On a dim sum trail: This meal might be Chinese in origin but have global appeal

Vaishali Dar
Chinese cuisine, Chinese New Year, Andrew Wong, Baoshuan, The Oberoi, Shanghai dumplings, prawn dumplings, Asian restaurant

By Vaishali Dar

Coronavirus may have dampened the spirit of the Chinese New Year, but the cuisine remains popular among all, especially the all-time favourite dim sum, a celebratory meal during the festive period. First and foremost, however, one should know the difference between dim sum and dumplings. "A dim sum meal includes rolls, buns, cakes and other assorted items… there are small plates of bite-sized morsels usually served with tea. Dumplings are pieces of dough wrapped around a filling, or no filling. Both come in a variety of fillers and can be served steamed or fried-one can eat dumplings as part of a dim sum meal," clarifies Michelin-star chef Andrew Wong, who works at Baoshuan, a Chinese rooftop restaurant at The Oberoi, New Delhi.

Interestingly, dumplings symbolise longevity and wealth as their shape resembles the gold shoe-shaped ingots, an early form of Chinese currency. "There’s always a good reason to relish this dish as it’s believed that after eating it you will live a wealthy and prosperous life," says Wong. "The Delhi crowd is emotional, expressive and typically interested in the food, stories and culture of the region," he adds. Some dim sums created by Wong include steamed seabass cooked with fermented black beans and seasoned soy sauce, besides king crab claw in a sauce made with tapioca with a dash of caviar, a classic version of peking duck and the dim sum platter.

Wong suggests us to try the Shanghai dumplings, chilli scallop and prawn dumplings, three treasure hedgehog bao and black pepper duck puff dumplings, which are a visual treat. The puff dumpling, which is made with black and green starch, butter and egg yolk, looks like a firework and melts as soon as you pop it in the mouth. The Shanghai dumplings make for a perfect bite-sized, soupy and dainty dish. "The preparation is handbeaten, so you are able to have 10 dumplings and yet feel light. The skin of the dumpling is the most difficult to make, as it should have the right transparency. It’s a collection of five different processes, made from the thinnest dough and crunchy filling," Wong says.

Full of exciting tastes and textures, these handmade bites of edible art can be savoured across the country. Xiang Bin Li, chef de cuisine, By The Mekong, a fine dining Asian restaurant at The St Regis Mumbai, for one, showcases his mother's age-old recipes, using specially imported ingredients like mountain chilli, ya cai (pickled mustard) and jujube. "I spent my childhood in Sichuan district of China, so we offer the best authentic Sichuan cuisine: Sichuan chicken, green onion oil dim sum and seafood and truffle sui mai, both are made using potato starch that makes it lighter on the palate," says Li. Sichuan chicken, green onion oil is a spicy chicken dumpling in a tangy flavour (the green onion oil is used to complement the flavour). The main ingredient in seafood and truffle sui mai is the Peruvian sea bass and prawns, with truffle added as flavour to complement the seafood.

In Bengaluru, Pradeep Rao, executive sous chef, Conrad Bengaluru, uses different flavoured doughs to make dumplings in different shapes. "Since the dumplings vary from buns, crystal dumplings, wantons and bao, we usually make them with either minced meat or vegetables stuffed in a thin elastic dough and steam them," Rao says, adding that the best way to place dumplings is to arrange them in a line instead of a circle, as the latter means that one’s life will go round in circles!

The Asian Wok, Grand Hyatt Goa, offers har gow, a crystal skin dumpling with lobster/prawn filling; sui mai, open-face dumplings with chicken/local vegetables (cabbage, carrot, corn); and potstickers, which are pan-seared and flavoured with sesame.

History explains that in the third century in southern China, travellers would stop at teahouses for refreshments and the custom was to have tea with steamed or fried dim sum, also called ‘yum cha’. For such an experience, chef Harangad Singh of Pra Pra Prank in Gurugram offers a range of fillings and ingredients. "The teahouses established along the ancient Silk Road served as places for travellers to rest. People later discovered that tea can aid in digestion, so teahouse owners began adding various snacks and this, eventually, evolved into the modern yum cha practice. The modern form of dim sum is believed to have originated in Guangzhou and later transmitted southward to Hong Kong, whose people, over the centuries, transformed yum cha from a relaxing respite to a formal dining experience," explains Singh, who at his innovative best offers vegetarian delights like spicy mushroom with butter garlic sauce in asparagus, carrot, sweet corn and broccoli encased in a dumpling (wrapped in custard and starch skin), which is served on a bed of garlic tempered with butter.

Also in Gurugram, Viet:Nom serves banh bao vac, a speciality of the Hoi An region of Vietnam. Resembling a white rose, the dumpling has a translucent layer made with tapioca and is filled with shrimp paste. It’s best paired with nuoc cham, a sweet and spicy sauce. The prawn and herb dumpling is inspired by the diversity of the different herbs that are grown in Vietnam. Prawns are minced with various Vietnamese herbs (like sisho, basil, Vietnamese coriander, etc) and wrapped with a royal velvet starch covering. The dumplings are then steamed with tobiko sauce in red-orange colour to give a mild smoky taste and a crunchy texture.

Miss Nora, a pan-Asian speciality restaurant in Delhi, balances the flavours and ingredients quite well in its Beijing dumplings, bok choy and tofu dumplings, and duck dumplings, bringing freshly-produced wheat starch, Hong Kong flour and rice flour (imported from China) in a piquant filling. For the peking duck dumpling, for instance, the duck is slow braised in Xioxing wine and Chinese herbs for three hours and then pulled apart for the filling (home-made dips, made from mirin and sake, complement the dumplings). Even the vegetable purées are made from beetroot, spinach and garlic chives that add great colour to the dish.

As far as varieties of dumplings are concerned, the sky seems to be the limit. Pa Pa Ya in Delhi recently launched a special menu with as many as 68 varieties. Some of these include chili cumin lamb (crystal dumplings made with potato and starch, and stuffed with chili cumin lamb); wilted spinach bok choy (crystal dumplings made with potato and wheat starch, and stuffed with bok choy and wilted spinach); glutinous rice chicken leg (glutinous rice-coated chicken leg dumplings steamed in stock); assorted veg jiozi (pan-seared dumplings made with assorted vegetables); chicken and bok choy (crystal dumplings made with potato and wheat starch); carrot truffle and cream cheese dim sum; and Lao Mai Gai (classic lotus leaf-wrapped glutinous rice dumplings available in a choice of fillings, including veg, chicken, prawn, lamb, fish and pork).

While some chefs are replacing traditional meats for the filling by gourmet ones like Atlantic black cod, Iberico pork, Atlantic scallops, Alaskan king crabs, etc, others are dishing out healthier alternatives. Take, for instance, chef Sagar Bajaj of Plum by Bentchair restaurant in Delhi, who offers gluten-free options. "Quinoa chicken and cherry bird eye chilly chicken dumpling is a gluten-free, high-in-protein option," the chef says.

Peter Tseng, brand chef, Soy Soi restaurant in Chennai and Gurugram, on the other hand, dishes out a truffled edamame (immature green soybeans usually in the pod) dumpling with water chestnuts, topped with togarashi spice, and a crispy prawn with fresh rice noodle roll with chestnut and shiitake in black vinegar and ginger soya. "We are careful of not altering the essence of the dumplings and make a delicate morsel with subtle flavours," he says.