"Dim Sum: Delicious Asian Finger Food," by Fiona Smith

Pros: An unusual take on a traditional food that will give you new ideas; great recipes
Cons: It would be nice to have more than 30 recipes, but at least those 30 are so good!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 12/31/2003

Dim sum is such a delightful tradition–having first sampled it at restaurants in Boston, to me it will always be this amazing spread of tiny little appetizers, usually in some sort of wrapper, that delight the senses. It’s something we always got in groups, because otherwise it was hard to get a wide enough sampling of dishes and still have room for it all. Now that there’s a decent spread of dim sum cookbooks available, the problem has become much easier to solve.

Recently I had a birthday, and I told my husband that I wanted a home-cooked dim sum feast as the dinner. (We both love to cook as well as eat.) Since many dim sum dishes freeze well (either before or after cooking, depending on the dish), we decided to make a great range of dishes, sampling everything and freezing the excess for another time. This gave us the opportunity to thoroughly explore our collection of dim sum cookbooks, one of which was Fiona Smith’s “Dim Sum: Delicious Asian Finger Food.” Ms. Smith is apparently from New Zealand (now working out of Europe), and this has flavored her take on the traditional dishes, giving some of them a new and unusual flair.

Style and Function

Every recipe comes with an artfully arranged photo as background, showing what the recipe will (ideally) look like when you’re done with it. The photos are gorgeous and wonderful to look at, and sometimes aid you in figuring out exactly what the author means when she gives an instruction on how to put something together. (Not that her instructions are confusing, but sometimes pictures can say things that are difficult to get across through words.)

The recipes are fairly simple and short, and simply arranged. Ingredients are nicely separated from directions, and directions are divided into short paragraphs. Each recipe comes with a brief paragraph commenting on some aspect of the recipe or the tradition behind it.

The book is really quite elegant and nice to look at, and lies relatively flat while open.

Content

The book includes a very brief introduction to the idea of dim sum–this really isn’t an introductory text, and would not be best as a first dim sum book unless the cook using it is experienced and confident in the kitchen in general. (Ellen Leong Blonder’s Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch makes a great starting text.)

Next come vegetables, fish and seafood, chicken and duck, meat, sweet things, and dips and sauces. Recipes range from the extraordinarily basic (sesame wonton chips) to the more complex (pot sticker dumplings with peanuts, tofu, and vegetables). Recipes usually contain suggestions for accompanying dips and sauces with page numbers referring to any appropriate recipes. They include an estimate of the number of pieces the recipe will make, the point (if any) at which the recipe can be frozen, and often some tidbit about the type of wrapper (if any) that’s being used–such as the expected dimensions of the wrapper and how many are typically found in a package.

Recipes range from “crisp vegetables with roasted salt and pepper dip” (read: tempura), to sweet and sour pickled vegetables, wilted bean sprout and peanut salad, salmon and Asian pesto packages, mussels with egg noodles and black bean sauce, shrimp and scallion fritters (which are “based on a Mexican original” with “a Chinese twist”), little Szechuan chicken steamed buns, steamed dumplings with kaffir lime and lemongrass, peking-style duck pancake wraps, and a decent spread of dips and sauces–as well as other dishes.

The recipes don’t call for a lot of unusual ingredients. We can find many of them at our local generic grocery store (and it doesn’t have a lot of odd stuff), and sometimes substitutions are suggested. For example, when making sticky rice in banana leaves with chicken skewers, it’s suggested that you could use foil instead of banana leaves. Ethnicgrocer.com can be a good source of some harder-to-find ingredients such as lemongrass.

The recipes come out uniformly delicious and delightful in our experience. The chile beef wontons are, so far, our favorite of the various fried wonton recipes we’ve made. The tiny pork, tofu, and broccoli spring rolls are delicious. The mango wontons with lime sauce were to die for. And this book is one of the best sources, among the dim sum books we have, for sauces and dips. There are only four of them (technically there are a few additional ones to be found among the other recipes), but they’re perfect: a sweet chile sauce that goes well with almost anything, plum sauce, soy and ginger sauce, and a sweet and sour sesame sauce that’s even better than the sweet chile sauce (and beats every other “sweet and sour” sauce we’ve tried so far, hands down).

Fiona Smith’s approach to dim sum may be slightly unorthodox, but if you enjoy dim sum in specific or small appetizer foods in general, it’s well worth a look. The recipes are fresh and creative, fairly easy, and absolutely delicious!

Posted in Cooking, Reviews

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