A newcomer’s guide to the king of Cantonese cuisine
Dim sum. Is there anything that sums up Hong Kong food more than those two words? I spent too long in Hong Kong without sampling its delights. Now it seems barely a week goes by when I don’t spend Sunday afternoon trying to hike off the calories from the feast I’ve just eaten.
Also known as yum cha in Cantonese – literally meaning to ‘drink tea’ – the dim sum experience has always been a social one – the seniors and their newspapers in there from early morning, the families and the kids turning up for lunch and the tea-time crowd arriving in the afternoon. But where the food was once merely a side event to the tea drinking itself, the main attraction these days, is a far more gastronomically satisfying one.
With its delicately prepared, bite-sized goodness, dim sum is arguably Hong Kong’s greatest gift to the culinary world. Whether steamed, wrapped, fried or roasted, when choosing what to eat, the sheer variety and downright deliciousness of all those dishes can sometimes cause a headache for even the most experienced yum cha lovers.
With that in mind, here are ten classic dim sum dishes without which, dim sum just wouldn’t be the same. They may not be your favourites, but when you simply can’t decide what you should order, you can’t go wrong with these.
HAR GOW (蝦餃) – Steamed Shrimp Dumplings
Let’s face it, no dim sum meal is complete without a steamer of har gow. Perhaps the quintessential dim sum dish, nothing sums up the simple perfection of dim sum more than shrimp dumplings. A perfect combination of texture and taste, if done right, har gow can seem like a miracle of Cantonese cuisine. Indeed, it is often considered the dish by which the dim sum chef’s skill can be measured – crisp shrimp wrapped with chopped bamboo shoots in a thin, translucent skin, which should neither break apart as you pick them up nor stick to the paper or your chopsticks. Whether you dip it in chili sauce or just eat it as it is, har gow is as delightful an experience as dim sum offers.
SIU MAI (燒賣) – Steamed Pork Dumplings
Essentially a steamed pork dumpling wrapped with shrimp or sometimes mushroom, siu mai are one of the most recognisable of dim sum dishes. They are also one of the oldest, with a history dating back as far as 800 years to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368). Enjoyed throughout China, many variations exist, but the classic Cantonese siu mai generally comes wrapped in a yellow, dough-based wrapper, topped with orange fish or crab roe. Siu mai are so popular, in fact, that they are one of the few dim sum dishes to have made the transition from afternoon delicacy to street food snack. Most Hong Kong street food stalls sell them, usually served several in a plastic tray with a liberal dousing of soy sauce and chili oil for good measure.
CHA SIU BAO (叉燒包) – Barbecued Pork Buns
If you think cha siu bao is a one-way street to doughy dim sum heaviness, think again. For so long I shunned it in the mistaken belief that it was something it isn’t, but in the end, I couldn’t imagine dim sum without it. Not as dense as the traditional Chinese baozi, the dough of the cha siu bao is of a softer, lighter texture – a fluffy whiteness that should arrive tantalisingly cracked to reveal a sweet and steaming interior of barbecued pork filling, flavoured with some kind of wine-infused wondersauce. It’s sweeter than you might think. And there are baked versions too. But the soft and fluffy version is the classic. It’s a dim sum delight. Bow down and pray to it!
CHEUNG FUN (腸粉) – Rice Noodle Roll
Literally meaning ‘intestine noodles’ thanks to their pale, rolled aesthetic and slippery texture, cheung fun are another dim sum staple. Usually filled with shrimp, cha siu or beef, with a splash of sweet soy sauce on top, this tasty clash of textures is a testament to the versatility of rice – rice flour is mixed with tapioca and water to give the noodles their thin but springy consistency, before the mixture is steamed with its filling and rolled for serving. A street food variety of cheung fun is also hugely popular in Hong Kong. Generally having more tightly rolled noodles but served without a filling, it is the sweet sauce that is the key to this version. Either way, it’s a melt-in-your-mouth treat.
