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Delicious Dim Sum - Chinese Brunch

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Steamer baskets filled with dim sum for breakfast.
Stuart McCall/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Dim Sum - A Charming Custom Originating in Chinese Teahouses:

Who hasn't spent a lazy afternoon in their favorite Chinese restaurant, sipping tea and feasting on the innumerable assortment of delicacies that make up Chinese dim sum? Literally meaning "to touch your heart," dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other goodies. They are similar to hors d'oeuvres, the hot and cold delicacies served at French restaurants.

Dim Sum Origins:

Originally a Cantonese custom, dim sum is inextricably linked to the Chinese tradition of "yum cha" or drinking tea. Teahouses sprung up to accommodate weary travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road. Rural farmers, exhausted after long hours working in the fields, would also head to the local teahouse for an afternoon of tea and relaxing conversation.

Still, it took several centuries for the culinary art of dim sum to develop. At one time it was considered inappropriate to combine tea with food: a famous 3rd century Imperial physician claimed this would lead to excessive weight gain. As tea's ability to aid in digestion and cleanse the palate became known, tea house proprietors began adding a variety of snacks, and the tradition of dim sum was born.

Today, dim sum is served throughout China. In The Taste of China, Ken Hom shares his memories of enjoying regional variations of "small eats": jiaozi in Beijing, pearl balls in Shanghai and spicy huntuns (wontons) in Szechuan province. But, he agrees with others that the best dim sum in China is found in Canton, with its wide assortment of sweet and savory dishes ranging from meatballs to sweet cakes. Still, it is probably true that the best Cantonese dim sum chefs are found not in China but in Hong Kong, where restaurants begin serving dim sum as early as 6:30 in the morning and continue through mid-afternoon.

Dim Sum – Chinese Brunch?:

In the west, dim sum came about as a natural result of 19th century Chinese immigrants - most of whom were from the Canton region - settling on the East and West coasts. Some gourmands believe that dim sum inspired the whole idea of "brunch" - combining breakfast and lunch into one large midmorning meal. It is true that the word brunch only came into existence in the late 1800's. (There's also some thought that the Denver sandwich - the quintessential cowboy snack - came about when a Chinese cook tried to adapt Eggs Foo Yung to suit western tastes).

Dim Sum Food:

But, back to dim sum. What types of foods are served at a typical dim sum lunch? Many of the dishes are either steamed or deep-fried. Among the former, you'll find everything from steamed pork spareribs and char siu bao - steamed buns with roast pork - to har gao, those wonderful shrimp dumplings with the translucent skin.

Deep-fried treats include mini spring rolls and Wu Gok, a type of taro turnover. Not to mention whatever other culinary creations the chef may come up with. At one dim sum lunch we were treated to delicious shrimp dumplings wrapped in seaweed and topped with a dollop of salmon caviar.

Finally, there's dessert. Custard tarts are a must; you may also have a choice between mango or almond pudding. All of the above are washed down with copious amounts of green tea.

Ordering Dim Sum:

If you enjoy browsing through a menu, then a restaurant that serves dim sum in the traditional style is not for you. Instead of ordering from a menu, you choose from an assortment of dishes that servers push around on carts. While it may not be evident in the hustle and bustle of the carts rolling by, there is a certain order to how dim sum is served: lighter, steamed dishes come first, followed by exotic items such as chicken's feet, then deep-fried dishes, and finally dessert. An Asian friend told me that beginning dim sum with heavier deep-fried food is a little like serving rice for dinner as the first course.

Today, most restaurants have dispensed with the cart system. Instead, when you are first seated the waitress will hand you a menu and you use a pencil to mark off which items you want and the number of orders. The food is still served at the table in steamer baskets to keep it warm. Restaurants that continue to use the traditional cart system, including a major restaurant chain in Hong Kong, have made this a selling point.

Dim Sum For Two?:

If you're looking to have a romantic lunch, then a dim sum restaurant probably isn't the best choice. First off, the atmosphere is hardly conducive to romance, what with the clattering of trays, people calling out their orders, and large groups of people talking at each table. Besides, the best way to enjoy dim sum is with a group; otherwise you'll fill up on a few items and miss the opportunity to sample everything. On the other hand, you can always take home the leftovers!
For the novice, the noisy atmosphere in a dim sum restaurant can take a bit of getting used to. But it's a great way to sample a variety of intriguing tastes and flavors. Somehow the typical Sunday brunch - with its standard fare of eggs, sausage, bacon and other dishes – can’t match the culinary appeal of Chinese dim sum.

A Sampling of Chinese Dim Sum Dishes

Char Siu Bao
Egg Custard Tarts
Flower Scallion Rolls (Hua Juan)
Har Gau
Mango Pudding
Mini Spring Rolls
Potstickers
Potstickers - Vegetarian
Sesame Seed Balls
Sesame Seed Balls - made with Sweet Potatoes
Shrimp Toast
Shu Mai
Spareribs With Hoisin Sauce
More Spareribs
Spring Rolls - Cantonese
Steamed Chicken's Feet (includes a good recipe for Honey Walnut Shrimp)
Taro Croquette

"(In Canton) the Chinese fondness for snacks and small eats reaches a kind of apotheosis." (E.N. Anderson, quoted in Ken Hom's The Taste of China)

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