Creative non-fiction / September 2014 (Issue 25)

Emily Dickinson Comes to HK & We Go to Tim Ho Wan Because She Heard the BBQ Pork Buns Are Delicious

by Anneli Matheson

"Consider the pork bun is the only commandment I keep," she says, black chopsticks whisking the golden orb from its bamboo basket. She takes a bite and chews thoughtfully. As a baker, she seems to be parsing the heart of the dough, examining its fluffy texture and unexpectedly sweet crust. We're here for the works: pork buns, tonic medlar and petal cake, shrimp dumplings and, at Emily's insistence, chicken feet in black bean sauce. Between the two of us, we easily polish off three baskets of buns, never mind how many per basket, reveling in this snack that has put the tiny fifteen-seat Mongkok eatery on the international map.

Tim Ho Wan describes itself as "the hole-in-wall eatery in Hong Kong that defied all odds to gain an entry in the Michelin guide," and it remains the world's cheapest starred restaurant. The baked pork bun is one of four signature dim sum dishes grandly titled the 4 Heavenly Kings. The other three include pan fried carrot cake, steamed egg cake and vermicelli roll with pig's liver. The latter has just appeared on our table, with surprisingly little ceremony given its royal status, as harried waiters do all they can to rush us through our meal. A crowd of impatient eaters waits outside Tim Ho Wan's door, but we ignore their salivating stares and take our time.

"Careful, this one will slide right off the plate and into your lap," I say, attempting to serve my friend with as much grace as two slippery sticks and slick food will allow. The large white noodle has been steamed and stuffed with the tender porcine organ meat. It's so soft you could slurp it down.

"Hmmm, distinctly invertebrate in texture," Emily says with a grin.

"Dim sum roughly translated from Cantonese means 'little heart or token.' And tim ho wan means something like 'to add good luck,'" I say around a mouthful of savoury shrimp dumpling.

"So we are eating lucky little hearts for lunch. A bit vampiric, perhaps, but also poetic, if you'll indulge the phrase." Emily pauses, and lifts a perfect cube of red tonic medlar and petal cake. Cake, however, is a misleading term. This dessert is jello-y, and its red gelatinous skin glistens in the florescent light. Like confetti frozen mid-toss, orange goji berries and green petals are suspended and visible inside. Popping the lightly sweet and medicinal cake into her mouth, she savours it slowly and thoughtfully. Suddenly, she scribbles a deluge of words onto the back of our pink receipt.

"What's the Cantonese word for hope?" she asks, tapping her pen quickly on the side of our cooling tea pot.

"Urrrr ... no idea. Unfortunately, you heard all of my Cantonese when I told the waiter thank you. And I probably bungled the tones badly. They're treacherous, those tones."

"Well, we can find out later when we meet up with the others," Emily replies, pouring out the last of the tea, speckled with green jasmine, into our small white cups. I stack the empty bamboo steamers and they are almost instantly spirited away by a waiter. The poet pockets the pink slip, and I wonder if she will share the words with me later. We stand to leave. Emily pauses, taking in the frantic and fragrant atmosphere of the restaurant.

"I really should get out more," she says.

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