So you like eating at Chinese restaurants and you’re particularly fond of waving over the girl or the guy pushing a wheeled trolley that contains stacks of steaming bamboo steamer baskets each containing a delicious dish. When the trolley stops at your table, you pick out the dishes that you like, the food attendant places the bamboo baskets on your table and you dig in. When the contents of the baskets are gone, you hail the trolley girl / guy over to your table once more, you choose another round of dishes and the empty bamboo baskets are replaced with new ones.
You know the routine. Dim sum is the food; yum cha is the meal.
Yum cha (“drink tea”) is a very old custom in China but the tradition of drinking tea was not always accompanied by food. A story goes that, in the 3rd Century, an Imperial physician wrote that “combining tea with food would lead to excessive weight gain.”
Dim sum came later and its history is intertwined with the Silk Road. The Silk Road is an ancient route used by the Chinese to transport silk for sale. Caravans travelled from China to as far as Africa and Europe, and weary merchants stopped at roadside teahouses for refreshment. When exactly food was offered along with the traditional tea, no one really knows. What is known is that, at some point, someone realized that the tired merchants needed more than tea to replenish their energy and prepare for the next leg of their journey. And dim sum was born.
Today, dim sum is more than light meal to recuperate from the hardships of travel. Dim sum has evolved into an all-day affair. In teahouses and some restaurants, dim sum items are available from breakfast until closing time. Many diners treat dim sum as an appetizer — a precursor to the heavier dishes of meat, seafood and rice.
The dim sum menu of a teahouse of restaurant can consist of as little as a dozen items or as many as a hundred. Overall, there are some 2,000 known dim sum dishes served around the world. Let’s meet some of them.
Har gowHar gow is steamed shrimp dumplings with a smooth and transparent skin. A challenge to chefs, it takes a lot of training and practice to prepare har gow which must have seven or more pleats to seal the dumpling close. The skin should be soft and thin but still firm enough not to tear when the dumpling is picked up with chopsticks.
XiaolongbaoThin-skinned soup-filled pork dumplings, xiaolongbao is said to trace its roots a hundred years ago in Nanxiang in the northern Jiading District of Shanghai. A larger version with thicker skin is called tangbao.
Chive dumplingsChives dumplings come with pork or shrimps, or even both. There is a variant that is boiled and another that is steamed and fried. The chive dumplings we like are steamed with slightly chewy translucent skin.
Siu mai (shumai, shaomai)There are many versions that exist but the world is mostly familiar with Cantonese siu mai, a pork and shrimp dumpling with an open top. The exposed portion of the filling is sometimes garnished with fish or crab roe, grated carrot or pea
Wontons with chili sauceIt might look like just another wonton dish but the addition of chili sauce takes the wontons to quite another dimension. We’ve tried this dish is many restaurants including Luk Yuen and Din Tai Fung (Hong Kong and SM Megamall) but the best, so far, is the version of Lugang Cafe in Greenhills.
Feng zhuaFeng zhua or what the English-speaking world calls “chicken feet” is a thrice-cooked dish. The chicken feet (all skin and tendons and no muscle) are deep fried just until a crust forms on the surface, then steamed until puffed. The chicken feet are then stewed in a soy-based sauce until the skin and tendons turn gelatinous.
Pai GwutPai gwut is pork ribs steamed in the black bean sauce in which it has marinated. The addition of a little baking soda in the marinade ensures that the pork cooks to perfect tenderness.
Duck tongueWe ordered it out of curiosity more than anything else. I was expecting something melt-in-the-mouth tender the way beef tongue is when cooked right but duck tongue is more chewy despite the copious amount of fat in it. Surprisingly, there is a bone right down the middle of the duck tongue.
Zongzi or lo mai gaiZongzi is a rectangular-shaped filled sticky rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and steamed. Lo mai gai is a pyramid-shaped filled sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed. The fillings vary but the most common (most popular?) is a combination of stewed fatty pork, Chinese sausage and black mushrooms.
Pei guenKnown in English as tofu skin rolls or bean curd rolls, pei guen is either fried or steamed (locally known as que kiam?) but the steamed version is the variant most often found in dim sum trolleys. Tofu skin rolls are made by wrapping seasoned minced pork in tofu skin which forms on the surface of the vat during the production of tofu.
Cheong fanCheong fan is rolled rice noodles which come in a variety of savory or sweet fillings. If you’re wondering where the “noodles” are, it is the wrapper which is the same stuff that goes into beef chow fun. The more popular fillings of cheong fan include barbecued pork, beef, shrimps and Chinese crullers.
Steamed cha siu bao“Bao” is bun and “cha siu” is the pork barbecue filling. Minced cooked barbecued pork is mixed with hoisin sauce, a little rice wine and starch then wrapped with flattened dough before steaming. What makes the bun unique is that it is made with a starter dough that is incorporated in a second dough which gives it a fine-grain texture.
Baked cha siu baoThe baked version of steamed cha siu bao, the bun is sweeter, crusty and yellow. Called pineapple bun (no, pineapple is not an ingredient), the crusty top is created by placing a thin layer of dough on top of the filled dough before baking.
Daan tatDaan tat is egg custard tart with a flaky crust. It is not clear if it is a traditional Chinese dish or if it was introduced by the Portuguese who had access to Guangzhou before the First Opium War. Egg custard tart was introduced to Hong Kong after the second world war where it became popular.
Cha siu souA variant of the cha siu bao but, instead of a bun, the pork barbecue is wrapped in a flaky pastry.
Fried pork spring rollsMinced pork is mixed with spices and vegetables, wrapped in spring roll wrapper and fried until lightly browned and crisp.
Wu gokOne of my favorite dim sum items, wu gok is taro puffs or, simply, taro dumplings. Lightly crisp on the outside, the mashed taro is creamy underneath. The savory pork filling at the center creates an interesting contrast, in texture and flavor, with the crust.
Jian duiKnown as sesame seed balls, these sticky and chewy pastry is a staple in any dim sum. Sticky rice flour is mixed with water to form the dough. The dough is divided, flatted, filled with sweet lotus or bean paste then gathered into a ball. The filled dough is rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried until browned.