Imagine a freshly steamed prawn and pork siu mai or a plump har gau. Perhaps the delicate dim sum is enlivened with just a touch of chilli oil.
Now, imagine a glass of chilled pinot gris from New Zealand. On its own, the light white wine might taste a little sweet but when paired with the juicy dumplings and chilli, the sweetness is toned down, replaced with the aromatic flavours of pomelo or jasmine.
While dim sum is traditionally enjoyed with tea or beer, in Australia it is creating a happy alliance with wine. In Melbourne, the arrival of one of Hong Kong's leading chefs is strengthening that relationship.
Last year, Michelin-starred Tsang Chiu-king quit as executive chef at Ming Court, Langham Place hotel, to run Crown Melbourne's restaurant Silks. Tsang is continuing his innovative approach to traditional Chinese dishes while adapting, at times, for Australians.
"The Australian taste is for lighter, fragrant dishes," says Tsang. "But they also enjoy the tradition of Cantonese with richer, darker elements."
The marriage of dim sum and wine was recently explored at a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival lunch at Silks. Tsang and his team prepared the dishes and Chris Crawford, Crown's director of wine, selected the vintages.
In Hong Kong, the complex red Bordeaux is a popular mainstay, particularly for high-end dining. But Australian varieties are gaining attention at more relaxed meals. At the Silks lunch, there were sharp Australian semillons, smooth French white Bordeaux and even a peppery Australian shiraz.
It resulted in some surprises. "What we tried to show is the versatility of dim sum," says Crawford. A steamed quail dumpling with duck liver, Chinese mushrooms and pine nuts was slightly gamey and very tender. A mild New Zealand red, the 2012 Ra Nui Pinot Noir, enhanced the delicate meatiness of the dumpling.
Chef Tsang personally enjoys dim sum that's pan fried or deep fried. One of the standout dishes at the lunch was the perfect combination of the two - a crunchy taro puff with wagyu and goose liver paste. It also worked with the smooth but well-rounded Victorian Tyrrell's 2012 Lunatiq Heathcote Shiraz - one of Tsang's favourites.
Crawford emphasised that the wine pairings were simply a helpful guide to enhancing dim sum flavours. "With wine, we are very lucky, especially in Australia, to have so much versatility in terms of regions, varieties and styles," he says.
One of the basic principles is matching the intensity of the food with the wine. Dim sum is delicate with complex flavours. Off-dry wines can help carry those flavours without overpowering the dishes.
Riesling, in particular, is ideal for dim sum. It works well with shellfish-based dishes, says Crawford, such as prawn and lobster. "Although I think lobster goes with everything," he says.
Chardonnay can also be versatile and pairs particularly well with prawns and chives. The old heavy-handed big Australian varieties have been replaced with much brighter, complex styles. "Right now, it's the most exciting variety in Australia," says Crawford.
At lunch, the mildly buttery Tyrrell's Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay could meet the weight of the fried dim sum.
A sophisticated chardonnay, with a relatively high acidity, "can even cope with duck or just firm white-fleshed fish," says Crawford.
With dim sum often a brunch or lunch meal, heavy wines or ones high in alcohol are usually avoided. So drier rosés are an ideal choice, says Crawford: "If you like white, if you like red, it's the best of both worlds. In the heat, you want something with a bit of tannin, but you want something quite cold."
The pan-fried and deep-fried dim sum were a perfect match with a sharp Chateau de Sours rosé from Bordeaux. It's a pairing that surprised Tsang, who likes delicate plummy pinot noir from Victoria's Yarra Valley. A layered Trout Valley 2012 Pinot Noir from New Zealand complemented a seemingly simple but complex duck ravioli served in duck stock. Its hints of black truffle brought out the mild spiciness in the wine.
While there are guidelines for drinking wine with dim sum, be open and be willing to try new things, says Crawford. "At the end of the day, it is just a glass of wine, and you're with friends and family and having a great time. I think that is the most important thing," he says.