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Chinese Snack Foods

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Dim Sum and Other Snack Foods

Spring Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(1) pages: 20 to 22

Dim Sum is Chinese snack food and since the 10th century, if not before, the Chinese have delighted in devouring dumplings. They are just one of their many snack foods, also known as dim sum, if they are Southern Chinese. Their Northern relatives call them dien tsin; and they love them, too. Over many centuries, the numbers and different kinds have increased. So have their deliciousness, and the tradition of enjoying them earlier rather than later in the day.

And in China’s North, many use wrappings made with wheat or another grain or grains, some seasoned or dipped in vinegar or in a more complex sauce to be appetite stimulants. More so in the north, many look like or taste like a bread, bun, cake, noodle, or a pancake. These are heavier than those in the South of China, can have a more meatier filling, and can be made with less finesse. In China’s West, they also like them heavier, spicier and more complex, too. Some are filled with hot green or red peppers to make them piquant stimulating the appetite increasing the desire to eat more of them.

In China’s south, these snacks are more delicate, more often steamed, some slow-cooked, grilled, or served with or in a soup. The most popular ones in Shanghai are called Soup Dumplings. They are made with cold gelled soup that melts when steamed. There, diners need to be careful when biting into them as they can scald lips, tongue, and mouth very easily.

All regions can have some doufu (which will be featured in a future issue) in them or look that way. They might feature duck, goose, seafood, or fish in them, there they are smaller, some even tiny, many three to a steamer basket. They are cooked quickly, some pan fried then steamed, even deep-fried. They might also be three on a plate, hot or warm, rarely cold, and always yummy.

Cantonese brought these delights to the US and the western world about the mid 1850s. They quickly caught on and were served in larger and larger restaurants just featuring these snack foods. The kinds and numbers did keep increasing, as did the number of folks in the kitchen making them. Not uncommon these days are dozens making them, dozens serving them from wheeled wagons or trays, and dozens eating them.

There are regional differences, if from Nanjing they might have originated in the Temple of Confucius or feeding local merchants in local tea houses, wine taverns, or various other eateries in their local neighborhoods. All are commonly considered ‘snack foods’ that are most often served from early morning to some time after two or three in mid-afternoon. A few appear do appear before or in the middle of main meal time or when groups gather any time.

From Guangzhou to Beijing can be large restaurants touting fifty or more varieties available on week-ends and holiday in particular. One finds them wherever Cantonese and other Southern Chinese live, visit, or gather to eat. They are in Singapore, London, San Francisco, New York, and other large cities, and they are very popular. Going to one, people can wait an hour for a table, come with a newspaper and save seats for late-arriving family or friends, and be there for an hour or more, eating, talking, reading, and relaxing. We know this as we go as often as we can to do all three.

These delicacies come around the establishment carried on trays or pushed in wagons by waitresses. Those younger than this more than eighty-year-old lady do not remember the empty plates counted and the bill tallied at them in years gone by. That was done when someone on the wait staff tallied them and advised of the payment needed. Nowadays, the system is lots different. Then, some did reduce the cost secreting several empty plates in a big purse or bag they arrived with. These days, a waiter or waitress stamps foods delivered and when finished eating those selected, they tally the tariff on what began as a blank check. Some places have even more sophisticated systems.

Customers can order the tea they want to accompany these delights, even noodle or rice dishes, too, though often not before the noon hour. Large places can have several sections cooking them for customers to walk to, ticket in hand, to choose heated foods or those to be cooked for them. Most larger restaurants have green, black, chrysanthemum, pu-er, or an other special tea available; they cost more than the setting or simple oolong or woolong offered at a modest price.

Many books about these large tea-houses explain many things available, some even have recipes to make them at home, or know what they are made of should you want to know about some of the less well- known selections available such as Beef Soup with Stuffed Dumplings, Sesame Seed Cakes with Dried Noodles, Jellied Bean Curd with Scallion Pancakes, Osmanthus Flower-stuffed Yuanxiao with Five-colored Cakes, Layered Duck-oil Sesame Seed Cakes, Spiced Beans and Spiced Eggs, Pork and Pent Dumplings, Smoked Fish with Silver Threads, Jade Dumplings with Asparagus, Crab Meat Buns. Fujianese Rice-flour Rolls, or other things beyond simple Scallion Pancakes, Shao Mai, Taro or Turnip Cakes. Pork Buns, Egg Rolls, Har Gao, etc.

One does not need to spend a fortune at these big eatery places. My husband says that lots less than twenty dollars a person is what he shells out when going to one with all of us. He says their pastries, buns, and other things in bamboo baskets most often cost him fifteen or up to twenty dollars a person, more at the table can cost even less. He should know as our family leaves stuffed to the gills these many years we indulged in them.

Each person in our varied size party usually picks out a few choices after seeing them arrive on trays or wagons when coming to our table. We know they cost only a few dollars each, and he says he never spends a fortune, rarely has left-overs, and he deems these dim sum meals a bargain. Most of us select from the food that comes around, once in a while, we get up to order something that did not, Shanghai Soup Dumplings often among those items that we want and did not make it to our table. Scallion Pancakes is another item often failing to appear. Over the years, we have learned to try to order slowly so things do not get cold. If someone has a favorite, they ask a server for it soon after thinking of it. We still try to eat slowly but often are not successful so doing as we arrive starved and the aromas do get our appetites working. Though small, if an item looks big, we ask the server to cut it in half, and they oblige, and still we over eat when having dim sum.

