Forget paper, gunpowder, tea and umbrellas. China’s greatest contribution to my personal culture is dim sum, a meal traditionally eaten for brunch. It’s made up of an array of tiny dishes of little stuffed buns, fried morsels and steamed goodies, all artfully presented, perfectly delicious and the optimum size to pop effortlessly into a lazy weekend mouth.
Dim sum translates from the Cantonese as “to touch the heart”. For us it’s always something best shared and enjoyed with friends and family. This weekend, we went to Taipan, an excellent restaurant located surprisingly in the jungle of concrete and traffic controls that is Milton Keynes. The owner informs me that their new chef is presently doing something very wonderful in the evenings with garoupa and other fish considered delicacies in Hong Kong but relatively unheard of here – I’ll have to pop back in in a few weeks to check it out.
We rolled up with my parents, who live nearby enough that we can pretend we’re not driving fifty miles just for lunch, and set about the dim sum menu (presented here as a list of numbers, menu items and boxes to tick; three or so dishes per head should be sufficient, but we usually seem to tick more) with gusto. We then asked the manager if we could have the black bean crab (not dim sum, but an evening restaurant dish) as well. It’s an excellent time of year for crab, and the one which arrived at our table, steamed, segmented by the chef and stir-fried in a glossy black bean and pepper sauce was full of rich red roe, tasting of the sea. The sweet meat came away from the claws and legs we cracked open cleanly, with a minimum of the slightly revolting sucking which everyone in my family seems to start doing the moment we think nobody’s looking. We puddled the meat in the sauce.
Dumplings started to arrive in the bamboo steamers they were cooked in. Clockwise from the top, these are chiu-chau fun guo (peanuts, garlic chives, pork, prawns and shitake mushrooms), prawn and coriander dumplings (whole and minced prawn with herbs), and crystal dumplings (pork, water chestnuts, bamboo shoot, prawns, and other vegetables). We ate these with fresh chilis in soy sauce. A chili sauce and a chili oil were also on the table.
Each of these dumplings is wrapped in a rice flour skin, which becomes transluscent when steamed. Texture here is as important as flavour, and the different meats and vegetables which go to make the fillings were cut evenly into tiny pieces. The crystal dumplings in particular have a beautifully fresh crunch.
This dumpling is a bao, a fluffy, steamed bun made from a yeasty, white flour dough. This particular bao is filled with char siu, a barbecued pork in a rich red sauce. (An excellent char siu recipe used to be found at Shiokadelicious, which, to my horror, doesn’t seem to be around any more. Perhaps Renee got a recipe book deal. Fortunately, Jessica at Su Good Eats makes it to a similar recipe here.)
This particular bao is about half the size of my clenched fist. (I seem to clench my fists a lot these days.) When we visit family in Malaysia, one of my favourite breakfasts is one of these buns (but a larger one, perhaps the size of Mr Weasel’s muscular clenched fist), stuffed with char siu or perhaps with a gingery chicken mixture, or a paler pork in garlic. We really miss out here in England, where our closest equivalent is the dry-as-dust Cornish pasty. Don’t expect a recipe for one of those any time soon.
Nuggets of turnip paste rolled in XO Sauce and fried until the outsides are crisp arrive. Each is the size of a grape. Turnip paste sounds very un-prepossessing in English, but is actually a light savoury cake made of grated mooli (Japanese radish), rice flour, preserved Chinese meats, dried shrimp, ginger and other spices. It’s always fried or baked until crispy – this presentation makes it even crisper and lighter, while the XO Sauce underlines the flavours already present in the paste. My friend Wai’s mother makes a wonderful turnip paste at home – I must ask her for the recipe.
I am delighted that the waiter has decided to put this dish next to me. I cunningly hide it from everyone else behind the teapot.
More dishes arrive. Unfortunately, despite my best effort with the teapot, the family is swooping in with chopsticks faster than I can take photographs now, and I need to get in there too if I’m not to be denied my rightful dumplings. I manage one more photograph; a chive dumpling (pork, chives, garlic, soy and spices) which is first steamed, then pan-fried to get this crisp finish. These are garlic chives, which presently I don’t grow in the garden; I think I have a packet of seeds somewhere, so hopefully you’ll get to see some in the summer. They’re thicker than normal chives, and have a pronounced garlic flavour.
Several dishes later (I’ll have go back to Taipan in a few weeks and do a follow-up post so you can find out about the rest of them) we admit defeat, and waddle from the restaurant into the gaping maw of Milton Keynes, where I need to find some shoes for the wedding we’re going to in India in a few days. Thank God your feet don’t get noticeably fatter when you eat your own bodyweight in dumplings all at one sitting.