Dim Sum literally means ‘to touch the heart’ and,has become increasingly popular. But what is Dim Sum? Where does it come from? Who eats it? How has it changed over the years? How does it fit in with Chinese culture?
Today’s blog is an introduction to Dim Sum and seeks to explain exactly what it is. Individual dishes will be introduced and in future blogs I aim to delve deeper into each dish’s recipe and story.
The words Dim Sum (点心/dian4xin1) is a catch-all term that can mean different things to different people. In mainland China, depending on who you asked, it can mean Western high tea (including patisserie), Chinese pastries, biscuits and desserts, cakes or Cantonese style Dim Sum. The phrase is used to describe small snacks, typically sweet (though can also be savoury) that can be taken with tea.
Key Regional Dim Sum
This blog is primarily concerned with Cantonese/Hong Kong style Dim Sum, with which most people outside of China will be familiar. I will be writing about other styles in the future (once I learn more about them). For clarity, Dim Sum will refer specifically to Cantonese/Hong Kong Dim Sum and Dianxin to all other regional varieties. The following segmentation is very general and brief overview and regional cuisines can be further divided.
Peking Style (北京点心):
As the ancient capital of four of China’s historical dynasties Beijing has a rich history in elegant, exquisite morsels painstakingly created for those of royal blood. Many of these palatial dianxin (宫廷点心) were introduced to the Royal Court in the Qing dynasty, which was the last imperial dynasty in China. These include sweetpea flour cake (豌豆黄 Wandouhuang), haricot bean rolls (芸豆卷 yundoujuan) and the little Wotou (小窝头 xiaowotou).
Outside of the royal walls, the masses could also enjoy a large number of dianxin including steamed buns, cakes, noodles and dumplings.
Huaiyang Style (淮阳点心):
This includes China’s eastern coast encompassing Shanghai, Suzhou, Yangzhou, Hangzhou and surrounding areas. Representative dianxin include the world-famous Xiaolongbao (小笼包) originating from Nanxiang town which is now part of the Shanghai Municipality, pork mooncakes (which are amazing and taste strikingly similar to English pork pies and the BEST food discovery I made whilst living in Shanghai), fried pork buns (生煎包/sheng1jian1bao), and shaomai (steamed glutinous rice dumplings).
Sichuan Style (四川)
Sichuan is famous for its spicy dishes and its dianxin are no exception. Ingredients used include garlic, spring onions, chilli, pepper and the its eponymous Sichuan peppercorn which gives its food its distinctive fiery numbing taste. Famous dianxin/snacks include Dan Dan Noodles (担担面), Sichuan Wontons (红油抄手) and various sweet snacks wrapped in glutinous rice skins.
Cantonese Dim Sum
This is the main focus of this blog and Cantonese/Hong Kong style dim sum, which originated in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and includes mainstays such as the char siu bao (bbq pork buns), har gau (shrimp dumplings) and siu mai (steamed pork dumplings) – these three are specifically known as the ‘Cantonese Big Three’ (广东三大点). Dim Sum is a group affair and can be seen as an equivalent to the Sunday lunch where the whole family gets together for a communal meal. In the mornings, it’s mainly retired folk who go with their buddies to enjoy a bit of Dim Sum with tea and catch up on all the latest gossip.
Where is it eaten?
Traditionally Dim Sum was eaten in teahouses (茶楼) to go with traditional Chinese tea though later on these were slowly overtaken by modern style Cantonese restaurants (酒楼). Today the terms are almost synonymous (though the restaurants also serve dinner) and in addition there are now chain stores and places that sell Dim Sum only.
When is it eaten?
Traditionally, Dim Sum was eaten from the early morning right up until the late afternoon. There were set times for Dim Sum and at different parts. Speaking with an ex-Dim Sum chef from Guangzhou (Guangdong Province), I was told that in his day there would be queues at the restaurant starting from 4am and people would start the morning Dim Sum rush at about 5am. If you go to most Dim Sum restaurants in Hong Kong early on during weekdays (around 6 -7am), you are still likely to find a large amount of old folk eating Dim Sum and reading the paper (probably the horse racing section).
