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Suffolk private chef Lilian Hiw, of Lilian’s Kitchen, gives the lowdown on dim sum





Dim Sum literally means ‘touch the heart’. Legend has it that many centuries ago, royal chefs at the imperial court created small delicate parcels to delight the palates and ‘touch the heart’ of the Chinese emperors and royal family. Each chef tried to outdo the other and the ingredients used could range from vegetables, meat and poultry, to prawns, lobster or scallops. Different intricate shapes and styles were created and they could be steamed, boiled, baked, pan-fried or deep-fried.

DIM SUM

A Chinese meal consisting of small dishes of dumplings, buns, fried snacks, congee, glutinous rice parcels and other delicacies. Much like tapas in Spain, everyone at the table is encouraged to try a variety of dishes, enjoying different textures and flavours and promoting a sense of togetherness and unity.

Bamboo baskets for Dim Sum
Bamboo baskets for Dim Sum
Xiao long pau (Lilian and her students will be making these in her dim sum class on May 17-18)
Xiao long pau (Lilian and her students will be making these in her dim sum class on May 17-18)
Steamed char siew bao
Steamed char siew bao

The classic trinity ordered at any traditional dim sum meal is Siew Mai (an open top steamed dumpling filled with pork and prawns), Har Gow (a succulent prawn dumpling in a tender ‘crystal’ wrapper) and Char Siew Bao (steamed fluffy barbecue pork buns).

Other popular ‘must have’ dishes include chicken feet braised in oyster sauce, pork ribs in black bean sauce and cheong fun with char siew (barbecue pork), beef or prawns. My favourite cheong fun filling is crispy Chinese dough sticks.

For some crunch, order spring rolls, taro glutinous rice croquette, baked buns and pan fried dumplings. For some spice, try the red chilli oil dumplings or stewed duck’s tongue Szechuan style. Glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves and preserved egg or fish congee bulks out the meal.

Sesame prawn toast (page 76 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Sesame prawn toast (page 76 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Pork Siew Mai (page 74 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Pork Siew Mai (page 74 of Lilian’s cookbook)

For a sweet finish, my husband loves an egg tart and for a refreshing finale, I like a chilled dessert of sweet cantaloupe melon with sago and coconut milk.

THREE INSTEAD OF FOUR?

Have you ever wondered why dim sum is usually served in sets of three? The number three is associated with life and new beginnings, while the number four is considered unlucky because it sounds like the word ‘death’ and brings bad luck.

Crisp-bottom dumplings (page 111 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Crisp-bottom dumplings (page 111 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Crisp fried duck spring rolls
Crisp fried duck spring rolls
Chilli oil dumplings (page 70 of Lilian’s cookbook)
Chilli oil dumplings (page 70 of Lilian’s cookbook)

ONCE UPON A TIME. . .

Dim sum was sold on every street corner in the morning. The routine for the older generation is to go down to their local favourite restaurant or café to read the morning newspaper, eat some dumplings or buns and enjoy their morning tea leisurely. As dim sum grew in popularity and demand around the world, it was served for brunch and lunch and can now be found at any time of the day in various types of Asian food establishments.

Traditionally, servers would push carts filled with stacks of steaming bamboo steamers filled with a variety of dumplings or plates of delicious fried food around the dining area. Customers would flag down the carts with the dishes they desired to eat and the servers would mark an order chit at the table. Nowadays, due to health and safety regulations, restaurants don’t serve dim sum from push carts anymore. Waiters take a la carte or buffet orders at the table. The checklist-style menu, where diners tick off the dishes they want, is a popular way of ordering in more fast-paced restaurants. It is also common these days for restaurants to use QR codes and for customers to read the menu and place their orders using their mobile phones.

Chicken congee, Lilian's comfort food
Chicken congee, Lilian's comfort food

YUM CHA

Drinking tea with dim sum is a cultural tradition and an important part of the ritual of the dim sum experience. In Cantonese, ‘yum cha’ means ‘to drink tea’. The food and the tea have become inseparable, and some people would say “let’s go yum cha” when they want to eat dim sum.

