Yum cha, which literally means "to go eat dim sum" in Cantonese, is a national sport here in Hong Kong, and everyone knows the staple dishes backwards and forwards. In a city full of mom-and-pop dim sum restaurants giving big chains a run for their money, Hong Kong chefs need to get creative to impress locals and stay ahead.
Gimmicks are the latest order of the day, with everything from Hello Kitty-themed custard buns to luxury truffle brie dumplings attracting the attention of self-proclaimed foodies. The restaurant Dim Sum Icon has thrown its hat into the ring with a turn for the adorably disgusting—a vomiting, pooping cartoon menu collaboration.
Assistant manager Ray Kuo explains, "We don't want the old, traditional Chinese style of dim sum. We want to make it more fashionable."
The painfully trendy restaurant has created a special menu based off Japanese animated characters beloved in Hong Kong: Sanrio's Gudetama (a lazy egg) and illustrator Toshitaka Nabata's terrifying Kobito clan (men who dress up as fruits and vegetables in skin-tight bodysuits). I've lived in Hong Kong my whole life and I can't tell you why they're popular.
Dim Sum Icon's vibrant dishes are a gift to the Instagram-obsessed and encourage you to forget everything you were told about not playing with your food, inviting customers to poke and squeeze as they desire. With a small cut of proceeds going toward the original creators, this isn't Dim Sum Icon's first cartoon-inspired venture. The theme changes every three months, and previous incarnations included Sanrio's Little Twin Stars, with customers sometimes waiting a good 90 minutes for a table.
Tucked away in an office building basement, the bizarre restaurant is decked from head to toe with murals of Kobito and Gudetama as scattered life-sized statues watch you devour their likenesses. A documentary on how to catch a Kobito plays on a TV screen in the background. Speed is of the essence in any good local dim sum restaurant, and the food comes out at a blistering rate. In just ten minutes, my table is covered in bamboo steamers of violently pink breast-shaped buns and turd-shaped oat cakes. One Kobito, a man squeezed into a peach suit, stares down at me from his poster with soulless eyes.
I start with one of the restaurant's biggest claims to fame: the pink Kobito coconut milk custard bun, a puking take on traditional lai wang bao (egg custard buns). I'm told to shove a chopstick into the mouth of the character printed onto it and I do so guiltily. There's no preparing yourself for the gush of froth that vomits out of its makeshift mouth, or the instant sick sense of gratification. The woman at the table next to me pretends not to Snapchat it in all its twisted glory. The first bite sprays filling everywhere, and it's a surprising one; while egg custard buns are usually like biting into thick molten lava, the coconut milk curbs the cloying sweetness and isn't nearly as heavy.
Gudetama—in the form of a yellow, chocolate-filled bun—is the next victim. I shove a chopstick into his ass gleefully without encouragement and it's a scene out of a bathroom nightmare: thick chocolate drools out and into the bamboo steamer. This one nearly puts me off, if only because I'm unpleasantly surprised at how much fluid is inside the cavern of a bun. I literally have to drink it out of the grumpy egg's rear end and give up halfway through; it's too sweet and I can't get over the idea of it.
"Actually, we get a lot of good reviews from them," Kuo says. "That's the main one [people] post on Facebook and Instagram."
Other dishes follow, but that's unfortunately where the interactivity ends. The dun- shaped oatcakes are a confusing combination of a salted rice cracker, condensed milk, and oat sponge which is mostly left alone, but I inhale the decadent truffle and mushroom dumplings without a second thought. Aside from standard dim sum fare spanning rice rolls and shrimp dumplings, Dim Sum Icon also serves frozen passion fruit and sakura-flavoured beers (which are unfortunately sold out) and less controversially presented rice dishes.
As I pay the bill and trudge out, I realise I'm not going to remember what the food tasted like in a few hours. It's not that the food is bad—it's just that it's expensive for perfectly decent dim sum and the gimmick isn't enough to coax me back again. It's evident that for Dim Sum Icon and a lot of new restaurants, the dining experience and the viral social media post comes first, which isn't necessarily terrible. I know that the electric shock horror of forcing my food to vomit has been ingrained into me until the day I die.