Growing up, my favourite part about weekend mornings was when my parents brought me out for a dimsum breakfast. I loved the hustle and bustle of the dining floor, filled with the chatter of patrons and the clink of plates and chopsticks. I loved the towering baskets of bamboo steamers piled up high on carts that were wheeled to each table, where diners got to pick out their favourite items. But most of all, I loved savouring the dimsum itself: delicious bite-sized morsels that are either steamed, fried or baked. It’s no wonder the literal translation for dimsum is ‘touch the heart’!
As an adult, I still love dimsum, and even though the pandemic has changed the way we dine, I still find myself getting dimsum for takeaway every now and then to satisfy my cravings.
For those unfamiliar with Cantonese cuisine, ordering dim sum can feel like a daunting task, what with the bewildering array of choices available. But fret not: here’s a handy dimsum guide that will help you to tell your siew mai apart from your siew loong bao (and perhaps impress your Cantonese friends while you’re at!)
**Spellings may differ slightly depending on which country you’re from; I’m using the versions most common to where I live. Also, I’ve only listed 12 types; otherwise this would turn into a compendium lol.
You can’t go to a dimsum resto and not order a basket of har gao. These shrimp dumplings are distinguished by their slightly translucent wrapper and delicate pleats. The wrapper is made from rice flour, which gives it a slightly chewy texture that contrasts perfectly with the juicy, crunchy shrimps enveloped within. A good har gao should not stick to the bottom of the steamer, and the skin should be thin enough to see-through, but thick enough that it doesn’t break when you lift it with your chopsticks.
Next to har gao, siew mai is another must-have at every table. Like the har gao, the siew mai is also a ‘dumpling’, but a different kind altogether. The filling typically contains ground pork and whole or chopped shrimp, sometimes paired with ingredients such as mushrooms, chives, bamboo shoots or water chestnuts (for that added crunch). The wrapper is made from lye dough and is either yellow or white; sometimes it has a slightly sweet taste. To garnish, crab roe or diced carrot is used to form a dot at the top of the dumpling.
Char Siew Bao
These barbecued pork buns are my husband’s favourite. In the Philippines, where the hubs is from, they are known as siopao, and the pork filling is usually red in colour. Here in Malaysia, a dark filling is more common; although tastewise, I think they are quite similar. The filling is savoury with a hint of sweetness, thanks to the marinade of oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar and roasted sesame seed oil.
Although char siew bao looks similar to baozi (traditional Chinese steamed buns), the texture of the former is different, as the dough uses yeast and baking powder as leavening, making it dense but fluffy.
Siew Loong Bao
While the name means ‘mini basket buns’, siew loong bao (or xiaolongbao) are actually soup dumplings. Traditionally a dish from Jiangsu, it is often associated with Shanghainese cuisine. The dumplings are also very popular in Taiwan, thanks to brands like Din Tai Fung, who have also popularised it in the West, so much so that they are sometimes called Taiwanese soup dumplings.
So, how does one fill a dumpling with soup? Chefs use a solid meat aspic (sort of like a gelatin cube), which they stuff together with ground pork into the thin wrapper before steaming. The heat from the cooking process then melts the aspic, creating a savoury soup. There’s supposed to be a ‘proper’ way to eat siew loong bao; ie you poke a hole in the skin, slurp up the soup, put a couple of ginger slices on then dip it into vinegar before consuming whole – but I say food is to be enjoyed, so eat it as you like. Just don’t burn your tongue on hot soup!
Fung Jao (Phoenix Talons)
A lofty name for chicken feet braised with black bean sauce. Some consider it a delicacy, and if you’re not used to eating parts like feet, this dish might be a tad … adventurous. The black bean sauce is savoury and sweet, masking any unpleasant odours. There’s not much meat on the feet, but plenty of skin, cartilage and tendons, so if you enjoy gelatinous textures, then dig in. If you’re really skilled, take a big bite – then elegantly spit out the small bones.
