“I’ll have dim sum with some tea.” That’s the most common sentence you’d hear if you ever dine at a Chinese restaurant.
There’s something about this Chinese delicacy be it the taste, the way it’s served or just the way it looks – folded to perfection to form a ball or a crescent-shaped treat. Served in batches of fours or sixes, these flour-based dumplings have been around long enough to tell you a story or two about the Chinese dining experience.
Often served before or after a meal, dim sum is usually paired alongside a hot cup of tea served at tea houses or chalou. And thus began the tradition of having dim sum with tea or what is commonly called yum cha, which was first introduced to cater to seafarers who travelled along the Silk Route.
Dian xin is the Mandarin word for dim sum, which loosely translates to “to touch the heart”. While some of us are aware of this translation, there is a scary tale behind dian xin, which hails from the Qing dynasty in China.
Legend has it that when the Emperor was betrayed by one of his subjects, the punishment for it was a slow and painful death, which is also known as lingchi. The punishment involved the executer slicing the traitor piece by piece, finally killing him by directly piercing a cleaver through his heart, or by “touching the heart”.
While this method of punishment continued for a long period of time, it came to a point where it finally became banned. And so the meaning of dian xin slowly changed over time into a more positive meaning and finally rested on touching your heart before a well-prepared meal fills your stomach.
Another tale which circles around the dim sum is that the Emperor of Eastern Jin dynasty used to reward his soldiers with these dumplings as a token of gratitude for serving the country. Whereas another legend says it first originated as a poor man’s meal in Northern China where crops like wheat were in abundance.
While its origins are debatable, these bite-sized portions contribute to a huge part of Chinese gastronomy.
It’s not one, but many
There are at least seven to eight types of dim sum to list a few. However, the Chinese will tell you that the dim sum filling can be from anything edible. Food by Gulf News spoke to Zhou Kai Xin, a staff working at Hutong in Dubai, who said: “There’s bao, xiao, wontons, mati gao, siu mai and more…”
1. Bao: A yeast-leavened, filled flour bun, which is often steamed. The dough for bao is left to ferment for 10 minutes before filling, folding and steaming.
2. Xiao: Often known as soupy dumplings or ‘dumplings with liquid gold’, these dumplings are filled with meat and meat broth.
3. Wonton: A slight variation to the traditional dim sum dough, wontons use egg, flour, salt and water and are fried or steamed, and then added to soup.
4. Mati gao: Also known as water chestnut cake, these translucent sweets are usually cut into squares and then pan-fried before serving them along with dim sums.
5. Siu Mai: Also known as shumai, these dumplings are half open and are filled with seafood, meat or vegetable variations.
6. Spring rolls: Common to Chinese cuisine, spring rolls are comparatively longer than the traditional dim sum and often fried before serving it with a tangy dipping sauce.
7. Mooncakes: These pastry dishes aren’t really dim sums but can be classified as an accompaniment to the traditional dim sum. These are often eaten during the Chinese Moon festival.
Hutong in Dubai opened last year, but when the pandemic struck, this Northern Chinese restaurant had to find a way to sustain in a city known for its rich gastronomical experience among other things. Food by Gulf News spoke to Mathias Piras, the general manager of Hutong Dubai who said: “Honestly, it’s been challenging, but we’re glad we made it through. As for the dim sum, that and the Peking duck are our most ordered dishes. You’ll find a basket of dim sums on every table…”
The right way to eat dim sum
Traditionally, the dim sum is served in a bamboo steamer basket and can be either eaten as an appetizer, as a part of a full meal or as a snack for teatime. This is usually accompanied by chilli oil or la you as they call it. These dumplings do have an etiquette when it comes to devouring them.
Eat in small portions, instead of eating the dim sum as a whole. Unless they have ‘liquid gold (chicken/meat broth)’ in them. When it comes to soy sauce, it’s best to use it less since the dim sum has already been seasoned enough.
The Silk Route changed everything
Also known as the Silk Road, the Silk Route was an ancient trade network, which bridged China and the Far East with several countries in Europe and the Middle East from the second century to the eighteenth century. The route included trading posts and markets, which helped in the transport, exchange and storage of goods. Some of these include apples, pistachios, rice, apricots, peaches and even almonds among other things.
While the Chinese are the pioneers of the dim sum, it took several voyages via the Silk Route for it to be later adapted and modified to suit the gastronomy of various other cuisines. In Indonesia, it’s called siomay, in India and Tibet momos, in Korea mandu and in Nepal yomari.
These vary with flavour and are served alongside condiments of different kinds and maybe even as a side dish for a main course meal like ramen or vegetables.
Some even say the Indian samosa is a distant and spicier cousin of the Chinese dim sum.
A dim sum to remember
The first time I had dim sum was a few months back at a Chinese restaurant in Dubai. For the longest time, my taste buds have been used to eating Tibetan momos – which are the distant cousins of dim sum – from India, but it was only until recently that I found out they’re two different things and have a different history altogether.
Even the dipping sauce served is different. The momo sauce is called sepen and it undoubtedly sets your tongue on fire.
When I first had dim sum, I was waiting for the spice to kick in, only to realise that this is the way it should taste like. Especially since there are layers to Chinese cuisine, which can only be understood when one eats it regularly and not occasionally like I do.
With these Chinese delicacies, the one thing I do love is the fact that they could be served at any time of the day and one would end up with an empty bamboo basket in less than five minutes….
Want to whip up some dim sums at home?
Creating the wrapping for dim sums is a fine art that might take chefs years to hone. But, we can make a reasonable attempt at home. To help you along on this culinary journey, here is the guide.
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