Photo Credit: manchesterhistorian.com
The Art of Dim Sum
In the colorful history of Chinese culture, one of the interesting stories that sticks out is how dim sum came to be. With a history that dates back thousands of years, this favourite Chinese culinary repertoire not only includes dishes that go by the thousands, but it also boasts of flavours that won not only the hearts of locals but foreign palates as well.
The origins of Dim Sum can be traced back centuries to the famous Silk Road, a trade route from Ancient China to Europe. With so many weary travelers, locals and foreigners alike, that pass through this road, teahouses eventually sprung up to accommodate them. These small establishments allowed them to rest, enjoy a cup of tea, and a relaxing conversation.
Eventually, these teahouses began adding small dishes to their menu. This established the unique culinary artform which is Dim Sum. This is also the reason why Dim Sum is closely associated with the Chinese tradition of “yum cha” or drinking tea.
Tea and Dim Sum
These two have been inextricably associated to each other, and true enough having this pair creates a beautiful marriage of flavours and a satiating meal time. Surprisingly, at some point having tea with food was considered inappropriate. (Image Source)
A third century Imperial physician claimed that combining these two in a meal will lead to weight gain. However, it was later discovered that tea has the ability to aid in digestion and cleanse the palate.
This is why the teahouse owners soon began adding a menu of snacks which then gave birth to dim sum.
A royal history
Before the popularity of dim sum reached viral proportions in the Silk Road tea houses, some accounts claimed that it originated much earlier than that as evidenced by the Chinese poetry and music. It was said that this cuisine was made exclusively for the Emperor and his family. But it was also widely enjoyed by the wealthy.
It was also known that descendants of the Manchurian empire did not need to work, so what they did to pass time was to frequent what was considered “restaurants” at that time. And in the dawn of the 20th century, dim sum also had many developments as cooks become inventive with their recipes, giving people more and more reason to love these morsels of food.
Concurrently the popularity of dim sum with the elite was also enjoyed by travelers in the Silk Road tea houses. Another reason that brought more dim sum varieties was the competition that businesses had with each other.
The dim sum tradition
Dim sum was usually eaten in the morning just before lunch to serve as a perfect pair to the morning tea. Historians even say that this might have been the inspiration behind the idea of brunch in western countries. However, today dim sum can be enjoyed at any time of day. Restaurants serve it as early as five in the morning up until late in the night.
But in Southern China, dim sum is not just cuisine, it is part of a family tradition. Yum cha, which is a practice that doesn’t go without dim sum, it is made as a weekend gathering feast for families. The bite size delights which is often served in wooden baskets are best shared so you don’t fill up on one food allowing you to try many others. This tradition of feasting together is also what makes dim sum distinct. From what used to be a peaceful respite for weary travelers, the dim sum experience is now known to be boisterous meal time experience.
The foray of dim sum recipes is either steamed or deep fried. Its traditional spread include dumplings, steamed buns, rice noodles, and rice porridge. These often contain vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. Roasted meats are also a favorite, but dumplings often served in twos or threes usually wins the heart of many.
Dessert dim sum also earned lot of love, and what makes this interesting – especially to foreign palates – is that the Chinese don’t prepare them like the westerners do. Instead of baking their cakes, they either steam or fry them. Among these egg tarts is one of the favorites for its richness in taste and texture, and it became the customary offers in most restaurants. It is also a celebratory must have in Chinese festivals.
The dim sum experience
Photo Credit: www.superiorfood.eu
In restaurants dim sum are served in steam-heated carts which is rolled freshly from the kitchen to serve these beautiful bite sized creations steaming hot. This is the traditional way of ordering dim sum, and probably also one of its major selling points. You choose from the assortment of dishes from these carts that is servers push around.
With all the bustle of carts rolling by, it may not be evident that there is actually a certain order to how these dim sum dishes are served. Since drinking tea is an important part in the dim sum experience, servers would first ask diners what type of tea they want served. And there is actually a variety of teas available, with the favourites being chrysanthemum tea, oolong tea, and green tea.
This is followed by the first string of dishes to hit the tables. It is usually the steamed dishes, also known as the “lighter” dishes, that comes first. This is followed by the more interesting exotic items such as chicken feet, then comes the deep fried dishes, and then dessert.
A lot of restaurants today have dispensed the cart system. Servers now hand menus and a pencil so that you just simply mark off what you want and how many.
Dim sum is an integral part of Chinese culture, but what makes it bigger than it is, is the fact that it is able to impress other races. Its popularity became widespread in Asia, and even into the western world. This was brought by the 19th century Chinese immigrants. It became a favourite takeout meal and with so many varieties coming up by the dozens with restaurants competing for better variations just as the ancient tea houses did, eating dim sum has become more interesting and fun.
Surely, aside from filling the palate and the stomach, dim sum stayed true to what it actually meant, which is “to touch the heart”.