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Dim Sum: Appetizers of Your Heart's Desire

by Wonona Wong Chang

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 21 and 22


Dim sum in Cantonese and Dien sing in Mandarin mean: Pointing to your heart's desires. These words mean Chinese appetizers and snacks. Although prepared all over China. I think that none of these food items can compare to those of Cantonese origin. Why, because of their attention to and respect for ingenuity, imagination, resourcefulness, and inventive spirit. These Dim sum/Dien sing foods truly are wonderful treats offering a wide range of taste, flavor, and variety.

Cantonese dim sum are produced in different shapes, textures, and types and can be bite-sized, salty, or sweet. They often have a pastry skin and are filled with seafood, chicken, pork, or beef. The vegetarian ones can be filled with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, sweet red bean paste, or sesame butter paste. All of these wrapped goodies can be steamed, baked, or fried, or even braised in aromatic and succulent sauces to achieve special flavor, color, and mouth-watering appeal. They offer an appeal that Chinese call "Heart''s Desire." Restaurants that specialize in dim sum offer up to sixty different items on any given day.

For those not brought up in the Chinese tradition, be advised that there are also non-pastry covered offerings, some considered odd to westerners such as Phoenix Feet from chickens (fung tso), Duck Tongues (op lea), and Beef Tripe (ngo ba yip). To help readers understand what dim sum really is, let me classify them into eleven groups, the most popular kinds, that is.

1. Salty Dim Sum (ham dim sum)
This is the largest group including Shrimp Dumplings (har gao), Pork Dumplings (shu mai), Beef Rolls with Oyster Sauce (sing jok guan), Fried Taro with Shrimp (yu har), Turnip Cake (lo bak gow), Spring Rolls or Egg Rolls (chuen guan), Barbecued Beef Sticks (satay), Stuffed Green Peppers (yong la chu), and a dumping stuffed with pork, mushrooms, and water chestnuts (fun goh); also one can have Shrimp Toast.
2. Sweet Dim Sum (tiem dim)
This is a relatively small group and includes Bean Curd Jelly (hang yen do fo fa), Coconut Cream Squares (yea tsup go), Egg Custard Cup (dan ta), and Water Chestnut Squares (ma ti go).
3. Steamed Buns (tsen bao)
These buns are stuffed with roast pork (cha shu bao), chicken (gai bao), Chinese sausage (la chong guan), lotus seed paste (lien yung bao), or they can be filled with red or black bean paste (do sa bao).
4. Special Dim Sum (dot dim)
Steamed Sweet Rice--made with chicken and black mushrooms--in Lotus Leaf (o mai gai), Phoenix Feet (fung tso), Duck Tongues (op lea), and Beef Tripe (ngo tsop).
5. Panfried Noodles (chow mein)
Noodles with Shrimp--or chicken (har chow mein or gai chow mein), Noodles with Pork--or beef (ju yok chow mein or ngo yuk chow mein), and E fu Noodles with Crab Meat (hai wong e fu mein).
6. Sauteed Broad Noodles (chow ho fun)
Sauteed Beef with Broad Noodles--with no gravy (gon chow ho fun) and Sauteed Beef with Vegetables--with gravy (sup chow ho fun). Broad noodles can also be combined with pork, chicken, or shrimp, however, those made with beef are best known.
7. Sauteed Rice Noodles (cho mai fun)
Singapore Sauteed Rice Noodles are curry flavored (Singapore chow mei fun) while Amoy Sauteed Rice Noodles are not curry flavored (fu gian chow mai fun).
8. Noodles in Soup (tong mein)
Shrimp with Noodles (har tong mein), Ham and Vegetables with Noodles (fo twei tong mein), Chicken, Pork, or Beef with Noodles (ju yok or ngo yok tong mein), and Pork with Preserved Vegetables and Rice Noodles (ju yok or ngo yok tong mein).
9. Fried Rice (chow fan)
Yangzhou Fried Rice, Fried Rice with Shrimp, Roast Pork (cha shu), and Salted Fish Fried Rice with Chicken (ham yu gai lop chow fan).
10. Congee with Fried Puff (jok yu tieo) Congee, also known as rice porridge, is served with preserved egg and an item called fried puff. There is no equivalent to fried puff in Western cuisine. The puff is a wheat stick, that on frying expands and blisters. It can be dunked in thin Congee as one dunks a donut in coffee.
11. Single servings entrees over white rice Diced Pork Ribs--made with fermented black beans and white rice, Squid with Preserved Mustard Greens, also served with white rice, as is Beef with Broccoli. These offerings are often served at coffee houses for single person meals.

