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What makes a good dim sum?

If you are a real foodie, then you would know what constitutes a good bite when it hits the palate. But dim sum, just like any dish, requires certain techniques to retain the authentic Cantonese cooking. Unfortunately, dim sum joints have now become highly commercialized. This is why manually created dim sum dishes has become a dying art.

For the love of dim sum

The popularity of dim sum has gone far and wide, to a point where different countries even put their own spin into some of the dishes. The demand is astounding and this is evidenced even by the long lines in a lot of dim sum places in Singapore. However, this much following pushed a lot of restaurants to turn to factory-made dim sum. What most people don’t know is that the dimsum they are savouring may actually may be a commercialized version.

When do you know it’s factory-made?

Singapore alone is teeming with a lot of places that offer dimsum. Many are average, some are good, while others nail it right down to every morsel. But how will you know if what’s piping hot in that bamboo basket is indeed handmade?

A machine may be more efficient in delivering results, but it will never replace the care a person is able to give when he carefuly rolls a siu mai ball. There is still something unique about how a person, who has mastered the craft, is able to deliver results, especially when it comes to you fresh and steaming. It’s just like designer bags getting more premium because it was handstiched, or high-end watches being special editions because these are crafted manually right to the finest details.

Those who have developed a palate for authentic Cantonese cooking would be able to distinguish that a factory-made siew mai often taste bland, pasty, and loaded with MSG. Buns should also stick together when served to know that these are indeed fresh.


Photo credit: Sarah_Ackerman via / CC BY

The beauty in the preparation

As they say, dim sum is an art that could take decades, or even a lifetime, to master. It may seem like casual fare to most of us, having these bite-sized dishes set against the more elaborate Chinese recipes. The effort that goes into the preparation sometimes get lost in the fact that these balls, rolls, and the occasional tasty options, are just easily popped into the mouth. So why should there be so much fuss in making them?

Thankfully there are some who still find it very important to remain true to the tradition of dim sum cooking, which is doing everything by hand. The goodness and the difference really comes in the details. Even some dim sum chefs in Hong Kong believed that this practice needs to be kept, and they made it their calling to deliver the true art of dim sum cooking. Dim sum will remain for years to come, however, the craftsmanship is slowly slipping away.

Back in the 70s it was very gruelling to just even be a part of being in the running for a dim sum chef trainee. One has to do menial labour first, like cleaning bamboo baskets, before the person is allowed in the prep kitchen. This place is divided into sections with each having a certain level of difficulty. These trainees would have to pass and perfect a certain station first before they can move on to the next. Who knew spring rolls can cause you to break a sweat, right? So they have to perfect perfecting the ridges in a har gau, before they are even allowed to fry spring rolls.

It was in this training that these chosen few are taught how to properly rinse a shrimp so as not to lose the natural flavour, carefully make a roll with a delicate rice flour batter, how to neatly fold dumplings with finesse, and how to create the perfect golden crisp for anything deep fried.

Chef Chui Hui, who is one of those who aim to keep this beautiful tradition, said that a lot of the young chefs today are less interested in learning and mastering the hard graft in preparing dim sum. This is sad because if this keeps on, who knew that we could still be getting better than the kind of dim sum fare we settle for at present.

It is also an integral part of the training that the ingredients are fresh, cleaned, and cut. Any leftovers are tossed out, and this is the key in preserving good taste and marrying excellent flavours and textures.

In search of good food

If you are in the constant search for good food, it does pay to be more keen about the details. You never know how much more rewarding a dimsum experience is if you get the ones of quality, especially with a specialty that has spanned centuries in popularity.

In Singapore, there are some establishments like Tak Po who still live and breath the traditional style of giving patrons handmade dim sum dishes. Yes, just like other places we serve it hot, but the freshness is definitely guaranteed! In keeping with the key facet of the Cantonese culture, we prepare our dim sum portions by hand.

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