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Amber flames dancing under a wok and dense steam bellowing through the steamer look as spectacular as they are challenging to master. While the wok is mandatory, you will notice that a full-fledged dim sum menu is a cachet of only fine-dine Chinese eateries. I’m not talking about token dumplings, but a range showcasing delicate puffs, moist buns and silky noodle-wraps. If you are curious about what dim sum really entails, here is a practical primer to get you started -
Depending on how you read Mandarin, dim sum is conveniently linked to the term ‘touching the heart’. Dumplings are found all over the world, and the introduction of wheat to China points to a possible origin of dim sum as snacks at tea houses (hence Yum Cha, a tea dim sum brunch) along the Silk Road. I understand that the modern array of dim sum is a Cantonese invention, which also explains their provenance in Hong Kong.
Here are seven types of dim sum you must know:
Har Gau (steamed shrimp dumplings) – Famously regarded as the acid test of a dim sum chef, Har Gau’s intricately pleated oyster-shaped body encases a juicy shrimp. The dough, made with a mix of wheat and tapioca starch must be taut and smooth. An ideal Har Gau springs open, as you bite, to reveal perfectly cooked, juicy shrimp. It is often topped with flying fish roe for a savoury crunch.
Siu Mai (open-topped steamed pork and shrimp dumplings) – There is a story about a Chinese general appeasing a blood-thirsty river god with Siu Mai instead of human heads. Do not let that ghastly tale take away anything from thick tightly-packed parcels of pork and shrimp. Shaped like a stubby flower, they have a thin wheat flour wrapper and dense, juicy body which is topped by contrast-coloured crab roe or grated carrot.
Cha Siu Bao (steamed barbeque pork stuffed buns) – The ubiquitous Bao sandwiches do not hold a candle to these freshly-steamed cocoons of barbeque pork filling. They are served slightly moist and sticky from the steamer, bursting open at the top to reveal a deeply tasty barbeque pork filling. Drop the chopsticks and get your hands messy for this one.
Cheong fun (Rice noodle roll) – Cheong Fun means intestine noodles because of the shiny appearance of white noodles as they are wrapped around meat or fried dough. The white noodles for Cheong fun are a challenge – they are tenuously peeled from a custom flat steamer, rolled around a filling and cut while still hot. Served on a shallow pool of sweet soya sauce, I like the texture of a crispy Shrimp Cheong Fun.
Xia Long Bao – These Shanghainese dumplings have a nifty trick that’s sure to surprise first-timers. The dumpling encases a juicy filling and hot soup. You should prick the skin with a chopstick to release the steam inside and drip in a bit of soy sauce before gulping it down in one go. A bit like our Paani Puri.
Jiao/Jiaozi – Popular in Beijing, Jiao are the workhorse dumplings that you are likely to find in most Chinese restaurants. They are often jazzed up with translucent wrappers (made with a proportion of potato and tapioca starch) to give a crystalline appearance.
Baked Puffs – For someone who has been eating puffs all his life, it was difficult to digest the simple mastery of a dim sum puff. Think about the two things which make a great puff - light layers of seasoned, crispy pastry and a juicy filling. Now multiply them by 5, add an egg glaze and some toasted sesame seeds. There you have it - an utterly perfect dim sum puff.
This is not a comprehensive list, but you should be able to find most of them in a premium Chinese eatery. Here is my recommendation to Yum Cha in Chennai:
China XO, The Leela Palace – Chef Soon creates an unparalleled experience, every Sunday at the China XO Sunday Brunch. If you are a dim sum enthusiast, then this is the best you can get in the city. Expect every single dim sum listed above and then some. Followed by appetizers, and another round of appetizers, main course and dessert. Portion out each course and take occasional walks in Leela’s chess garden.
Pan Asian, ITC Grand Chola – Choose from Chef Wen Liu’s dim sum menu at the award-winning Pan Asia in ITC Grand Chola. I will recommend a plate of delicate Cheong Fun and Xiao Long Bao.
Golden Dragon, Taj Coromandel – Chennai’s long-standing fine dine Chinese destination still churns out the city’s best Har Gaos - intricately translucent, juicy and topped with fish roe. Chef Lee is so proud of his dim sum that the steamer section is fronted out with glass panel to the dining room.
Nasi & Mee Asian Canteen, Khader Nawaz Khan Road –This new bistro has been making waves since it opened, for its pop Singaporean plates of Malay & Indonesian dishes and mugs of Chendol. However, it hides an ace up its dim sum section - doling out premium Xiao Long Baos, Siu Mais and Har Gaos at less than half of what you would pay for the quality at a five-star hotel restaurant.
Chang’s Dimsum, T Nagar – If you thought that the only dumplings on Indian streets were Momos, then you will be as surprised as I was, to see authentic Chinese Jiaozi at this little eatery under a beauty parlour. Mrs Chang runs ‘Changs Beauty Parlor’ upstairs, while Mr Chang runs this inconspicuous little dim sum joint downstairs. The cheapest dim sum in Chennai.