Meet one of Cape Town’s food heroes: This is Zeng Meie, better known to her customers as “Ma”. She makes arguably the best dim sum in the city.
On the Friday night I visited, Meie was wearing a cotton apron, her hair pulled back. She popped in and out of the kitchen to chat to regulars in Chinese. Her daughter, Emma Yangmeng, was serving.
Hesheng is an unassuming family restaurant in a busy section of Sea Point Main Road. Inside, the walls are red, the tables are black and there are gold dragons on wine-coloured wall hangings. The interior is, in a word, generic.
Meie’s dumplings are anything but. Her xiaolongbao provide evidence of her mastery. Dumplings are difficult enough – they must be strong but delicate; slightly salty and slightly sweet. The proportion of filling to dumpling dough must be correct: too much filling and the lightness is lost; too little and the flavour is bland. But what about a liquid filling? Not easy.
Meie’s xiaolongbao burst in the mouth. The broth is deeply savoury – made from scratch, with a gingery scent and soy seasoning. The steamed dumpling is perfection, gathered in ruffles around the broth, twisted and pinched. Would you believe these perfect morsels are just 5cm across? Meie serves not three, not four, but 12 xiaolongbao in a portion. The price is R80.
Meie hails from northern China, where wheat grows better than rice. The dishes Meie grew up eating use more noodles, dumplings and wheat flour wrappers than southern dishes. But it’s more than that. Meie has the gift and the focus of a master baker.
The sweet red bean cake, served as a dessert, is one of the most more-ish things I’ve ever eaten. The “cakes” are hand-sized, topped with sesame seeds. The dough is sweet but dense – halfway between a brioche and a pizza base. The outside is fried to a hard crisp. Within, the paste has the intensely comforting texture of warm marzipan; the taste is far from over-sweet. It’s so gentle, so softly savoury-sweet, that the sesame seeds provide the zingiest note.
Dim sum means “hearts delight” in Cantonese. Dedicated dim sum restaurants around the world offer up to 70 different items in morsel size. These are often steamed and served in their bamboo baskets by dim sum “maids” who travel between tables, offering baskets from their carts.
In places like New York dim sum is popular for Sunday brunch. This is not surprising: In southern China dim sum is known as “yum cha”, which means “tea time”. At Hesheng it’s possible to pair Meie’s dim sum with teas like pu-he, chrysanthemum or oolong.
The leek “pancake” on Hesheng’s menu is not what you’d imagine: This is not the cousin of a crêpe. This is a “cake” – a folded-over pastry filled with a slow-braised leek mixture – that has been fried in a pan. It is heavenly in a French way: all buttery, sweet leeks and crispy pastry edges.
At Hesheng, the tables are laid with high quality Chinese soy sauce, homemade chilli paste and rice wine vinegar. Guests mix their own dipping sauce in the same way you mix your own soy and wasabi for sushi. Meie’s doughy treats benefit hugely from being dipped. The soy provided is so intense and complex, it cuts through the richness and brings out the sweetness of the dishes.
Confusingly, the “roll cakes” on the dim sum menu are cousins of the crêpe. The beef roll cake was a standout. The batter approached the texture of a soft roti, with its buttery bubbles and gold spots. The filling featured tender slices of beef, ribboned greens and the perfect-sized smear of oyster sauce.
Meie has a pastry chef’s gift for proportion and texture. She makes her potstickers on the large side. A potsticker is a steamed dumpling with a crisp base. It’s also known as a fried bun. Meie’s potstickers are more than one mouthful. The crunch is a single facet of the bun. You can choose textural variation – crunch and steamed dough together – or enjoy the contrasting textures in separate bites. Filling-wise, the Hesheng potsticker is unlike that aberration, the jam doughnut. Meie is careful to make her filling accessible in every bite – not just the final two (when the jam doughnut overwhelms the eater with mouthfuls and occasionally handfuls of cheap jam).
The half moon dumplings are like very generous panzerotti. Meie’s dough here is thick enough to prevent leaks but not so thick that a mouthful becomes doughy. The pork and prawn filling was too rich for me – I should have ordered the pork and leek – but then I didn’t have a nice, cleansing tea alongside me.
It’s hard to believe that Meie cooks everything on Hesheng’s menu, and that she cooks separately for lunch and dinner. On a Sunday when I visited, after serving brunch and lunch, Meie locked the front door. With several tables still inside finishing their meals inside, she started work on food for the evening.
Dim sum is only one part of Hesheng’s menu – Meie also makes Cantonese, Sichuan and American-Chinese dishes from scratch every day. I love her handmade noodles – thickish, firm and springy – and her rice: bright white, fat and sticky. But it’s the dim sum that shines the brightest.
On Hesheng’s wall it says: “Chinese Restaurant / Home Made”. I think it should say: “Home Made / By Zeng Meie”.
Hesheng Chinese Restaurant: 269 Main Road, Sea Point; 021 434-4214; Open for lunch and dinner. The wine list is short, but corkage is just R40. Chinese beer is available, as is Chinese rice wine.
- Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter. She is currently completing a novel.