The first thing the waiter will ask you after you are seated is: “What kind of tea do you want?” A good restaurant will offer a selection of teas to suit different taste buds and purposes.

Lilian’s grandmother’s wicker Chinese tea cosy
Lilian’s grandmother’s wicker Chinese tea cosy

THE TEAS

Pu-Erh - a fermented black tea with an earthy aroma, cuts through fat better than any other tea when served hot and aids digestion. A great choice if you are ordering dishes with higher fat content.

Chrysanthemum tea - a caffeine-free, flower-based infusion made from chrysanthemum flowers. It is light, slightly sweet and refreshing. The Chinese believe that when you eat spicy or fried foods your body becomes ‘heaty’, chrysanthemum has a cooling property, can help to reduce your heat and balance your body system.

Oolong - a well-rounded tea, it lies somewhere between black and green tea, which is why it’s sometimes called ‘blue tea’. This brilliant coppery tea complements almost everything on dim sum menus.

Lung Jing - is grassy, clean and fresh. This green tea is a fantastic palate cleanser between bites, giving each unique dim sum dish a fair chance to shine.

Jasmine tea - jasmine flowers are added to a base of tea leaves. Green tea is the most common base, but white and black teas are also sometimes used. Jasmine tea has a subtly sweet taste and a strong fragrance from the flowers. By far the most popular with Asian and Western palates, it is widely available in Chinese restaurants.

FINGER TAPPING

You may have noticed that some Chinese people tap their index and middle fingers lightly on the table when someone fills their teacup. This gesture is barely noticeable, and most do it instinctively. Why do they do it? Is it a sign of impatience, frustration or nervousness? On the contrary, the gesture is actually an expression of gratitude and a show of respect to the person who served the tea.

Cantaloupe melon with sago and coconut milk
Cantaloupe melon with sago and coconut milk

THE EMPEROR AND HIS BODY GUARDS

Legend has it that the Emperor wanted to see how his countrymen were faring and check on their living conditions. He dressed down from his silk robes and gold threads to simple cotton clothes. Together with his bodyguards, they went into the villages to be among his people. When the Emperor took a turn to serve tea to his bodyguards at a meal, they flew off their seats to ‘kowtow’ (kneel down and touch the ground with the forehead) to the Emperor. It was the ritual to show their respect and submission to the authority and superiority of the Emperor. However, this was a dead giveaway of the Emperor’s identity, so he devised a plan for the bodyguards to use their fingers to act as their knees. Whenever the emperor served them tea, instead of dropping to their knees, they would bend their index and middle fingers and tap them on the table to signify bowing and thanksgiving to the Emperor.

Over the years, the curved finger tapping has evolved into light fingertip tapping. Now we know how to thank a Chinese person when they serve us tea!

ETIQUETTE

Some traditional tips. . .

Use a serving spoon to transfer food from the communal plate to your own plate. It is also acceptable practice to turn your chopsticks upside down and use the top ends of the chopsticks as a serving utensils.

It is polite not to eat directly from the steamer baskets or communal sharing plates.

Ask everyone at your table before taking the last piece of food from a shared plate.

As a sign of respect, always pour tea for your companions first before serving yourself.

Signal to your server for more hot water by leaving the lid of the teapot ajar.

LEARNING

Join us to learn how to make dim sum. Interactive fun completed with a delicious lunch and the chance to take home your masterpiece, May 17 and 18.

Up-coming classes

Dim Sum – May

Singapore and Malaysia – July

Chinese - Sept

Sushi – Sept

Visit www.lilianskitchen.co.uk

Until the next time, take care of yourselves.

Private chef Lilian Hiw

Author of Lilian’s Kitchen Home Cooked Food

Visit www.lilianskitchen.co.uk