Should you wonder what goes well with dim sum, be advised that tea is the beverage of choice because of its delicate scent and flavor; it does not overwhelm the taste and delicious aroma of these snack/appetizer foods.

A few popular teas that go well with this type of meal are Jasmine (hiong pieni), Dragon Well (lung jing), Smoked Black Dragon, and/or poo nay from Yunnan. The latter can be served alone or mixed with dried chrysanthemum flowers that give the poo nay extra dimension in fragrance and aroma. This latter variety is regarded as a powerful tonic. Chinese people believe that all hot teas gets the stomach juices flowing helping digestion of a hearty meal.

In Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South Sea Islands, dim sum is served from seven in the morning until noon and considered the morning meal (tso cha). After noon, this offering is called afternoon tea (an cha). The latter often ends late in the afternoon just in time for restaurants to get ready for the evening meal. In New York City, in Flushing Queens, and in Chinatowns throughout the country, there are many dim sum restaurants, tea houses, and coffee shops that serve dim sum meals as early as eight in the morning. Restaurants that do not make these special foods their main business, often serve some on week-ends. Those places and other Chinese restaurants frequently begin serving at eleven in the morning; on week-ends, dim sum usually finishes at three in the afternoon.

A dim sum meal is casual and very enjoyable. On week-ends, in places that serve it, it is common to see whole families with three, even four generations seated at the same table, tiny babies in tow. They are having a great time getting up-to-date on family affairs.

Cantonese call these meals Yum Cha, which means drink tea while those speaking Mandarin say Tse Dien Sing or: ''eat appetizers.'' At them, as the eating continues, conversation gets more interesting, and the noise level picks up.

When you go to such a meal, wait for waiters and waitresses (usually the latter) to push their carts of dim sum around. From them, pick what you like and eat to your heart's desire. You will see lots of people having a good time, which in Cantonese is yit now and means: 'hot and noisy.'

Once, I sat at a table next to an elderly lady ready to dine with ten people. The adults that had already arrived were chatting happily with their children and grandchildren. I said to her, nei tsen ho fo kei meaning: 'You really are blessed.' She smiled and replied with pride, hai ngo ge dzai hai da isun telling me: 'Yes, my son is a big doctor and he takes us to yum cha every week.' When her son came in, I told him, "You really are a good son. I understand that you are a doctor." He commented, perhaps in truth or in modesty, "Oh, I am a dentist working in Chinatown." It made me think of my classmate and her husband who live in San Francisco with their son and daughter-in-law. She would often remind me not to call during certain hours on week-ends because she said she would be out with her family for yum cha.

Yum cha is part of a tradition well ingrained in Chinese culture. It serves to bridge the gap between generations and gives families chances to know each other better. No matter how noisy and chaotic the restaurant, they and you can be at peace with the world in a dim sum house.

For those who prefer a quiet dim sum party, stay at home and enjoy the challenge of making your own. Hunt through the frozen food section of Chinese grocery stores for favorite varieties. Better yet, some small stores take orders from customers who can pick up items they get from suppliers. Jenny Wu's Pan Asia in Parsippany, New Jersey is one such store I have used.

