An exploration into dim sum

Hakkasan's celery prawn dumpling

The tradition of yum cha, at one point designed to be a relaxing respite, has evolved over the years to the loud and jovial dining experience relatable to dim sum restaurants all over the world today.

In southern China, and specifically Hong Kong, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning and close mid-afternoon. However, the tradition has grown increasingly popular in the Western world in recent years, and now modern dim sum restaurants serve food as an evening meal. Dim sum is typically prepared as individual mouthfuls, traditionally served in bamboo steamer baskets or on small plates in groups of three or four.

Dim sum is often linked with yum cha, the older Chinese tradition of drinking tea. Historically, the tradition of yum cha began in the latter part of the 19th century in response to the increasing amount of people passing through the ancient Silk Road route through southern China. Many travelers needed a place to rest and recuperate, so teahouses in Guangzhou (or Canton) serving tea and small portions of food opened up along the roadside.

The term ‘dim sum’ can be translated from Chinese to mean ‘touch the heart’. The small dishes were originally designed to satisfy hunger rather than sate the appetite, hence the name: dim sum should merely touch the heart rather than overwhelm the stomach.

A standard dim sum meal consists of various types of dishes, including steamed buns, dumplings and rice noodle rolls. Dim sum is often cooked in a number of different ways, including frying, steaming, broiling and roasting.

Each dim sum is intricately prepared, using a range of different and complicated cooking techniques. Chefs spend years training to perfect the art of dim sum preparation, and it is in this that many dim sum chefs are judged. Har gau, for example, is the dish that is said to be the most complex, and is therefore the dish that many hold as the ultimate decider of the skills of a chef.

Har gau, also occasionally referred to as shrimp bonnets in reference to their pleated shape, are transparent and smooth in texture. They should have at least seven and preferably 10 pleats; the skin must be thin and translucent, but be sturdy enough not to break open when picked up with chopsticks; and they must not stick to the paper, container, or any other har gau in the basket.

Hakkasan Hanway Place has launched a new menu at the weekly Dim Sum Sundays events. The menu includes a selection of steamed, fried and baked dim sum, all inspired by seasonal ingredients.