Originating as the snack of choice for ancient Chinese travellers on their long journeys along the Silk Road, Dim Sum has been served up for brunch in Tea Houses and trendy western eateries ever since.
Over time, the cuisine has moved away from being about brunch and more into the Asian equivalent of tapas, designed to be shared, a notion that has stood the test of time with Dim Sum.
The most important thing to know about Dim Sum is that it is designed to be enjoyed alongside tea. If you want to look like you know what you are talking about, you need to insist that you and your friends all drink tea with just a little pinch of smugness. And I’m not talking about a milky cup of PG Tips in a builder’s mug- I mean green tea, jasmine tea, or Oolong. So enjoy the moment choosing tea for the table like the pretentious wine connoisseur you wish you were.
Buns and Bao
We all know and love the Bao Buns from Mackie Mayor– and that has to be for their familiarity. To be honest, they aren’t that different from a sarnie with a fluffy steamed bun doubled over like a late night crisp sandwich and filled with flavours we know and recognise.
The truth is, no Dim Sum brunch is complete without Bao- and I’m talking about proper ones that are less like a butty and more like a delicious round ball of sumptuousness, most commonly filled with sticky, sweet, barbecue pork. This kind of Dim Sum is Cantonese and is known for its smoky filling and almost sugary steamed dough- and they should be the first place you start. You will find these on all Dim Sum menus, but I am a real fan of the Char Sui Bao from Sakana. They are classic and executed flawlessly.
Another bao worth mentioning is the Xiao Long Bao – soup dumplings from Shanghai filled with spicy minced pork- from Mei Dim in China Town. They burst with salty, zingy liquid when you bite into them and are just divine. The dough is sweet and springy and maintains a lightness which you do not expect, and you can taste that the broth has been lovingly made over many hours. Tattu gives these soup Bao a contemporary twist with a red Thai curry liquid, chicken shallots and coconut… I could literally eat them for days.
Next up on your list should be gyoza, and the trick to this one is all in the pronunciation- which you can learn in this handy video. Say it with me:
They are paper thin circles of dough folded in half and fanned at the top with a filling of veggies, meat and/or fish. They are then steamed or pan-fried. I will always take them fried because I’m a pig who is probably going to lose a foot to diabetes in the next five years, but that aside, they go all crispy on the bottom and are just heavenly. Traditionally, Gyoza are pretty mild and tend to be filled with simple flavours. If you want to try some pretty classic ones head down the steps on Oxford Road into the unassuming little Umami. Choose from pork, prawn or vegetable all mixed with Chinese cabbage, water chestnut and flavoured with chilli. You will love the price too.
I also recommend the pan-fried Pork and Kimchi Gyoza from Cottonopolis mainly because I can’t get enough of the sour tangy taste of kimchee against the minced pork and I love the Pan Asian twist in typical Cottonopolis style
Dumplings tend to be nice and simple. The dough is made from flour and water and has a translucent quality when steamed. Fillings tend to be minced pork, prawn and veggies and have a slight jelly-like texture to the dough. Head over to China Town’s Happy Seasons for the best dumplings in the city. I recommend their Steamed Cuttlefish Cake and Mixed Meat and Peanut Dumplings… you will never want to eat anything else ever again. If fish is your thing, then look no further than the Prawn and Scallop Dumplings from Rice Bowl.
Wontons are filled and then scrunched together like a little money purse. Wontons can be steamed, but they are so much better fried. It sort of acts like pastry and goes all crispy with a hot, oozy centre. Bet everyone has had one of these, even if it just from a Chinese takeaway- there isn’t any shame in that. Be that as it may, I can guarantee you haven’t tasted anything like the Crispy Wontons from Wings. While we are over at Wings, their Crispy Shredded Duck wrapped in thin layers of tofu and deep fried is a game changer. Try these and then tell me you still hate bean curd with a straight face.
The weird and wonderful
With any cuisine from the other side of the world, we have to expect some things that are a little on the less-palatable side. Yang Sing is a Manchester Institution of Chinese food, and they have all sorts of authentic Dim Sum dishes on the menu. Congee is a sort of savoury porridge made from rice and flavoured with salted egg and shredded lean pork- which I can’t say I’ve tried, but it does sound like it would be quite appetising in the morning. Other than that Yang Sing will see Ox Tripe and Steamed Chicken Feet on their Dim Sum menu… don’t know about you but I’m suddenly not hungry any more.