My grandmother was an exceptional home cook, but she knew that making dim sum required skills that she didn't have. The only dim sum she ever made was siu mai: small, open-topped dumplings filled with pork and shrimp. These were far easier than other types of dim sum because you could buy the wrappers; she used round “skins” purchased from shops that made fresh noodles.
She – or rather, we (she had me help out as soon as I was old enough) – made around 200 at a time for our extended family’s Sunday lunch. My grandmother would steam them in a large tiered steamer, and serve them with congee.
There are many varieties of siu mai filling, from the inexpensive fish paste found at snack shops in Hong Kong, where they are served on a skewer and doused with soy sauce and chilli oil, to the sturgeon caviar- and gold-leaf-topped versions at five-star hotels. This recipe is somewhere in between.
There’s also a choice of wrappers. If you can’t find smaller siu mai wrappers (5cm-6cm [2in to 2⅓in] in diameter), buy the larger ones usually labelled for sui gau (water dumplings), wor tip, gyoza, jiaozi or potstickers.
You can use the larger wrappers as they come (which makes for large siu mai), or cut them into smaller rounds for the size you would get if you were going out for dim sum. I prefer the smaller ones because the full-size wrappers (about 9.5cm [3¾in] in diameter) means there’s too much filling; smaller wrappers make for a tidier bite. You’ll need about 30 larger wrappers, or 45 of the smaller circles.
The flying fish roe topping is optional. At dim sum restaurants they add a dab of the roe before steaming the sui gau, but that overcooks the eggs, so I add it after they’re steamed. If you’re skipping the fish roe and want to add a bit of colour, scatter minced spring onion over the siu mai as soon as you take them out of the steamer.
Briefly rinse the dried mushrooms, then put them in a bowl and add cool water to cover. Let them soak for two to three hours or until completely hydrated.
When the mushrooms are soft, squeeze out the excess water then cut off and discard the stems. Very finely mince the mushroom caps and the shrimp and put them in a bowl.
Add the pork, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, salt, sugar, pepper and cornstarch to the bowl and mix thoroughly.
Drizzle in 50ml (3tbsp and 1tsp) of iced water and, with your hand, stir the mixture in one direction, until you see long white protein threads forming. This doesn’t take long (about 15-30 seconds, depending on how vigorously you stir) and makes the filling more cohesive.
Check the seasonings by shaping a teaspoonful of the filling into a patty and pan-frying it in a skillet. Taste and correct the seasonings of the rest of the filling, if necessary.
If making smaller siu mai from larger wrappers, stack about 10 of them at a time, then use a sharp round metal cutter to cut them into 5cm-6cm (2 in to 2⅓ in) circles.
Put the wrapper in the palm of your left hand (if you’re right-handed) and spoon some filling into the centre. Bring up the sides of the wrapper to form an open-topped dumpling, with pleated sides. The filling should come all the way to the top of the wrapper. Smooth the surface and press the sides of the wrapper so they adhere to the filling, then flatten the bottom of the dumpling by pressing it onto a work surface so it stands upright. Line a bamboo steamer (or a tiered metal steamer) with a circle of parchment paper cut to fit, and place the dumplings on the paper, leaving a little space between each one.
If using a bamboo steamer, pour water to a depth of about 3cm (1¼ in) in a wok. Place a round rack with low feet in the wok, cover with the lid and boil the water over a high flame. Place the bamboo steamer onto the rack in the wok and place the lid on top. (If using a tiered steamer pour water into the base and place the tier and the lid on top.) Steam over a high flame for eight to 10 minutes, or until the siu mai are cooked. Occasionally check the water in the bottom of the wok (or steamer), and add more boiling water, if necessary.
When the dumplings are cooked, put a dab of flying fish roe (if using) on each one, or scatter with minced spring onion.
Serve immediately, letting each guest make their own dipping sauce with soy sauce, sesame oil and chilli oil or chilli sauce.