Dim Sum: A tradition that's anything but dim
A leading dim sum chef explains how tough it is to learn to prepare and cook the dishes, and why it remains as popular as ever
Xenia Chan and Hedy Bok
“Making dim sum isn’t easy," says chef Mak Gui-pui. “There are many factors that can influence the taste. Take barbecued pork buns - even the weather can affect the outcome,” he adds.
He is talking about how higher external temperatures can hasten the process of fermentation, making it easier for baked goods to turn sour in hot weather.
As the founder of Tim Ho Wan, one of Hong Kong’s most popular dim sum restaurants, Mak, 50, knows what he's talking about.
“Yum cha”, or “dim sum” brunch is the most popular and well-known form of Cantonese cuisine. Eating dim sum is usually a happy and boisterous occasion, when family and friends gather to sip tea and eat a great variety of dishes.
These are usually exotic snacks served in bamboo containers or on small plates. The great popularity of the southern Chinese cuisine is a source of pride for many Hong Kongers, but also an expression of their unique cultural identity.
Mak says going to “dim sum” remains an important ritual for people.
Video: Mak Gui-pui reveals the art behind making good dim sum.
Raised in a family in which everyone worked in restaurants, Mak believes the cuisine is a vital part of Chinese culture. He says it brings people together. “A dim sum meal is friendly and casual. For generations, it’s been a tradition for families to go to yum cha on holidays. There’s a sense of sharing and camaraderie that comes with the food,” adds Mak.
In Chinese, “dim sum” literally means “a light touch on the heart”, which is an ideal way to describe the small, delicious sweet or savoury dishes. “Yum cha” means “drink tea” and the two expressions are used interchangeably. The most well-known dim sum is Guangdong’s, although dim sum is common across China, often using different ingredients from each region. Common dishes include cha siu bao (or pork-filled buns), haa gaau (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (pork dumplings), fung jaau (chicken feet), haam sui gok (Deep-fried rice dumpling with pork) and many more.
These “little eats” are not unique to Cantonese cuisine. Shanghai has xiao long bao (steamed pork dumplings), and there is chao shou (Sichuan wontons) in Sichuan. What sets Cantonese dim sums apart though, is its extraordinary variety of dishes and the list keeps growing.
The finer points of making dim sum take years to learn, which is why it is important to have a demanding “sifu” [“master”), explains Mak. “A good sifu is one who teaches you to be exact, and he has to reprimand you a lot,’’ he explains. “The more he yells, the better you become. And, of course, you have to be very dedicated, and have a heart for this craft.” Mak, like many of his peers, is skilled in the different areas of dim sum - frying, steaming, creating the fillings, making dough wrappings for dumplings, and making rice noodle rolls.
“I would master one thing,” he recalls fondly, “And then I’d have start back at the bottom to learn the next thing.”
The experience has taught Mak to treat his students the same demanding way. “I’m just as hard and exacting as my sifus. If I don’t demand a lot, they will never learn.”
He says that he has learned different styles as well. “Some sifus, like smooth and soft textures. Others want firm and chewy. But they are all demanding,” he laughs. “My own standards are: you can’t be slack, it has to be neat and tidy, have the correct shape, and you can’t leave sloppy dough that stick on bamboo containers.”
“Bamboo containers are absolutely necessary; you have to allow the food room to breathe. Each piece is about handiwork - thick is easy, but thin is exact. You really have to have an eye for this sort of thing.”
The ritual of dim sum has seen some changes over the years. Originally a snack to go with morning tea gatherings, it has become popular meal for lunch and dinner as well.
“Traditional tea houses have given way to bigger, brighter and cleaner restaurants. You can even have business luncheons in dim sum restaurants now. It’s gotten fancier and more presentable.”
Concerns about high levels of cholesterol in dishes like pig-liver dumplings have made them less popular. Vegetarian dim sum is more common. “But generally things remain the same,” Mak says, “Except for those people who keep changing things. I’m not against innovation, it’s just that Cantonese dim sum has to be either cold or hot, according to the nature of the ingredient. You can’t fry a watermelon!”
Mak says one thing has not changed: the preferences of foreign customers. “Tourists came to my restaurant asking specifically for chicken feet. They probably find it exotic. And once they tried it, ha! You should see the look on their faces! Although we Cantonese might love eating livers, intestines and so on, you know that stuff isn’t for everyone,” the dim sum chef adds.