Dim sum decoded: How to get your dumplings in order
Oh boy, have you got a treat in store
“Shall we go for dumplings” is an invitation I’ve had with increasing frequency. Don’t get me wrong, I always want to go and eat dumplings. It is just that dim sum (of which dumplings are one variety) are at best misunderstood and at worst bastardised. So with that in mind, here is a breakdown of Chinese dim sum: what to look for, what to avoid and how to sound like you know what you are talking about.First of all, dim sum are a brunch food. Yes I know, you have been living a lie. Traditionally eaten after morning exercise, dim sum are usually consumed with endless cups of tea, and the two together are called yum cha. In China, most dim sum houses stop serving by mid-afternoon. It is only in the West that we have adopted them as a dinner food.Secondly, please stop with the franken-fillings. The worst are steamed dumplings filled with anything-and-cream-cheese. Following closely is the butternut and feta variety. Third, salmon. None of these things appear in traditional dim sum and you are better off without them. Stick to ordering dim sum filled with combinations of pork, prawns, beef, chicken and vegetables.
Dim sum can be confusing. The best way to get your head around the different types is to divide them into the cooking methods. Dim sum can be steamed, fried or boiled.
Steamed varieties are called either dumplings or buns, fried are called potstickers, boiled and served in soup are called wontons. Then there are dim sum that are not wrapped at all, and are usually the more texturally challenging options such as chicken feet, offal, pork ribs and things baked into cakes.
Finally, a breakdown of locally available dim sum that you’ve probably been ordering and what to order instead:
• You’ve been ordering: Steamed dumplings filled with anything-and-cream-cheese.
Now you will order: Har Gow (Crystal Prawn Dumplings) with the same translucent casing and a real-deal filling of prawns and pork.
Or better yet: Siu Mai (open-faced pork and shrimp dumplings). They look a little ugly but they are so delicious.• You’ve been ordering: Spring rolls, which are just a soggy, usually badly fried mess.
Now you will order: Rice paper rolls, full of fresh herbs and crunchy vegetables, they are the best break from all the dough you are consuming.
But you really want something fried: Hatosi (sesame prawn toast) triangles of minced prawns, water chestnuts and sesame seeds.• You’ve been ordering: Dumplings (scary lack of further information on South African menus).
You deserve: Gyoza. Although Japanese, we are including them because we live in a dim sum wasteland and we have to take what we can get. Available steamed or fried, the pan-fried (potsticker) variety are the best.
In an ideal world you would get: Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) – not to be confused with wontons which are dumplings in soup – these soup dumplings are silky dumpling skins filled with shredded meat and gelatinous soup which melts when steamed. They are the dumpling holy grail.• You’ve been ordering: Char sui bao (steamed barbeque pork buns).
Now you will order: Char sui bao.
Or better yet: Seriously it is still Char sui bao, the combination of sweet barbeque pork and soft fluffy steamed dough is unimprovable.