Xiang Yuan, one finger if you’re single, two if married, dim sum in Sea Point

Until today I have been a pork dim sum ‘virgin’.  This was not for want of trying.  My quest for this most traditional of Cantonese snack breakfasts, with dumplings at its heart, sent me to Haiku for lunch but alas they are ‘halaal friendly’.  I have also perused the dim sum menu at Beluga but they too don’t do piggy.  I thought the only solution was to fork out for a flight to Hong Kong until wine writer spitorswallow alerted me to Xiang Yuan on the bit of Sea Point that remains steadfast in sleaze, immune to the gentrification all around it.

Xiang Yuan
4/5 stars
+27 (0)21 434 4987
245 Main Rd
Sea Point
Cape Town

Over lunch at Xiang Yuan I not only find my first pig dim sum but several of these hog dishes that are now popular in many parts of China and indeed the West.  In fact there is an entire menu dedicated to this meal that has diminished, as a breakfast at least, in Hong Kong as tea houses closed following the end of the housing crisis there.  Before that there were too many sharing cramped apartments to enable comfortable cooking at home.

The dim sum menu today, that includes other fillings too, points out that tea is as important as food with this meal.  Indeed going for breakfast is often described as yum cha, or going to tea.  Varieties such as the South Chinese oolong and jui hua (chrysanthemum) are also said to aid digestion.

Once the host has poured the tea the rest of the table thank him by tapping a finger or two on the cup, symbolic of bowing.  A rap with the index fingers signifies singlehood.  Tapping both the index and middle fingers shows your’re taken.  With all the romantic confusion that accompanies negotiating Cape Town’s circuitous dating market, this direct custom could be useful here.

These snacks include delicacies that you should probably not serve to your mother-in-law (or maybe you should).  But dishes such as marinated duck head, duck gizzards and pork tripe with Sichuan Pepper could win you a Chinese bride.  As a Taiwanese friend points out the Chinese don’t eat all living creatures.  They have one qualification: “If its back faces heaven you can eat it.”

With the glut of pork dumplings and buns on offer here I order with the help of the broken English of the Chinese woman handling the front of house.  First out are the non-Cantonese Shanghai Buns, three steaming transluscent half-moons with the crescents pinched into the shapes of dragon lizards’ spiky ridges.  The filling is a glutinous mix of minced pork, peanut and what appears to be celery and flat-leaf parsley.  So hot it the first burns the tongue.  A perfectly bit-sized pick-me-up of hearty food for a chilly winter’s day.

Next four pan-fried round dumplings, sealed with a twist, arrive.  Scrumptiously crispy-brown on the outside, contrasted with the doughy inside of the seal, they contain only chopped pork and hint of savoury seasoning.  Glutinous texture and MSG may give many Westerners stomach convulsions but in China both are celebrated.

Last are Chiu-Chao, three traditionally rice flour dumplings served on a bamboo steamer, promising tofu, mushroom and other goodies with the obligatory pork.  Only the taste of super-charged spring onion is discernable.  This is the only dish that fails to impress.

A complaint about the meal is the time it takes for the food to come out.  Despite being the only customer, this is not the quick lunch it should be.  Possibly at night when they are expecting customers they turn out the food quicker.  Or even better for a post-pub snack (they close at 3 am).

The bill for the three dishes a very affordable R68.  More filling than a light weekday lunch.

Other dishes from the dim sum menu include seaweed salad; sweet and sour cabbage; lotus leaf chicken in rice; fried glutinous rice cake; lobster congee; radish cake; water chestnut cake; chili oil ox tripe; quail eggs and custard buns.

Xiang Yuan, a slightly dingy orange wood-panelled joint, with the barest nod to heritage with a bit of bamboo and lantern motifs, has an extensive non-dim sum menu of other Chinese staples and those less common at neighbourhood takeaways.  Extensive vegetarian options and even sushi.

Read the Haiku review here.

4/5 stars on food and price.  Service very slow.

Tom Robbins
May 24, 2011

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3 Responses to “Xiang Yuan, one finger if you’re single, two if married, dim sum in Sea Point”

  1. sam says:

    I have lived in Sea Point for many years and over my more recent 3 1/2 year stint, I have come to the conclusion that Xiang Yuan is the best Chinese restaurant / take away in the suburb. I have been wanting to try their dim sum for ages, so thanks for the review.

  2. Donovan says:

    Thanks for the tip – we’re on a bit of a Chinese mission at the moment and will give them a try. You should try Hesheng (bit.ly/qUbBFE) in Sea Point – I’d be curious for a comparison.

  3. Vanessa Watson says:

    Last night: some of the dim sum was OK, some inedible. The cumin lamb was pure gristle overloaded with cumin powder and the crispy beef was in soggy floured batter. We sent it all back. They were kind enough not to charge for the meals and to give us a R 300 voucher. Just good food would have been preferable.

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