Since Canton (Guangdong) is close to the sea, a lot of dishes in Cantonese cuisine use seafood. Har Guen, or fried shrimp rolls, is one of them. Shrimps are wrapped with dried beancurd sheets (fu pei) into rolls, then deep fried to crispy perfection. To suit modern tastes, dimsum shops often serve them with dips like mayonnaise and garlic chilli sauce.
Chee Cheong Fun
Many dimsum items are bite-sized, so if you’re looking for something more substantial, there’s chee cheong fun, ie steamed rice noodle rolls. The name actually means ‘pig intestine noodles’, since they look like pig intestines. Chee cheong fun starts off as a ‘sheet’: a mixture of rice flour, tapioca or glutinous rice flour plus water is poured over a special flat pan. The heat causes it to solidify; it is then rolled into its signature long shape and sliced. The noodles are very versatile, and different places serve different versions, but the ones you find at dimsum shops are usually served plain and drizzled over with soy sauce, or stuffed with shrimp (no surprise) or barbecued pork. Here in Malaysia, dimsum restos often add sambal or chilli on top.
Lo Mai Gai
My dad and brother are typical Asians. Rice is a must have at every meal, which is why they always order this glutinous rice dish whenever we have dimsum. Traditionally, the rice, together with ingredients like mushroom, Chinese sausage and pork is wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed, giving it a fragrant aroma – but modern versions use an aluminium foil bowl so that it’s easier to remove (sourcing for lotus leaves is probably an expensive endeavour too). The rice has a chewy texture with a sticky ‘glaze’ to it.
Lo Bak Go
“Lo bak” refers to carrots, but these savoury ‘cakes’ are actually made from Chinese radish. Water, rice flour and starch is added to mashed radish roots to form squares, which are then deep fried. Sometimes ingredients like dried shrimp, dried mushrooms, Chinese sausage and jinhua ham are added to give it more flavour. The starch/flour gives the cakes a crisp, brown coating, whilst retaining a soft but solid consistency throughout. Chao lo bak go is essentially the same, but stir fried with vegetables like bean sprouts and chilli instead of deep fried.
Lao Sar Bao
My personal favourite, lao sar bao (molten lava bun) is a relatively new creation to grace the menus of dim sum restaurants. Popularised in recent years due to the salted egg yolk custard craze, these steamed buns are soft and fluffy with a sweet and creamy filling of mashed salted egg yolks. The filling is a wonderful balance between sweet and salty, and although it has a sandy texture on the tongue (due to the egg yolk mash), it still slides down your throat effortlessly. There’s almost a sensual quality when you tear the buns apart and watch as the filling oozes out. Hmmh.
Deep fried yam puffs? Comfort food at its best. The pastry has a croquette-like texture, in that it’s flaky and crumbly rather than firm like other types of deep fried dumplings. At first bite, you get a light and crispy texture on the outside, before moving on to the smooth, paste-like consistency of the yam. Finally, there’s the juicy centre of moist pork and vegetables.
Of course, we can’t round off the meal without dessert. Dan taat, or Cantonese egg tarts are inspired by English tarts and the Portuguese pastel de nata; a vestige of British colonial influence in Canton / Hong Kong, as well as Portuguese influence in Macao. While dan taat isn’t traditional dimsum per se (it was only sold beginning the early 20th century), it is a staple on many dimsum restaurant menus today, as well as in Hong Kong-style char chaan tengs (coffeeshops). Making the pastry is tedious process, as it requires multiple folding to get that flaky texture, and a careful baking process to ensure the custard is perfect. I can’t imagine a more fitting dessert to end a dim sum feast.
And there you have it! This is by no means a comprehensive guide: there are literally dozens if not over a hundred different types of dimsum, some of which even I have not tasted before. But hopefully, if you haven’t been to a dimsum resto before, this will give you a better idea of some dishes to order and make the experience less intimidating.
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