However, as lifestyles have changed, so have eating habits. Now there are modern chain stores that serve Dim Sum throughout the day and late into the night. For example Dim Dim Sum Specialty Store (点点心) in Hong Kong opens from 11am – 2am serving only Dim Sum.
How is it ordered?
Go to any old-style restaurant in Hong Kong and if, amongst the maelstrom of people, you manage to fight your way to a table, you will see a number of little old ladies pushing carts such as those below:
What are inside these mystery carts? You may ask… piping hot bundles of Dim Sum joy – that’s what. Names of each dish are written on small plastic plaques and as they push the trolley past your table you can order the dishes.
As costs and inflation have risen quite astronomically over the years, keeping these carts running have become increasingly difficult and now, particularly in London’s Chinatown, these sweet trolley pushers are fast becoming a symbol of a bygone era.
Instead, you are likely to see less fun but perhaps more efficient paper menus where you can tick off the food that you want and they are sent straight to your table. Especially in overseas Chinatown restaurants, many menus are accompanied with pictures.
Dim Sum encompasses a massive range of food and cooking techniques, the majority of which are listed below.
Steamed Dishes (蒸点zheng1dian3)
Steamed dishes are pretty much the signature dishes for Dim Sum. They include:
Siu Mai (烧卖shao1mai4) – steamed pork dumplings to which prawns may be added. They are wrapped in a thin egg skin (similar to wontons) and can be topped with fish roe or carrots.
Har Gau (虾饺 xia1jiao3)– steamed prawn dumplings with bamboo shoots wrapped in a white translucent skin made of wheat starch. These are perhaps the most difficult to wrap and the ideal har gau has around 11-13 pleats.
Beef Meatballs with beancurd / San Juk Ngau Yuk Kow (山竹牛肉求 shan1zhu2niu2rou4qiu3) – beef balls steamed with deep fried beancurd sheets and are made with orange peel. The beancurd sticks to the meatballs like little wrappers and taste great when dipped in Worcestershire sauce.
Bamboo Shoot Beancurd Rolls / Seen Juk Guen (鲜竹卷 xianzhujuan) – these are pork and bamboo shoots wrapped in dried beancurd sheets which are then deep fried then steamed in oyster sauce. Very tasty!
Sticky rice (糯米鸡 nuo4mij3i1) – this is another one of my all-time favourites – executed properly it’s moist, fragrant, succulent and incredibly moreish. Wrapped inside an aromatic lotus leaf is a layer of sticky rice and inside this is usually pork, dried shrimps, a salted egg yolk all encased in a savoury sauce. Sometimes they come with chicken and/ or preserved sausages.
Chicken feet (literally translated as phoenix claws) (凤爪 feng4zhua2) – the dreaded chicken feet are steamed in a black bean sauce and topped with chilli slices and, if cooked properly, should just melt in your mouth. Yum!
Steamed buns – these are made from wheat and steamed until they are soft and fluffy.
Char Siu Bao (叉烧包 cha1shao1bao1)
Barbequed roast pork pieces (which is what char siu means) with a sweet & savoury sauce. This is one of the most difficult to execute properly due to numerous factors affecting the fermentation of the bun such as climate, ingredients, environment etc. The ideal Char siu bao is evenly split into three sections and of a clean white colour – if you notice any smudging it’s likely down to the lack of skill by the person who wrapped the bun.
Custard Bun (奶黄包nai3huang2bao1)
These sweet buns are made with custard and a similar version, Lau Sha Bao (流沙包 liushabao) which literally means ‘quicksand bun’ (since the filling is liquid) is made with salted duck eggs which gives it a kind of sweet/savoury taste.
Lotus Paste Bun (莲蓉包lian2rong2bao1)
These are fairly old-school and traditional ones may have a salted egg yolk in the middle. The best ones I’ve ever tasted were in Hong Kong’s Leen Heung Teahouse (莲香楼) which is famous for its lotus paste buns – Leen Heung will be a feature of one of my future posts as its rich history and background is something I really want to share.