For those who are serious about enjoying such an event, think cocktail party, big buffet, or another feast, go to your local library to borrow some books about this special Chinese meal, those with pictures work best as then you can recognize their shapes as these are classic. Then you will be prepared to identify them. Try them and then you can know what they will taste like.

Some advise before you go. Do not eat breakfast beforehand, go early but not before ten in the morning or the selection can be limited, the best time is about 11:00 or thereafter, eat slowly, go to the bigger more popular places, and do be prepared to wait for a table. There are some articles about these snack foods on many a web site, read them and get yourself educated, and enjoy these snack meals, You can read about them on this magazine’s web site at www.flavorandfortune.com.

Scallion Pancakes

3½ cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup scallions, slivered on an angle
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon ground white and black pepper, mixed


1. Mix flour with one and a quarter cup warm water and knead until smooth (about five minutes), then let the dough rest for an hour before rolling it into a snake, and cutting it into ten pieces, and rolling each into a half-inch thick circle.
2. Brush with the oil and sprinkle with scallions, salt, and ground peppers. Gently roll these into the dough, and roll the circles into a snake and coil them into a round tucking each end into the coil, then roll this coil again to about an eighth of an inch thickness, brush each with come sesame oil, and stack them.
3. Heat a fry pan, brush some oil on it, then fry each one on both sides until golden. Repeat until all are fried; drain each one and put them on paper towels. Serve while hot or very warm.

Crab Meat Buns

½ pound ground pork
½ pound crab meat, cartilage removed
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoons thin soy sauce
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine
1 egg white, mixed with 1 teaspoon cool water
2 teaspoons cornstarch
30 to 40 round dumpling wrappers
6 lettuce leaves, divided


1. Mix all ingredients and put them in a strainer over a deep bowl; set this aside for twenty minutes.
2. Wet edges of the wrappers and fill each one with scant two teaspoons of minced pork-crab meat mixture.
3. Fold dough in half, and seal or pleat the wrappers
4. Put half lettuce leaves on a steamer basket, put buns no touching each other on half the lettuce leaves and steam for twelve minutes, then serve on a lettuce leaf-lined flat plate.

Bao Spring Rolls

½ pound shrimp, put into a pot of three cups of water, veins discarded, shrimp cut into slivers
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
½ pound firm doufu, slivered, and fried until almost crisp
1 small can bamboo shoots, drained and slivered
1 carrot, peeled and slivered
4 cups fresh cabbaged. Slivered then cut into one-inch pieces
½ cup snow peas, strings and ends discarded, slivered
1/4 cup slivered dried seaweed sheets
1 large garlic clove, peeled and slivered
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
10 round spring roll pieces of dough
1 Tablespoon chili paste
1 Tablespoon coarse mustard
2 cilantro sprigs, minced


1. Simmer shrimp heads and shells in two cups of water for ten minutes, then strain and set the liquid aside.
2. Heat oil and fry shrimp bamboo shoot, carrot, cabbage, snow pea, seaweed, and garlic slivers stirring them for five minutes, then sprinkle with salt, sugar, and rice wine.
3. On a spring roll, lightly brush a little chili paste and mustard, put two Tablespoons of the shrimp and vegetable filling, fold in the ends and roll, putting a little water on the end to seal them, and put each one seam side down on a clean plate.
4. Brush a fry pan with oil, and fry the rolls until a very light golden color. Cut each in half on an angle, put them closed ends down in a shallow soup bowl and serve.

Pork and Peanut Dumplings

1 pound ground pork
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 cup vegetable oil
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 ribs Chinese celery, minced
5 water chestnuts, minced
½ teaspoon mixed salt and black pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ cup minced coriander leaves and stems
½ cup chopped roasted peanuts
30 - 40 dumpling skins
1 egg white mixed with a tablespoon of cold water


1. Mix pork and cornstarch and two tablespoons of water.
2. Heat one Tablespoon oil in a deep pot, and fry garlic for half minute, then add the celery, water chestnuts, and salt and pepper and stir-fry for two minutes; then set this aside in a strainer over a deep bowl.
3. Put the rest of the oil in this pot, add the pork mixture, and stir-fry for two minutes until no longer pink, then using a slotted spoon set this into the strainer with the celery mixture adding the coriander pieces and peanuts, and mix this well.
4. Take one dumpling skin, put a heaping Tablespoon or two of the pork mixture on it, fold the dough over it and seal its edges or pleat them with the egg white.
5. Bring water to a boil, put the dumplings into a steamer basket, and steam them all for five minutes; then serve.

Jade Dumplings

1 Tablespoon minced ginger
1 small clove garlic, peeled
15 asparagus, minced
5 canned water chestnuts, minced
3 scallions, minced
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
30 wonton wrappers
a handful of lettuce leaves. Divided


1. In a blender, mix ginger, garlic, asparagus, water chestnuts, scallions, and the sesame sauce until coarsely blended, then add the sesame oil and dark soy sauce, and gently stir this in.
2. Put two scant teaspoons of the asparagus mixture on a wrapper, and twist all four corners of the dough together keeping all the filling inside the dough. Repeat until all dumplings are made and filled.
3. Put the dumplings into a steamer basket on lettuce leaves, do not let them touch each other, and do cover and steam for ten to twelve minutes over boiling water. Then, remove them to a lettuce-leaf lined platter and serve.

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