore/Choo Yut Shing,  CC BY2.0, Flickr
Tim Ho Wan Makati/Rose Maramba

Ed’s note: Our thanks to Leah Go for introducing us to the terrific world of Tim Ho Wan, and to Dr. Rebecca Feliciano for making it possible for us to hit the Tim Ho Wan scene, Makati, Metro Manila.