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Painting a picture: the skill of a dim sum chef

Painting a picture: the skill of a dim sum chef

by Mukta Das 29 April 2020

Creating Chinese dim sum can take a lifetime to master, but the skills of the chefs producing them can sometimes go unnoticed. Mukta Das and Andrew Wong celebrate the sub-genre of Cantonese cuisine (which stretches far beyond steamed dumplings), before sharing a recipe that reflects the similarities between western pastry chefs and Chinese dim sum masters.

Dim sum are hugely popular far beyond China's borders, with entire restaurants dedicated to these small, edible works of art all over the world. However, the skill and time it takes to create these little bites often goes unappreciated. Food anthropologist Mukta Das and Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong seek to change that in this piece, covering everything from the variety of dim sum, the idea of 'freshness' in the dim sum kitchen and why breaking the boundaries of tradition is important. The recipe at the end is a perfect example of how similarly western pastry chefs and eastern dim sum chefs create their masterpieces, straddling the two specialisms in one delicious dish.

There is a convergence of the tiny and the esculent: things are not only small in order to be eaten, but are also comestible in order to fulfil their essence, which is smallness.

Barthes, R. 1982. Empire of Signs. New York: Hill and Wang. Pg 15

Andrew Wong: When you mention dim sum outside of China, people tend to visualise small, bite-sized steamed dumplings. In the UK there’s a more sophisticated understanding, but still, the idea of texture in dim sum hasn’t been explored to its full potential, so I really wanted to celebrate both char siu and the idea of texture. The idea behind dim sum is to feel something glutinous, and to enjoy the stickiness, and to bite through the crunch; it’s about letting the eater play with all those textures in a single mouthful. On top of all that, I wanted to add a taste dimension to the textual variety: a sweetness, a savouriness, a barbecue-ness. It’s a representation of dim sum as a whole.

Mukta Das: Your steady pushing of dim sum's boundaries reminds me of the elite Cantonese tearoom culture of 1920s and 1930s. Tearooms had to come up with the most innovative dim sum to stay ahead of intense competition and chefs drew on inspiration from both China and abroad. Chefs started to reproduce regional and international snacks but in smaller bite-sized portions, lightening the flavours, introducing more subtlety and playing with ideas of freshness.

AW: All over the world, dim sum chefs have to stick to a kind of global chef discourse of freshness. All our ingredients are fresh but in reality, there are so many levels of preparation in dim sum that ‘fresh’ is a kind is misnomer. There are other adjectives that better explain how well a chef can handle and use an ingredient for the health and pleasure of the eater, for example the crunchiness of a prawn. The crispness of that prawn doesn’t only equate to freshness but speaks to all the qualities of preparation and cooking too. Then there is freshness from a western perspective, which when talking about seafood is all about the smell of the sea and how long is has been out of the water. So the scallops I use in this dish are on a train by 4pm the day before, reach our kitchen by 7am and are served by lunchtime. If there ever was a dim sum that celebrated freshness from both Chinese and western perspectives, this is the one.

MD: That said, there’s a real emphasis on freshness, partly reflected by the popularity of raw fish during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD). Strips of fatty, fresh raw fish were traditionally dressed with sauces, seasonings and dips made with mustard seed or spring onion, much like Italian pesce crudo. Some of these seasonings sound surprisingly full of bite or heat when we compare this to the present-day ways of eating sushi in Japan with minimal amounts of condiments. But the Tang very much enjoyed their spices and aromatics and traders travelled across oceans to buy spices, such as cloves from Indonesia and black pepper from Myanmar.

AW: The sauce that it is served with this dish is made of red chilli paste and vinegar, which is not the usual accompaniment to cheung fun. Traditionally, cheung fun is served with a seasoned and slightly sweet soy sauce. But I want to get people out of the mindset that if they’re eating a cheung fun or another type of dumpling then it has to be with a particular sauce. I want people to start question that, and ask why can’t you enjoy these dim sum with a heavier, spicier sauce or with a bit more umami.

MD: It’s interesting because cheung fun is a relatively modern invention, created in the 1930s in Guangzhou when teahouses were growing and there was a demand for new cheffing skills, new dishes and new experiences. The most famous of these dishes was the Hoh Sing Teahouse beef cheung fun which was served alongside a ‘supreme soy sauce’ dip. The technique eventually spread to other teahouses and restaurants. Cooks became famous and people knew which places to go to for exceptional skills in cheung fun preparations or pastry making.

AW: The look of the dish is something Mukta and I have been working on which tries to explore the similarities and differences between dim sum pastry expertise and European pastry expertise. These pastry cooking cultures aren’t the same, but they aren’t that different; dim sum kitchens also produce puff pastry, water-based doughs and oil-based doughs, and while different starches might be used, the alchemy and mastery is similar. But for some reason, dim sum pastry chefs aren’t necessarily as appreciated in the same way as European pastry chefs. That’s why I designed the dish to look like a mille-feuille, with cheung fun between the layers for additional texture.

The cheung fun ‘skin’ is quite labour intensive to make. We have to use four starches and blend it with water, and then let it rest on a near-true level surface. The hardest thing about this is that there are no level floors in London and the liquid shouldn’t really gather at one end. That means we have to lay it flat carefully on a tray and then steam it until it sets into a thin skin. After that, we very carefully peel it off the tray so that it stays in one piece. It’s a real pain in the arse!

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Painting a picture: the skill of a dim sum chef

 
 

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