Editor’s note: The interview that formed the basis of this article was conducted in Cantonese by a Heights editor and later translated from Cantonese to English.
t’s 8 a.m. in downtown Boston and rush hour traffic is nearing its peak. The normally bustling streets of Chinatown are deserted with only a few passersby wandering the narrow alleys. Chinese restaurant Hei La Moon is opening its doors to the early morning breakfast crowd ready to indulge in a traditional Chinese breakfast.
The morning sun fills the space inside the vast dining area, illuminating the red and gold furniture that dominates the restaurant’s interior. A waitress pushes around a cart piled with buns, lifting the covers off several bamboo steamers to reveal what freshly made dumplings are on offer. Meanwhile, a handful of diners meticulously choose what dishes to feast on for breakfast.
The two-story Chinese eatery looks more like a ballroom than a restaurant. The main dining area is one big open space, crowded with round tables draped in white tablecloths. Images of dragons hang on the walls, and red decorations—symbolizing luck and happiness in Chinese culture—are interspersed throughout the space. Hei La Moon’s simple furnishings allow the food to serve as the main attraction. The restaurant’s refined dim sum, the Cantonese brunch tradition that translates to mean “touch the heart” and refers to the cuisine of small foods and the savoring of tea, has allowed Hei La Moon to become a staple in the Chinatown food scene.
Even before you get a mouthful of the dim sum, you can tell it’s going to be authentic—the kind of food you would be served at a highly regarded eatery in Hong Kong. The waitstaff—clad in red uniforms—speak only a little English. When it comes to ordering, there will usually be a lot of pointing and nodding involved.
In the morning, Hei La Moon doesn’t have a menu customers can order dim sum from. Instead everything is ordered off constantly moving push carts filled with an array of dishes from dumplings to sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. Ordering can be tricky and slightly like a game, as the server constantly brings around fresh batches of dumplings that are too hard to resist.
Dim sum is originally a Cantonese custom, but is now served throughout China and the world. Most people associate dim sum with lunch, however it’s traditionally a meal eaten at breakfast. On weekend mornings, the large dining space fills with hungry customers, and Hei La Moon’s manager, strolls amongst the tables, ensuring that everything stays under control. This is John, “just John,” as no one at the restaurant knows his full name. Despite the secrecy, his passion for dim sum is obvious, and he emphasized why bite-sized dishes make for the ideal breakfast.
“Your appetite isn’t very big in the morning so you want to eat smaller amounts of food, so you can eat more for lunch,” John said. “Chinese people don’t eat much for breakfast so they want something small in the mornings.”
Dim sum dishes are commonly light and not very filling as most of the servings are relatively small. But the small quantity allows for customers to order a variety of both savory and sweet delicacies to be shared with the table. Many of the dishes are steamed in a basket made of bamboo, with usually three to four dumplings per serving. Other dishes are baked, while fried dumplings tend to be too decadent and heavy to eat early in the morning.
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At Hei La Moon, the tea is just as important as the dim sum itself, which makes sense, because in Cantonese another way to say to eat dim sum is ‘yum cha,’ or to drink tea. Right as you are seated, the server will ask you what tea you would like. Pu’er tea is always a wise choice—it’s what those in Hong Kong pair with their dim sum. Tea is served to cut through the richness of the dim sum while also help with digestion. There is also etiquette that applies with tea service. To ask for a re-fill, simply lift up the lid and place it askew on top of the pot. The waitress will know to immediately fill the teapot with scorching hot water.
The table setup is as simple as the restaurant’s decor. The only items placed in front of you are a bowl, a porcelain spoon, chopsticks, and a tea cup. There are no knifes and forks to make things easy. If your chopstick skills aren’t up to par, you better start practicing.
Xie Ping Lim is one of the 10 chefs who prepare dim sum day after day in the kitchen. She has worked at Hei La Moon since it opened in 2004. Lim passionately spoke about making one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, BBQ pork buns—known as char siu bao.
“The char siu [pork] is cooked in a special stove then we cut it into small pieces,” Lim said. “Once it’s cooked in small pieces, we mix it with a special barbecue sauce and put it inside the buns.
Due to the considerable size of the bun, char siu bao is a struggle to eat with chopsticks. Here, it’s okay to break the rules a little. Dive in with your hands and tear open the light and fluffy bun to expose the rich barbecue pork filling before stuffing it in your mouth.
Shrimp dumplings are arguably the most popular dim sum item at any Chinese restaurant. Har gow—as it’s called—is filled with whole pieces of shrimp and bamboo shoots. At times, har gow can taste fishy, falling apart when it comes into contact with chopsticks. This is not the case at Hei La Moon. The chewy wrapper delicately holds the succulent shrimp inside. The perfectly plump dumpling is translucent, showcasing the pristine quality of light pink prawns.
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The restaurant is known for having various assortments of siu mai, but your best bet is the classic pork and shrimp variety. Ground pork and diced shrimp are wrapped in a thin yellow wrapper and topped with a whole prawn. Dip the siu mai into soy sauce for extra flavour or delicately place a little dab of the chilli sauce onto the dumpling for an added kick of spice.
Lim and the nine other chef’s sole responsibility is making dim sum. Everything on the menu is made in house, from the dumpling wrappers to the custard of the egg tarts. While there are dozens of different dim sum items on the menu, there seems to be only three core ingredients.
“We only really use pork, beef, and shrimp.” Lim said. “These three are the most important meats in dim sum.”
Not all dim sum dishes come in the form of a dumpling. Hei La Moon’s shrimp cheung fan is a glutenous roll made from rice noodles and filled with small pieces of shrimp. The server pours a sweet soy sauce over the dish, allowing the acidic sauce to perfectly coat the gooey noodles.
You may have also noticed that desserts are scarce at Chinese restaurants. There are a few sweet treats, however, to cap off a dim sum brunch. The last thing you should order is the traditional baked egg custard tart—dan tat in Cantonese. The rich egg filling paired with the light and flaky crust of the tart makes for an exceptional way to end your full tea brunch.
But what about soup dumplings? This fatty pork dumpling can be found at most Chinese restaurants around town, but not at Hei La Moon. Soup dumplings—referred to as xiao long bao in China—are a Shanghainese-style dumpling that’s not usually eaten at breakfast. Hei La Moon prides itself for serving authentic Cantonese cuisine, so it would not make sense to serve items from another region.
While the clientele remains heavily Chinese, John admits that he notices many Americans like to take food risks and taste some of the more unusual dishes. With many different types of dim sum dishes served in small portions, it makes it easy for people to try new dishes.
“The unique thing about dim sum is that it is cheap and the portions are small,” John said. “If you order something you do not like, you can order something else, it’s only three dollars for a dish.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor