Although January signals the New Year, it also reminds me that I have to prepare for an annual event where I am requested to prepare a birthday celebration with an oriental theme. This year I created a Chinese Dim Sum birthday feast. Dim Sum, small delicacies served at a tea lunch, translates as “touching your heart.” And that indeed is what these small morsels do. The advantage of sampling them at a teahouse is the great variety available as the waiters and waitresses wheel large carts throughout the restaurant stacked with dozens of different Dim Sum samples. It may take you several visits to determine your favourites. Among the dozens of choices, there are steamed shrimp, pork or taro root dumplings, deep‑fried egg rolls, and green peppers with shrimp filling.
Dim Sum is carefully prepared and decoratively served in bamboo steamers or on a banana, bamboo or lotus leaf. They come in bite sizes or individual portions. One of the reasons for the great variety of Dim Sum is that in China, many villages created a distinctive dumpling for their region, sampled by other communities, and then added to the increasing variety available over the years.
Dim Sum is probably one of the most social meals I’ve ever experienced. The small plates usually have four to six portions and these are passed from guest to guest at the table. In some restaurants, a raised wheel (Lazy Susan) sits on the centre of the table and diners rotate the wheel to sample everything. It is a meal best enjoyed in the company of several people. It is inexpensive and the more people, the more you can sample.
In cities that offer Dim Sum it is often served on the weekends. However in large urban centres like Toronto it is available every day. Most of the food is prepared in advance and is one of the reasons why it is popular as a business lunch, most of the lunch hour is spent eating rather than waiting to be served. Another good thing about Dim Sum is that despite the variety it isn’t overly filling.
Today, many of the ingredients for Dim Sum recipes can be found in the supermarket. You can prepare your Dim Sum in advance. Cooking doesn’t take long. Many dishes can also be frozen, so prepare some extra portions. Since most Dum Sum fillings are wrapped in rice wrappers you don’t have to serve rice as a side dish. Start with a soup and a variety of four or five main items and a dessert. Serve with green or jasmine tea. You don’t have to prepare all the accompanying sauces yourself. Most can be purchased and store well. Popular staples include sesame and peanut oils, Tamari soy, oyster, sweet and sour, peanut, chilli and Hoisin sauces, rice vinegar. If you can’t find banana or lotus leaves, buy fresh spinach, bok choy, Savoy cabbage, green cabbage or grape leaves. Also keep a supply of dried shiitake or other mushrooms, fresh ginger root, garlic, shallot onions, spring onions, cilantro, fresh mint, peppers, lemon, oranges and limes on hand as well as frozen wonton and rice paper wrappers.
Rice Flour Dough
1 cup all purpose flour + flour for kneading
Three quarter cup rice flour
2 tbs. peanut oil
1 cup boiling water
Mix boiling water and oil with flour and stir. Start kneading when cool enough to handle. Store in a plastic bag in the fridge for one hour. Divide into 25-30 small portions and roll into balls. Cover with a damp cloth. With a rolling pin make circular, thin cakes. Now they are ready to be stuffed. Brush with water and seal by twisting. Keep moist under damp cloth until ready for cooking.
2 cups all purpose flour
3 tbs. olive oil
One quarter tsp. salt
One and a half cup of boiling water
Mix all ingredients and when cool enough to handle, knead until well mixed. Store in a plastic bag in the fridge for an hour or the next day. Roll out in sheet shape, one quarter of an inch thick. Cut in squares, four by four inches or larger. Keep moist under towel. Place fillings in centre and brush with water, seal. Keep moist and cool until cooking.
640 g. / 20 oz rice flour
3.84 kg. / 7 lbs. turnips
120 g. / 4 oz bacon
4 tbs. peanut oil
80 g. / 3 oz parsley
80 g. / 3 oz dried small shelled shrimps
2 tbs. sugar
4 tsp. light soy sauce
Wash dried small shelled shrimps clean, soak them thoroughly and finely chop; wash bacon and sausages clean and cut them into pellets. In a pot fry the bacon and sausages until cooked in some of the oil and place them in a container for use. Skin the turnips, wash them clean, shred them, and dump them into a pot with just enough water to cover and some of the peanut oil. Turn them over at times with a spoon when boiling, until the turnips completely change colour, add sugar, soy sauce, parsley, bacon, sausages and shrimps. Mix well. Sieve rice flour into the mixture and mix well. Pour the mixture into a cake pan applied with oil (either one big loaf or individual mini loafs or even in muffin pans. Steam above boiling water over high heat for 1 hour (less if in smaller portions.) If no flour sticks to a chopstick inserted, they are ready for serving. Makes two large loafs or 24 small individual portions
Sesame Seed Balls (Ma T’uan)
While you’ll find this delicious Dim Sum treat at specialty bakeries throughout the year, it’s especially popular during Chinese New Year and other special occasions. Makes 20 balls
1 lb. rice flour
One and a quarter cups dark brown sugar
One and a quarter cups boiling water
1 cup sweet red bean paste
One quarter cup white sesame seeds
4 cups oil for deep‑frying (Canola)
Dissolve the brown sugar in boiling water. Place the rice flour in a large bowl. Make a well and add the dissolved sugar and water mixture. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Dust your hands with a bit of rice flour and shape the dough into balls roughly 2 inches in diameter. Repeat the process with the red bean paste, using about 1 teaspoon and shaping into smaller balls. Next, using the thumb and index finger of both hands, press a hole into the dough so that you’ve formed a cup. Place a ball of the red bean paste inside and press the edges of the dough together so that the filling is completely covered and there are no holes. Roll each of the filled balls in your hands to form a perfect circle and then roll the ball in the sesame seeds. Deep‑fry the sesame seed balls, a few at a time, in oil heated to between 320F and 350F degrees. Once the sesame seeds turn light brown and the balls start floating to the surface (about 2 minutes), gently apply pressure to the ball with the back of a spatula or a large ladle against the side of the wok. Continue applying pressure as the balls increase in size to approximately three times their normal size and turn golden brown. Place the deep‑fried sesame seed balls on a tray lined with paper towels to drain. Serve warm. If preparing ahead, refrigerate and then reheat the balls until they puff up again.
Serves 4 to 6
2 dozen clams
Water for steaming
1 tbs. sherry
1 green onion, cut on the diagonal into thirds
1 slice ginger
Three quarter lb. ground pork
1 tbs. sherry
1 tbs. light soy sauce
Salt to taste (less than a teaspoon)
1 tbs. cornstarch
1 tbs. cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tbs. water
1 tbs. light soy sauce
1 cup chicken stock
1 tsp. sugar
Oil for stir frying or deep‑frying
Scrub the outside of the clams with a brush. Soak the clams for about 15 ‑ 20 minutes, then wash under running water to remove any sand. Drain. Place the drained clams in a bowl and add the ginger, green onion, and sherry. Steam the clams until the shells open (about 10 minutes).
While the clams are steaming, mix together the cornstarch/water mixture into a paste, and combine the sauce ingredients. When the clams are finished steaming, shell them, setting the shells aside for later.
Mince the clams and mix together with the ground pork. Place the pork/clam mixture in a bowl and use chopsticks to mix in one tbs. sherry, one tbs. light soy sauce, one tbs. cornstarch, and salt to taste. Stuff this mixture into the clam half shells.
Give the cornstarch/water mixture a quick stir and rub this paste over the mixture. Save any extra. At this point you can either stir‑fry or deep‑fry the clams. If deep‑frying, be careful to deep‑fry only a few clams at a time, meat side up, sliding them carefully into the wok so that the oil doesn’t splatter. Deep‑fry until golden in colour and drain on paper towels or a tempura rack if you have one. If stir frying, place the clams in meat side down and stir‑fry until golden. Do not remove from the wok. Lower the heat and add the sauce ingredients to the wok. Bring to a boil. If deep‑frying, add the clams back to the wok. Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Use the remaining cornstarch/water mixture to thicken the liquid. Stuff clam shells with this mixture. Smooth tops with dissolved cornstarch.
Heat oil in wok. Fry clams meat side down until light brown. Add stock, two tbs. soy sauce, and sugar. Cover. Cook 20 minutes. Thicken liquid with remaining dissolved cornstarch.
The latest trend at Asian restaurants, these wraps are made with lettuce.
Makes 8-10 servings
1 tbs. sesame oil
1 lb meat from chicken breasts or sliced white chicken meat
2 green onions, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
1 can water chestnuts, rinsed in warm running water and chopped
1 slice ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 red pepper, seeded and diced
1 tbs. soy sauce
2 tbs. oyster sauce
1 tbs. dry sherry
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbs. cornstarch mixed with 2 tbs. water
1 head iceberg lettuce or romaine lettuce leaves (whichever you prefer)
Wash the lettuce, dry, and separate the leaves. Set aside. Mix together the sauce ingredients. Heat the sesame oil in a non‑stick frying pan on high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and green onions and fry until the garlic and ginger are aromatic. Add the chicken and cook until the chicken is browned. Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside. Add the red pepper, water chestnuts, and celery to the frying pan. Add the sauce ingredients and cook at medium heat, Give the cornstarch/water mixture a quick stir and add to the sauce, stirring to thicken. Lay out a lettuce leaf and spoon a heaping teaspoon of the chicken and vegetable/sauce mixture into the middle. The lettuce wraps are designed to be eaten “taco style,” with the lettuce/chicken mixture folded into a package. Continue with the remainder of the chicken and lettuce leaves.
Some classic dishes to samplewhen you visit a Dim Sum restaurant
Siu Mai: Firm pork dumplings in thin wraps that sit upright and look like little spools.
Har gow: Opaque or translucent dumplings.
Char siu bau: Steamed white buns (bau) filled with diced roast pork (char siu) in a sweet, hoisin based sauce. Other varieties of bau are filled with chicken or sausage and, for dessert, bean paste or lotus seed.
Fried taro puffs: Football shaped balls covered in feathery fried taro and filled with a dense, heavy filling of diced beef and water chestnuts.
Rice noodle: White, slippery, wide noodle folded over a filling of roast pork, shrimp, beef or even a Chinese cruller (fried dough stick). Topped with sweetened soy sauce by the server.
Chicken feet in black bean sauce: The braised skin is dense and flavourful, the bones are many. Some places serve duck web in the same manner.
Beef tripe: Not the honeycomb tripe of French cooking, but the kind that flakes into thin, bumpy sheets. Usually served with black bean sauce or garlic sauce, and if you can get used to the idea, very tasty.
Turnip cakes: Sometimes called radish cakes, these white slabs are a kind of starch thickened pudding of grated Chinese white radish flavoured with seasonings and cured pork. It is steamed, then sliced and griddle fried until it gets a polenta like texture.
Sticky rice in lotus leaf: A fragrant bundle that the server cuts open to reveal a dense mass of glutinous
rice holding many goodies, including a piece of bone‑in chicken, roast pork, a length of sweet lap cheung sausage and perhaps even a slip of eel fillet.
Stuffed eggplant: Usually stuffed with minced shrimp and then braised.
Braised bean curd skins: Filled with a taut length of ground beef and braised in a mild brown sauce.
Sesame rice dumplings: Glutinous rice spheres fried in sesame seeds and filled with bean paste.
Custard tarts: Flaky tart pastry filled with sweet egg custard.
Coconut pudding: Dense, milky, ultra firm gelatin dessert.