It's 10 a.m. and already the dim sum kitchen at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong is abuzz. Vegetables are being chopped at lightening speed, steaming pans are emitting fragrant clouds into the air, and orders are being shouted out in Cantonese. Chef Leung Tsang Hoi is busy making dough for the har gau dumplings—pulling and kneading it to make sure it is of the perfect elasticity.
Chef Leung has specialized in dim sum for the past 35 years, having worked in Macau before moving to Hong Kong, when the Ritz-Carlton opened two years ago. Tin Lung Heen, its Cantonese restaurant, which recently gained its second Michelin star under chef de cuisine Paul Lau, churns out 700-1,400 pieces of dim sum a day, ranging from simple vegetarian mushroom to a gourmet house specialty of roast goose with abalone. "It is easy," chef Lau says, passing through, as I prepare to embark on my one-on-one lesson with his dim sum chef. "You will learn in no time."
Dim sum was originally a snack that accompanied the yum cha tradition of tea drinking, which had its roots in the Silk Route. It is now one of Hong Kong's most revered culinary traditions and is considered a staple meal, with fierce competition among top restaurants and hotels to win the loyalty of the families who make it their Sunday ritual. Although every region has its own version, many consider those found in Hong Kong the best in the world. The Cantonese offerings made here are smaller and more refined than those found in the north, where the dough is thicker and often comes with liquid fillings.
Restaurants in Hong Kong start serving dim sum as dawn breaks, although most is traditionally eaten at lunchtime; these days, however, many restaurants, including the one at the Ritz-Carlton, also serve it at dinner, alongside fine wines and fiery Moutai, a spirit made in southwest China.
Though this is one of the glitziest hotels in Hong Kong, something ancient still pervades the dim-sum kitchen—hand-held balance scales lie on the counter beside bamboo steamers, old knives and pots of dried haddock.
After donning my whites, and observing the flurry of activity around me in the relatively small space, it is time to begin.
First up is the famous har gau shrimp dumplings. The chefs have been here since 7 a.m. making the dough—rice flour, starch, chicken powder, sugar and salt. Along with mastering the art of chopping so that the fillings are uniform and blended, and the origami-like art of folding, one of the great arts of making dim sum is knowing exactly the point at which the dough is ready. It needs to be elastic enough to be translucent, and knowing when that exact point is takes years to master. The filling is ready: minced shrimp has been mixed with asparagus, bamboo shoots and oil, all finely blended together.
Chef Leung, with his lifetime of experience, can make more than 100 different types of dim sum. The hardest? "These ones," he says, pointing to the har gau. I watch as he deftly rolls out a circle of dough on a board until it is perfectly spherical, then, using a large dim sum knife, peels it off and places it in his hand. He then takes a small amount of the mixture and, at lightning speed, starts pinching it a total of 13 times—almost into itself—until it becomes a perfect package with a fan-like closing, like a miniature Cornish pasty.
It cannot be that hard, I tell myself. Yet despite my best efforts, dexterity fails me and it ends up a spectacular mess—large, ungainly and misshapen. His, like all the dim sum here, are small and delicate, very different from the giant three-bite offerings I am increasingly used to back home in London. After five attempts, my dim sum resembles something one might put on a plate, if not dim sum itself. How long did it take chef Leung to master it? "Three years," he replies, deadpan.
As he is preparing the filling for the steamed barbecue pork buns, he lists the most important factors for making dim sum. "The filling has to be firm," chef Leung says. "The skin is very important: not too thick, it should not stick on paper or chopsticks, and it should not be overcooked so that the skin falls apart."
“One of the great arts of making dim sum is knowing exactly the point at which the dough is ready.”
Thankfully, the pork buns prove a little easier. Here, the dough, made from flour, sugar and water, has been made the day before. Barbecue pork—aromatic, dark and sticky—is mixed with oyster sauce. This is relatively simple: a piece of dough is shaped into a circle, around 10 grams of filling is placed inside and then it is simply closed and pinched at the top, then steamed. No fancy folds here.
As the aroma of sesame oil fills the air and as the pork buns steam away, we move on to siu mai, open-topped prawn and pork dumplings with mushroom. Here, the dough is thicker and more manageable. After the filling has been chopped finely enough, chef Leung rolls out a circle of dough, simply puts the filling inside, and gathers up the edges like a basket. After 10 minutes in a steamer, they are ready to eat.
I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never be one of life's great dim sum chefs, but at home, there are things one can do to make it a little easier—buying the pre-made wrappers for starters. Something tells me, however, that there is no easy way to master the folds without years of hard grind, and quite rightly, I think, as chef Leung starts making a perfect rabbit-shaped dim sum with barely a glance at what his fingers are doing.
As I watch the dim sum emerge from their various steamers, pots and pans, it is clear which ones are mine: the ones that look like alien invasions in an otherwise pristine and uniform spread. Despite their appearance, my creations taste fine, proving, that, as long as you aren't too obsessed with appearance, there is no harm in trying.
Chef Leung, who since my visit has returned to Macau to take charge of dim sum at the Wynn hotel, looks over my work and says tactfully: "Very good for a first timer."
Making Your Own
Dim sum may take a while to master but if you want to have a crack at it, make sure you are armed with the correct equipment.
STEAMERS | Although it's possible to steam dim sum in a metal steamer, stay traditional with bamboo for more authentic flavor (£17.95, divertimenti.co.uk). Alternatively, use a silicon steamer inserted into the top of a pan (£18.70, Chef'n SleekStor VeggiSteam, cookcraft.co.uk).
WRAPPERS | Buy your wonton wrappers—ingredients, or ready-made options—online from stores like theasiancookshop.co.uk.
COURSES | Get a helping hand. In London, Angela Malik holds around four a year at £65 per two-hour session (angelamalik.co.uk). In Paris, L'Atelier de Bernard holds classes in French (latelierdebernard.com).
COOKBOOKS | For everyday help, invest in a cookbook. "Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch" (Clarkson Potter, 2002) by Ellen-Leong Blonder offers step-by-step recipes, while Kylie Kwong's "Simple Chinese Cooking" (Viking Studio, 2007) has a good dim sum section.