LAI WONG BAO (奶皇包) – Egg Custard Bun
There’s not a dim sum day goes by when there isn’t lai wong bao on the table. In sporting terms, it’s yet another of those dishes that invariably picks itself. Crack it open steaming hot, and either watch that yellow lava run down the whiteness of the bun, or sit back in disappointment when it doesn’t. Yes, the filling should be runny. If it isn’t, they’ve probably been waiting to be wheeled out too long. The best I ever had was at Lam Kee in Tai Po Hui Cooked Food Centre. The bun was the same rough, fluffy dough as used for cha siu bao; the custard was lighter and more custardy than I’ve had before. I’ve been waiting for an excuse to go back ever since. And I think I’ve just found it.
MA LAI GO (馬拉糕) – Steamed Sponge Cake
They say it’s all about the air – whisking enough bubbles into your mixture so that the finished article is a bouncy brown cushion of a cake. Easier said than done. But consisting of not much more than eggs, brown sugar, milk and flour, when you tear it apart all steaming and soft, you’ll no doubt be left wondering how they make it so light. As for the name, it translates in Cantonese to Malay cake, and while there may have been some vague Malaysian connection way back when, the steamed sponge cake as we know and love it nowadays, is about as typically dim sum as you can get.
TAU SI FUNG ZAO (豉汁鳳爪) – Black Bean Chicken Feet
Also known as Phoenix Claws, chicken feet are perhaps the most misunderstood of dim sum dishes. Whereas squeamish Westerners recoil at the very thought of eating such a thing, the Chinese can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Maybe it’s the idea of all those chickens walking round in their own filth and feathers that we can’t quite banish. Or maybe it’s just the way they’re eaten – no need for polite and dainty nibbling, just stick it in your mouth and spit out the bones. Either way, it’s the tender sauce-soaked skin that’s the delicacy here. Deep-fried and braised in a rich, black bean sauce, together with an assortment of herbs and spices, it’s a dish that should be tried before declined. So rediscover your sense of adventure and get involved.
LO MAI GAI (糯米雞) – Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaves
Sticky rice mixed with mushrooms, spring onions, a little ginger, soy sauce and various other seasonings, wrapped in a lotus leaf with chicken, chopped sausage and anything else that might be at hand. The package is steamed until the rice becomes chewy and infused with the flavour of the leaves, before being served hot and steaming. Lo mai gai is a classic dim sum dish. Mainly southern Chinese in origin on account of the leaves and the rice, it’s also one you can imagine having been around the longest – a simple wrap of hearty sustenance to keep you going through a long day working in the fields. It’s simple, delicious, and still incredibly popular.
LO BAK GO (蘿蔔糕) – Fried Turnip Cakes
Lo bak go is homemade dim sum at its best – shredded Chinese turnip (daikon) mixed with a rice-flour batter and fried. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside, it’s a dim sum standard. There’s usually some kind of pork or sausage thrown in the mix to add a little extra flavour, and it can be dipped in sweet chilli sauce to give it some kick. Variations can be found in places such as Fujian and Taiwan, often using taro rather than turnip, while in some southern and overseas Chinese communities, lo bak ga is eaten during Chinese New Year on account of its name sounding similar to the words ‘good fortune’. Pan-fried and cut into squares before serving, lo bak go is a familiar dish at many a yum cha session. Try it once and don’t look back.
JE ZAP GO (椰汁糕) – Coconut Jelly Pudding
In truth, this last one is a catch-all for all those delicious jelly-like desserts that dim sum has to offer. Generally of the coconut jelly variety, these chilled little treats are perfect for that post-yum cha moment when you just can’t face that single cha siu bao that remains, but a tasty bit of pudding seems like just the thing to finish things off. There are many variations on the theme, from coconut with red bean, to coconut and agar jelly and coconut with corn. In the one pictured here we have, I believe, a rather delightful coconut and osmanthus with wolfberry number. When you think you can’t eat another thing, just wait until this arrives.