ROUGHLY translated, dim sum means “to touch the heart”. Their spiritual home is the teahouse, a combination of pub, club, theatre, diner and brothel which has been part of Chinese cultural life since the Tang Dynasty, more than 1,000 years ago.
There are literally thousands of varieties of these little tasters, some fried, some sautéd, some steamed. To Westerners, though, they are syonymous with fragile filled dumplings dished up in bamboo steaming-baskets.
Making dim sum requires a special kind of dexterity that demands the fingers of a skilled seamstress rather than those of a traditional chef. The correct pleating and shaping which distinguish professional craftsmanship only come with practice.
Tony Cheung has worked as dim sum cook at the Dorchester’s Oriental restaurant under Simon Yung since it opened seven years ago. He isn’t the kind of man you’d want to play poker with – the delicacy and mobility with which he moves his fingers and palms around tender dough is awesome.
Despite the mechanical difficulties of preparing them, dim sum open up a world of possibilities for any creative chef. Where a European kitchen may be relying on a single noodle or ravioli paste, Chinese chefs may work with a separate dough for each kind of dumpling, some slippery, some melting, some with bite, some fluffy, some transparent. One will be prepared with plain flour, another self-raising, another a combination of potato flour and wheat starch, another cellophane noodle paste, another won ton wrappers, another a yeasted dough.
Typical stuffings are in two parts: the filling, of chopped meat, fish or vegetables; and the seasoning. Most dim sum exported from China to the West have a Hong Kong pedigree, but the characteristic flavours of each region contribute to the repertoire. Shanghai cooks, for instance, tend to use more vegetables and moister fillings than do their southern Chinese compatriots, but from Fukien, north of Canton, come subtle, fragile mouthfuls. n