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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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dim sum an important institution of Cantonese cuisine which has become increasingly visible in ‘Chinatowns’ outside China, has been described by Yan-Kit So (1992) in terms which cannot be bettered, as follows:

Literally translated as ‘so close to the heart’, they are, in reality, a large range of hors d’œuvres Cantonese people traditionally enjoy in restaurants (previously teahouses) for breakfast and for lunch, but never for dinner, washed down with tea. ‘Let’s go yumcha (to drink tea)’, is understood among the Cantonese to mean going to a restaurant for dimsum; such is the twin linkage between the food and the beverage. The familiar yumcha scene at a Cantonese restaurant, which is often on several floors, is one of young girls pushing trolleys replete with goodies in bamboo baskets piled high or small dishes set next to each other. As they mill around the dining tables, they call out the names of their wares and place the baskets or dishes on to the tables when diners signal their wishes.

The range of dimsum in a restaurant easily numbers several dozen and they come under these main varieties: the steamed, the fried and the deep-fried. Among the steamed variety, which are served in small bamboo baskets, ‘char siu bao’—buns made with flour stuffed with ‘charsiu’ or roast pork—are the most basic. Next come ‘hargow’—crescent-shaped transparent skin dumplings made with glutenless flour stuffed with shrimp; ‘siumai’—open-top minced pork dumplings wrapped with wonton skin made with wheat flour; and ‘fanguo’—flat dumplings made with glutenless flour stuffed with chopped mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pork. Three kinds of ‘tsuenfun’—steamed rice flour dough sheets stuffed with either charsiu, shrimp or minced beef—are sought after for their silken, slippery texture. Among the deep-fried variety the favourites are spring rolls, ‘wugok’ or taro croquettes, which have an almost honeycomb appearance, and ‘harmshuigok’—round dumplings made with glutinous rice flour tasting slightly sweet-savoury. ‘Law Baak Go’ and ‘Wu Tow Go’—savoury puddings made with white radish and taro—are often served shallow-fried.

Besides dumplings, a range of steamed dishes served in bamboo baskets is also popular. Pork spareribs chopped into small cubes and seasoned with black beans or a plum sauce, duck’s webs deep-fried then steamed in a spicy sauce, and steamed beef balls seasoned with tangerine peel are but the obvious examples. Beef tripe or ‘gnauchaap’ and chicken feet, the latter enjoyed perhaps more for their texture than flavour, are, for many Europeans, an acquired taste. But most people adore the dishes of suckling pig, roast pork and cold chicken found on the trolleys of those restaurants which have kitchens specialising in them.