If you associate dim sum with Chinese dumplings, the odd wonton, and nothing more, let us tastefully enlighten you. Dim sum is a moveable feast, as broad and varied as the nation from which it originates, each parcel a mouth-watering masterpiece of craftsmanship and flavour stemming from a culinary tradition that’s centuries old.
Like the Japanese sushi masters, it takes years of apprenticeship and training for a Chinese chef to become an expert in the art of dim sum – and no wonder considering it’s one of the most diverse cuisines in the world. As one of the largest countries on Earth, China’s range of regional gastronomy is extensive, with cuisines from Guangzhou (Canton) and Szechuan provinces being the most common international exports.
Dim sum is no exception; with dozens of varieties, the custom of indulging in these bite-sized morsels began in the early Cantonese teahouses where the tradition went hand-in-hand with the practice of ‘yum cha’, or tea drinking. When translated, ‘dim sum’ means to ‘touch the heart’, and served savoury or sweet, deep-fried or steamed, their warmth certainly does just that.
Like any art form, mastering its nuances can take years to perfect. Take one of dim sum’s most popular dumplings – Har Gow; this traditional, pleated prawn parcel is said to be the ultimate skill test for dim sum chefs seeking to earn their stripes. Customarily, Har Gow should have a minimum of seven pleats imprinted on its wrapper. Sounds simple? Think again. The skin of the dumpling must be thin and translucent, but still durable enough so it won’t break when picked up with chopsticks.
Other critical aspects of dim sum preparation include the filling – which must be firm, the skin – which can’t be too thick, or stick to the paper inside the bamboo steamer, and the length of time for steaming – when overcooked, the skin of the dim sum begins to break and fall apart.
All dim sum fillings must be evenly blended and distributed before the artistry of origami-like folding can begin – and only then at the exact point when the dough is ready. It needs to have enough elasticity to render it translucent, and it’s a skill that can take years to perfect.
As dim sum’s popularity grew world-wide, the tradition of making it by hand is fast becoming a dying art as more and more restaurants turn to machine-made dim sum in order to keep pace with customer demand. However, those select few places – such as Shanghai Club – still value the quality and enhanced flavour of hand-made dim sum.
The arduous road to becoming a dim sum chef begins with a grueling years-long training process where new recruits to the kitchen are first put through the paces of menial labour – such as cleaning bamboo baskets – before they’re even allowed in the prep kitchen. Each station in a dim sum kitchen offers an ever-increasing degree of difficulty as trainees hone their skills and move each step closer to earning their status as a dim sum chef. Those aspiring young chefs must first perfect their skill at each station before moving to the next – they even have to master the ridges in a Har Gow dumpling before they’re even allowed to fry a spring roll.
From this training, only a chosen few are selected and taught how to properly rinse a shrimp in the way that retains its natural flavour, prepare a roll with a delicate rice flour batter, how to fold dumplings neatly and with dexterity, and how to deep-fry each dim sum to just the right hue of golden crispness.
So toss that flash-frozen pack of seafood Har Gow, or those pre-packaged Chinese dim sum, and stop by the Shangri-La Hotel, Doha’s Shanghai Club for an authentic taste of handmade tradition. And, the next time you take a satisfying crunch into a piping hot parcel, bear in mind the level of skill and artistry that goes into each morsel is anything but bite-sized.
Have you tried dim sum? Give us a like or share, and tell us your favourite dim sum variety in the comments section below. In the meantime, here’s some more info on the Shanghai Club at the Shangri-La Hotel, Doha:
Phone: (+974) 4429-5295
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