Wed, 09 Jul 2003

Chef serves up 60 varieties of dim sum

Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Created over a millennium ago, delicious Chinese treats dim sum remain a popular feast around the world, and please the eyes and palate of modern food-lovers.

The food, literally meaning a touch of heart, was initially created by a court chef to please a Sung emperor with a unique, yet special dish, created to touch his heart. He invented dim sum, consisting of a wide range of beautiful-looking dishes, each with a delectable flavor.

Some types of dim sum, like savory buns and dumplings, were specially hand shaped to create a variety of interesting shapes to please the emperor's eye.

In the course of time, dim sum was also commonly served at tea houses to accompany yam cha (the tea drinking experience) between main meals.

The deliciousness of this attractive dish spread very fast to neighboring areas and its popularity soon grew, even among commoners. It did not take long for people from other regions in China to prepare the dish, and each region's had its own distinctive character.

"In northern China, where the climate is colder, people developed unique types of dim sum using exotic meats like snake and rabbit, which have a warming effect on the body, while in southern China, people used mainly seafood items to create the dish," said Kelvin Chow, manager at Samudra Shark's Fin restaurant, Hotel Mulia, Central Jakarta.

But such a distinction has become blurred, as a wide variety of ingredients is available everywhere.

The spread of Chinese immigrants to various parts of the globe also helped spread the popularity of dim sum to the part of the world they lived in.

While maintaining the true flavors of some classic dim sum, like char siu bao (bun filled with barbecued pork), lo ma kai (stuffed rice wrapped in lotus leaves), steamed chicken feet, steamed spare ribs, wonton and egg custard tart, restaurant chef Desmond Lam said that Chinese chefs around the world have for centuries invented their own dim sum varieties using ingredients readily available in their respective countries.

For the restaurant's dim sum a la carte breakfast, available every Sunday and holidays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., chef Lam creates around 60 types of a la carte dim sum and introduces new types every week.

Even though most restaurants try to serve up authentic Chinese flavors, in some countries the flavor can be adjusted through the use of condiments popular among locals.

"Chili sauce is a common condiment for siu may and other types of dim sum in Indonesia but not in China," said Kelvin.

In Jakarta, dim sum is served in many Chinese restaurants and its locally most popular version siu may is even sold in push carts by roadside vendors, found on every corner of the capital.

In the modern era, the dish is considered a snack, an appetizer or light dish, and it is served at breakfast, lunch or coffee time. "Quite a few Indonesians want to eat dim sum for dinner simply because they want to have a light dish to end the day with," Kelvin said.

In terms of variety, the versatile dish comes in many forms, either hot or cold, sweet or savory, and each is individually prepared using different cooking methods, like steaming, stir frying, deep frying, or boiling. All are freshly carried to customers in a special cart, pushed by a dim sum server.

"The soup-like version can be served to precede the other savory types, while sweet dim sum, like egg custard tart, can be and are usually eaten to wrap up the meal," said Kelvin.

At least five different types of elegantly shaped dim sum are served at a single meal, with hot dim sum served piping hot in bamboo baskets, straight from the steamer, but for other, more special occasions, more extensive types are prepared.

Chinese communities traditionally serve dim sum with Chinese tea, as they believe that the tea helps neutralize the grease or fat content in dim sum.

By the end of the meal, people will have satisfied their hunger for various palatable treats, without feeling too full.