Good things often come in parcels. And that’s as true with food as it is with consumer durables found under the tree at Christmas. Perhaps that’s why dim sum always feel like such a treat.
Dim sum is linked with the older tradition of tea drinking (yum cha) in Cantonese culture and consists mainly of a variety of dumplings, served fresh from bamboo steaming baskets. Like many Chinese dishes, the onus is on sharing, though that often goes out of the window when the spare ribs arrive.
To see a dim sum chef at work is to see someone completely at one with their craft. A huge amount of skill is needed to create that translucent dough that embodies the perfect dumpling. Though, like ravioli for Italians, it’s the filing that gives each dumpling its individual character. As Vinata Frans, head chef of dim sum chain Ping Pong says: “Chefs must have a delicate but speedy touch. To make each dumpling exactly the same size and consistency takes practice and our chefs each have over eight years’ experience making dumplings. A good tip – cool hands make better dumplings.”
The staple dumpling is the har gau, a parcel of chopped or whole shrimp wrapped in a wheat starch skin. When split open its juices merge with the dipping sauce to create a cocktail of deeply savoury flavours. Heat is a factor, too. You’re not really getting the full dim sum experience unless you spend a good portion of the meal desperately trying to cool a freshly opened dumpling by blowing on it.
Of course, it’s not just about prawn. A dim sum feast can encompass guotie (north Chinese dumpling that are boiled then fried), char siu baau (a pork bun) and the slightly less appealing, but very authentic “phoenix claws”, better known as chickens’ feet.
Like tapas, dim sum works on the principle that food is best when it’s shared and the diner experiences a wide range of flavours. In the perfect dim sum environment, one will taste sweet, hot, sour and savoury all in the space of a few mouthfuls. And, if we’re doing it properly, the lot should be washed down with tea – a relic of dim sum’s beginning as byproduct of the tea ceremony.
Best of all though, is when you reach that point when it becomes clear that the original order wasn’t quite enough to satisfy the appetites of those present. And so the waiter’s eye is caught, more har gau is ordered and the experience continues long into the night, just as it always should.