In American terms, think of dim sum as "grazing." The custom originated in the Canton region of China, as tea houses opened to provide a respite for weary travelers of the famous Silk Road. Over time, Chinese farmers ended their long days in the fields with a refreshing pot of afternoon tea and relaxing conversation with their neighbors.
It took centuries for "dim sum" to take hold since early customs discouraged eating alongside tea drinking for presumed health reasons. However, the ancient tradition of "yum cha" - drinking tea - was eventually supplemented with snacks. Hence, "dim sum" ("dot hearts" or "touch heart" in Cantonese) became a tradition of serving light foods - small tastes that touch the heart - with the tea.
Dim sum is a foodie's delight. It is more of a style of eating than a meal. Foods range from pastry-type items to noodles to meat and fish dishes to buns and dumplings. Many of the foods are steamed, as in chicken feet, or fried, as in mini spring rolls. Portions are generally bite-sized, served in small quantities like "tapas" so that you can enjoy a variety of sweet and savory tastes.
A dim sum meal may be served as a pre-set menu of dishes or, more often than not, food are placed in carts that servers periodically roll by your table for you to see what appeals to you. The carts are designed to allow you to make your selections throughout your meal rather than all at once. The serving protocol from the carts is predictable: lighter dishes come first, followed by exotic items, then deep-fried dishes and lastly, desserts.
Restaurants that serve dim sum usually offer 50 or more choices. Try Char Siu Baos (pork buns), Sesame Seed Balls (fried dough filled with red bean curd) or Shu Mai and Har Gow (dumplings with pork, vegetables, shrimp) or the egg custard tarts. Enjoy huge freshwater prawns, spareribs or steamed whole fish. Though there may be many strange-looking or unfamiliar items, have a go at new items as you have the chance. An enviable goal is to experiment with many dishes until you discover your favorites. And, as with most Chinese meals, an endless supply of tea with dim sum is a must.
My lavish eating adventure went beyond the normal small plates "snack" and was reminiscent of a Chinese banquet. Instead of the traditional roving carts, our 10 premium courses were pre-selected from a wide array of choices.
If you haven't experienced dim sum, make it one of your culinary adventures in 2009. If it's been awhile since you've enjoyed a dim sum meal, I suggest you go back again ... soon. Whenever you go, leave your calorie counter and apprehensions at home.
Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Mini Spring Rolls (makes 20)
4 ounces ground pork
Marinade: 1 Tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp cornstarch, pepper to taste
6 medium shrimp
1 medium carrot
4 water chestnuts, fresh or canned
1 green onion
1 cup mung bean sprouts
1 cup shredded Napa cabbage
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1 Tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 Tbsp chicken stock
A few drops sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
Oil for deep-frying and stir-frying
16-18 mini spring roll wrappers
1. Marinate the ground pork with the marinade ingredients for 15 minutes.
Rinse the shrimp under warm running water and pat dry. Finely chop.
2. Peel and shred the carrot. Finely chop the water chestnuts. Dice the green onion. Rinse the mung bean sprouts and drain thoroughly. Shred the cabbage. String and chop celery.
3. In a small bowl, combine the oyster sauce, rice wine or sherry, chicken stock and sesame oil. Whisk in the cornstarch.
4. Heat the wok over medium-high to high heat. Heat 2 Tbsp oil. When the oil is hot, add the ground pork. Stir-fry until it is nearly cooked through. Remove and clean out the wok.
5. Add 1 Tbsp oil. When the oil is hot, add 1/2 of the minced ginger. Stir-fry until aromatic (about 30 seconds). Add the shrimp. Stir-fry until it turns pink. Remove from the wok.
6. Add 2 Tbsp oil. When the oil is hot, add the remaining ginger. Stir-fry until aromatic. Add the remaining vegetables and stir-fry. Push the vegetables up to the sides of the wok. Add the sauce in the middle, stirring quickly to thicken. Add the shrimp and pork. Mix everything together. Allow filling to cool.
7. Heat the oil to 360-375 degrees. Meanwhile, to make the spring rolls, lay one mini spring roll wrapper in front of you. Wet the edges. Add 2 heaping tsp in the bottom half. Take the bottom edge and wrap over the filling, tuck in 2 side edges, and continue rolling up. Seal edges.
8. Deep-fry spring rolls until golden brown and crispy. Cook in batches, taking care not to overcrowd wok. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Mango Pudding (serves 8)
This is a popular dim sum dessert.
2 envelopes (1 tablespoon) unflavored gelatin
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup hot water
3 cups pureed fresh mangoes
1 cup 2% evaporated milk
8 ice cubes
lime wedges and fresh mango slices for garnish, optional
1. Add gelatin and sugar to hot water and mix until dissolved and smooth. In large bowl, mix mango puree, evaporated milk and ice cubes. Pour gelatin mixture into mango mixture and stir until ice cubes are melted.
2. Pour mixture into jelly mold (or into individual cups) and chill until set, at least 3 hours. To serve in mold, dip briefly in hot water and turn pudding out onto platter. Squeeze lime juice on top and garnish with mango slices, as desired. Note: Best eaten within 1-2 days.