‘Big Chicken Bun’ (鸡球大包/大包 ji1qiu2da4bao1)
You are very unlikely to find these bad boys outside of traditional Dim Sum teahouses in Hong Kong/Guangdong and they are fast disappearing. I added these more for their historical importance more than anything. These are more of the traditional buns that were in vogue around the mid- 20th Century in Hong Kong onwards. Due to their size, they could almost be taken as a meal in their own right. They are typically filled with chicken, pork, eggs (or quail egg) and vegetables.
Cheung Fun (肠粉 chang2fen3)
Cheung Fun are steamed rice (vermicelli) noodles that wrapped around different fillings – typical ones include prawns, beef and char siu. Ideally the cheung fun should fully cover the filling and have no bits sticking out. They will come with a special soy sauce made specifically for cheung fun that is sweeter than normal soy sauce.
Prawn Cheung Fun (鲜虾肠粉 xian1xia1chang2fen3)
Za Leung (炸两 zha4liang3)
These are deep fried dough sticks wrapped in cheung fun sprinkled with spring onions (scallions) and sesame seeds.
Zhu cheung fun or Zai Cheung (vegetarian cheung fun) (猪肠粉 zhu1chang2fen3/斋肠)
These are plain cheung fun dipped in sesame sauce, a sweet bbq sauce and sometimes chilli sauce and are sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Pan Fried, Deep Fried& Oven Baked (煎炸焗类)
Sesame seed balls / Jeen Dui (煎堆) - deep fried glutinous rice balls with a sesame paste filling
Char Siu Puff (叉烧酥) – char siu roast pork baked in puff pastry
Wor Teep / Pot Stickers (锅贴)– these are not native to Guangdong but more northern China. They are essentially the same as Japanese Gyozas and are pan fried to give its distinctive crunch.
Chinese turnip cake – these are made from Chinese turnip /mooli, Chinese preserved sausages, dried shrimps and are steamed prior to being pan fried.
Congee, Noodles, Rice (粥粉面饭)
Congee is a savoury rice porridge served at breakfast time and usually forms part of the Dim Sum menu. One of the signature congees is ‘Teng Zai’ congee (艇仔粥) which literally means sampan (a kind of little raft) congee. It has fish, pork, (dried) shrimps, fried dough, peanuts and spring onions.
Soup noodles are usually also eaten at breakfast time. Typical soup noodles are barbequed meat noodles, duck with mustard green noodles and wonton noodles.
Stir-fried noodles (egg noodles or rice noodles) can be eaten with the congee or serve as a main dish later on in the day (around lunchtime). Shredded pork fried egg noodles 肉丝炒面 and Dry- stirfried rice noodles with beef (干炒牛河) are my all-time favourite noodles.
Early morning dim sum goers will find little pots of steamed rice with different toppings and are on offer as a morning dish. Other dishes include barbequed meat rice dishes (Char siu, roast pork belly, roast duck, soy sauce chicken) and in the afternoon (usu. after 11am) you get larger dishes such as fried rice and another one of my all-time favourites Ying Yang (literally mandarin duck as they come in pairs) fried rice (鸳鸯炒饭).
Chinese Style Desserts甜点
Mango Pudding (芒果布丁) – made with evaporated milk
Egg Tarts (蛋挞)
These are likely to have come from Macau via Portuguese settlers (hence the famous Portuguese tarts) or in Hong Kong under its colonial rule by the UK. There are two types of pastry – shortcrust and puff pastry. Personally I prefer the puff pastry as it breaks up in your mouth along with the soft, sweet eggy centre mmmmm.
Mango Sago Dessert (杨枝甘露)
This cooling dessert is best for those hot summer days and originated in HK in the 1980s. Its Chinese name comes from traditional Buddhist theology – Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy holds in her left hand a bottle which contains which is believed to bring good fortune.
It contains mango, sago , sometimes ice cream and orange pieces.
These are just a few of the hundreds, even thousands of Cantonese Dim Sum that are around (although many have been superseded with the changing tides of time). I hope this gives you a flavour of what Dim Sum is and the impetus to try it out. I know I got very hungry just writing this post!