Many Westerners think of dim sum as a small dumpling with meat in sweet sauce inside. Indeed, that is one popular type.
But dim sum is not a particular recipe, but a way of serving that entails dozens of choices. Carts roll by the table that hold a dazzling array of taste treats.
Dim sum, a thousand choices
Even in the category of dumplings alone there is a huge variety of recipes. Many use a flour base that produces a soft steamed ball. But what goes into that sphere is as different as the number of products found in the region of its birth.
The simple Gau or Gau Ji is a very thin shell made of rice flour. The paste makes for a delicate and difficult dish to produce, but one that is delightful to eat. They may be filled with pickled cabbage, tofu or other vegetables but are always a fine part of dim sum.
Seafood makes for a popular stuffing for dim sum and the choices here are equally diverse. Shrimp -Har Gau- stuffed into a steamed dumpling is common in number but not in taste. A variety of prawns may be used and they can be added alone or with numerous nuts and spices. Crab roe often find their way into a dim sum dumpling where they may be smothered in Chinese mushrooms. Fried squid is likely to be on a dim sum cart, too.
Chiu-Chao style dumplings may contain shrimp or pork, but they are far from lonely in their shell. Peanuts and mushrooms are common ingredients, spiced with garlic, chives and other delicacies.
Bau of various types are an item diners will often see on a cart. But if they're wheeled by, they won't remain there long. Stuffed with roast pork and flavored with green onions, the bun is sweetened with a light sugar glaze that turns the dumpling from white to brown. But in any color these are a treat.
Purely vegetable offerings are a common selection. A roll stuffed with carrots, cabbage and wood ear fungus are a favorite among vegetarian lovers of dim sum.
Still, dumplings or buns - no matter what they're made from or stuffed with - don't exhaust the options.
Congee, a kind of rice porridge, is often found among the offerings. Desserts, such as Chien Chang Go or thousand-layer cake made from egg and sweetened dough, are just as frequently found.
Silky tofu smothered in a syrup flavored with ginger is a delight anytime a diner is having dim sum. Steamed sponge cake flavored with molasses lends a sweet finish to many offering.
Originating in Canton, dim sum spread to other provinces in China and to the rest of the world. Today this a la cart style of dining is enjoyed in homes and restaurants all over the globe. Try some and you'll soon see why.