Dining on Dim Sum

Order to your heart's content...

Order to your heart's content

Dim sum. Not my favorite kind of food, as I admitted to Chefs Huang Zhiwen and Suresh of Zen at the Leela. As usual, I was about to have my mind changed in the most spectacular way possible.

To me, dim sum has always conjured up images of teeny-tiny, bite-size morsels of food – hardly enough to feed a monstrous appetite like mine. As I am seated at a spare yet elegant table, I resign myself to following up my meal with heartier fare once I get home.

Chef Huang hails from China. He speaks very little English, and I wonder whether I will be able to communicate easily.  I needn’t have worried. After a brief exchange with Chef Huang about Bangalore (he claims he likes it) Chef Suresh fills me in on all the dim sum details.

Dim sum, apparently, is a Cantonese word that means “dot heart” or “order heart,” implying that you can order to your heart’s content. The dim sum tradition involves ordering or partaking from a series of steamed, pan-fried or deep-fried dumplings, rice-flour rolls, rice rolls, and buns stuffed with a variety of meats or vegetables. The stuffings are almost always diced fine by hand, seasoned with salt and pepper, and pan-fried with a smidgen of sesame oil.

Here’s a newsflash for diehard dim sum fans who head out to their favorite dim sum restaurant for dinner: in China, dim sum is only eaten as breakfast, brunch, or at best, lunch. It is always accompanied with tea – exotic (at least to me!) delicately aromatic varieties served piping hot in tiny ceramic mugs. I try to ascertain whether there’s a specific reason for “yum cha“, or “drinking tea.” Is it meant to cleanse the palate between morsels? Does it aid digestion? Is it a health thing? “We drink tea because we like it,” says chef Huang, refusing to assign the beverage any deeper significance.

Tea-drinking Legend

Zen serves a seemingly exhaustive number of varieties of tea. Overwhelmed, I go with the first tea listed in the menu. It is subtle, with nuances too delicate to pin down with mere words. In a while, a bowl of soup is placed before me. Considering that I’m expecting to be served something more on the lines of Tibetan momos or wontons, I am rather surprised. I am told that dim sum meals are almost always consumed with soup or congee (a thicker, more porridge-like version of the desi congee.) I rummage around in my soup and find: abalone, chicken breast, huge shiitake mushrooms, and something unfamiliar that resembles a rubbery, lacy fan. Chef Suresh soon assuages my curiosity. He tells me that I am poking at a fish maw, the sun dried, deep-fried stomach lining of a large fish. Since I’ve already claimed to eat “anything that moves”, I am honor-bound to eat it. To my surprise, I find that I actually like it. Amend that – I really like it. It reminds me of the supple-yet-crunchy texture of fresh-cooked wood-ear fungus. The fish maw has absorbed the delicate flavors of the broth – and while my eyes are closed in appreciation, a basket of dim sum arrives at our table.

I reluctantly tear my attention away from the aromatic soup to examine Chef Huang’s first offering: four innocuous little dumplings in a bamboo steam basket. I think to myself that I’m going to have to eat an embarrassing number of those to even take the edge off my hunger. The impossibly thin, translucent dumpling wrappers are made from cornflour forcing them to quickly reveal the treasure they contain: a mixture of lightly seasoned prawn and bamboo shoot.

In the face of my insistence that cornflour plus water equals pasty mess, Chef Huang positions himself behind the counter and proceeds to demonstrate how cornflour plus hot water equals very pliable dough. He fashions the dough into a sausage-sized cylinder, cuts off a slice, and gives it a few good, hard whacks with a gigantic cleaver. “From China,” he grins, as he brandishes the knife in my direction. Lifting the resultant wafer-thin round of dough, he reverently places just the right amount of stuffing in it and uses deft fingers to fashion a perfectly crimped dumpling. Uttering the Cantonese version of “voila!” he tops the little morsel off with a kiss of flying fish roe.

Dim Sum Etiquette

The first steam basket is followed in quick succession by steamed and pan-fried dumplings containing chicken, prawns, fish roe, and minced vegetables. Each basket contains four dumplings – I exercise restraint and limit myself to just one from each serving. Okay, okay, so I ate two of the fish roe dumplings… The dumplings are meant to be dunked in the light soy-based dipping sauce. You can also season them to your taste with black bean, chilli, or vinegar condiments.

Dumpling wrappers can be made from a variety of ingredients and may be leavened or unleavened. Cornflour, flour, rice flour, wheat flour – almost anything, it seems, can be fashioned into a dumpling skin. Which brings us to taro, a yam-like tuber that Chef Huang insists on importing from China. Amongst all the dumplings I tasted, I found these to be the most interesting. The chicken stuffing is encased in dough of taro flour and then deep fried. The exterior of the casing is fluffy and crisp, and quick literally melts in the mouth to reveal a pasty interior that perfectly complements the chicken stuffing.

To my surprise, I notice that I’m actually starting to feel sated. When the somewhat sweet and bread-like “barbecue pork buns” are served, I’m hard-pressed to consume more than one. Chef Huang then sends out a crab-stuffed rice-roll. “Must try,” he insists. These rolls are made by pouring rice flour paste on a muslin cloth draped over steaming water. The meat is dropped on the crepe as it begins to form, and the whole is then upended and rolled into small, cigar-sized crepe rolls. It looks and tastes impossibly light – but it isn’t. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve eaten all I can.

Nevertheless, I cannot resist Chef Suresh’s offer of green tea ice-cream, which is served with a sweet, deep-fried and sesame-seed encrusted dumpling stuffed with lotus seed paste. The dumpling is not usually served as dessert; the Chinese do not distinguish between sweet and savory dumplings, ordering them in no specific order as part of their meal.

The feast is finally over, and it’s all I can do to get myself out of my chair. I bid both chefs “joi geen” (Cantonese for “see you”) instead of farewell; I know I’m going to be back.

First published in Taste and Travel ’07

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