A length of fresh dough lies on the worktop. The chef liberates a thumb-sized piece, rolls it into a ball and presses the plane of his cleaver down on it. A near-perfect circle of flattened dough emerges beneath the blade, so thin you can almost see the metal kitchen counter through it. Into this he places a spoonful of shrimp mix, before expertly cinching the dough around it, creating small folds with one hand while pressing it closed with the other to reveal a perfectly formed har gow. This shrimp dumpling is then steamed, the pink flesh visible through a fine, translucent skin.
“The essence of dim sum is the hand craftsmanship. It requires skill and years of training,” says Saito Chau, a chef with vast experience in contemporary Cantonese cuisine. “It’s the attention to detail, precision and the human touch. The handmade element is irreplaceable.” There is however, room for innovation and, in recent years, dim sum has undergone an evolution, both aesthetically and in terms of ingredients.
“A recent trend has been to do colourful dim sum or to add faces, and people loved it for Instagram says chef Leung Kin-wai, head dim sum chef at Shang Palace at the Kowloon Shangri-la who has been creating dim sum for almost three decades. But today I think people want to focus on the quality of the food — the ingredients and how you cook it, more than just the visuals,” says Chau, who elevates his dim sum by using premium ingredients and sustainable produce, from Iberico pork fillings for his BBQ pineapple and pork puffed buns, to sustainably sourced prawns in his tiger prawn har gow, and free-range, organic chicken, which he incorporates into an alternative take on siu mai.
Hong Kong has no shortage of quality dim sum — traditional, modern and everything in between — that can be enjoyed all over the city in eateries ranging from small family cafes to Michelin-starred restaurants. More widely, dim sum chefs are removing lard from dim sum recipes, to make certain items completely vegetarian or to replace it with a healthier option. There’s also a drive for greater creativity, embracing new ingredients or combinations while ensuring the essence of dim sum is retained in these new interpretations. Take John Anthony’s rosé champagne har gow, in which Chau uses rosé champagne instead of water to make the dough for the dumpling skin, and marinates the shrimp in rosé to enhance both colour and flavour.
“In our hearts we still want to focus on the traditional Cantonese cooking but to bring new ingredients and techniques to make it more interesting. It’s important for chefs to balance creativity with traditional authentic elements,” says Chau. “To be a good dim sum chef today you have to think outside the box and be creative, but you can’t lose the basics, those traditional skills to make dim sum,” adds chef Leung. “And, most importantly, you have to use your hands and put your heart into it.” Dim sum, after all, translates as ‘touch of the heart’.
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