Depending upon the type of dim sum you purchase, I know that most may be warmed by steaming, baking, or frying. They generally taste nearly as good as those served in restaurants but not up to the quality achieved if they are made at home. For those like to try their hand, here are a few recipes to try.

Note 1: Transliterations in thie article are in Cantonese.
Note 2: The recipe for the Spring Rolls (Egg Rolls) can be found in the recipe index. It was in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 2(4) on page 4. That was the December 1995 issue.
Har Gow are Shrimp Dumplings III
Ingredients:
1 and 1/2 cups wheat starch
1/2 cup tapioca flour
dash of salt
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound fresh shrimp
1 Tablespoon dry sherry
1 small can water chestnuts, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon chopped scallions
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons sesame oil, to taste
dash of black pepper
Dough Preparation:
1. To make the dough for the wrappings, sift starch, flour, and salt into a bowl. Pour one and a half cups of boiling water into this mixture and mix well with chopsticks. Let stand five to ten minutes.
2. Knead dough until smooth and elastic for about two minutes; add oil and knead again until well mixed.
3. Divide the dough into four parts and roll each of them into a long cylinder. Cut each cylinder and roll into a ball then flatten with the cleaver to make wrappers about two and a half inches in diameter.
Dumpling Preparation:
1. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix well making the filing.
2. Fill each dumpling with one to one and a half teaspoons of filling. Repeat until all filling is used up.
3. Pleat or gather each wrapper into a one-half-inch basket shape around the filling and shape and seal off the top.
4. Put the sealed dumplings in a well-greased round cake pan lined with one or more large leaves of lettuce. Then put the pan in a steamer and steam over boiling water for about ten minutes.
5. Serve with hoisin sauce, if desired.
Makes about 40 dumplings.
Four-color Shui Mai II
Ingredients:
30 skins or wrappers (if frozen, defrost and bring them to room temperature)
1/4 pound ground pork
1 cup chopped bamboo shoots
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch
dash black pepper
1/2 to 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
4 black mushrooms
3 Tablespoons dried shrimp
3 Tablespoons chopped Virginia ham
3 Tablespoons chopped spinach (if using frozen spinach, squeeze well)
Preparation:
1. Cover defrosted or fresh wrappers with a damp cloth.
2. For the filling, combine pork and bamboo shoots and mix well with the salt, cornstarch, pepper and sesame oil. Set aside.
3. Soak mushrooms in warm water until soft, about fifteen to thirty minutes, discard their stems and chop into tiny pieces.
4. Rinse the shrimp and soak in warm water until soft, chop fine.
5. To stuff the dumplings, place a small portion of the meat filling on each skin or wrapper and pinch each one together leaving four holes or openings on the top. Fill each hole with a tiny bit of mushrooms, shrimp, spinach, and ham, respectively.
6. Place the finished dumplings on a steamer shelf lined with large leaves of lettuce or a doubled piece of cheesecloth. Steam for 15 minutes, then serve hot, and with hoisin sauce, if desired.
Makes 30 shu mai dumplings.
Note: Skins, also called wrappers, can be purchased fresh or frozen in Chinese grocery stores. If they are unavailable, the wrapper skins for wontons or egg rolls (cut in quarters), can be used.
Shrimp Toast II
Ingredients:
1 pound shrimp, deviened and minced fine
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 Tablespoon chopped scallions
1 egg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 can (6 ounces) water chestnuts, minced 14 to 16 slices white bread, toasted
vegetable oil for deep frying
Preparation:
1. Mix all ingredients except the toast and the oil for deep frying.
2. Spread the shrimp mixture on the toast.
3. Heat oil to 300 F, then fry toast slices a few at a time and with the shrimp side down for two minutes; then turn toast over and fry a minute more. Remove and drain on paper towels.
4. Cut each slice into four pieces.
Note: Shrimp toast can be made ahead and frozen; if you do, reheat at 375 F degrees for ten minutes. They can be served hot or cold, but hot is really better. And meat and other vegetables can be included.

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