Pros: Delicious recipes; great instructions; clear layout
Cons: Some time-consuming techniques; some ingredients are harder to find than others
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 7/8/2003
One of the best things about moving from Vermont to the Boston area to go to college was the wide spread of ethnic restaurants in the Boston area. I discovered Mexican, Thai, Japanese, and all sorts of wonderful flavors–including dim sum, or Chinese “tea lunch.” This was always something one did with at least four or five friends. You went to a restaurant that served dim sum (which usually required a trip to Chinatown), and hopefully you took someone with you who actually spoke the language, although you could muddle along without. People brought carts full of amazing little treats around and you let them know which ones you wanted to try. The dishes came in small amounts, and with a decent number of people you could try a lot of different things without becoming over-full. It was a sheer delight!
Now that I’ve moved away from the Boston area I thought I’d never get to have dim sum again. Until, that is, my husband got me an anniversary gift of several dim sum cookbooks! Since then, we’ve been going a little crazy. Ellen Leong Blonder’s “Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch” looked to be one of the most basic, explanatory, user-friendly cookbooks in the bunch, so we decided to start with it. And oh, have we been amply rewarded!
Introduction: This touches on some of the basics of dim sum in a manner that will leave you hungry to get down to business and cook. The descriptions of dim sum restaurants and dishes are mouth-watering. There’s a handy list of dishes that can be made ahead and frozen, as well as one of dishes that can be partially prepared ahead.
The Role of Tea: A bit of history, accompanied by some notes on the various teas you might have with your dim sum as well as brewing instructions.
Steamed Dumplings: Ms. Blonder starts with the basic doughs, so you can make your own wrappers for your dumplings rather than having to buy them. She includes a wheat starch dough, flour dough, egg dough, spinach dough, carrot dough, curry dough, and spring roll wrappers. Then on to the actual dumplings: Scallop Dumplings, Crab Dumplings, Three-Mushroom Dumplings, Pork and Shrimp Siu Mai, Seafood Soup Dumplings, and more.
She includes hand-drawn diagrams showing you how to properly close the dumpling wrappers around the filling. The recipes are also usually surprisingly simple–the fillings aren’t all that complex, relying on a small collection of intense flavoring agents such as toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, rice wine or dry sherry, and sugar.
Boiled and Pan-Fried Dumplings: The Boiled Beef Dumplings were the first things we tried, and they knocked our socks off! You’ll also find Fish Dumplings, Chive Dumplings, and Potstickers (with filling variations).
Breads and Baked Dishes: When Ms. Blonder says “breads,” she means filled breads. For instance, Steamed Char Siu Bao is a slightly sweet and vinegary bread wrapped around a filling of marinated roasted pork. There’s also a Vegetarian “Char Siu” Bao, a pork-filled Pan-Fried Bao that is absolutely heavenly, Scallion Pancakes, Char Siu Pastries, and more.
Note that if you make the wrappers yourself it can take a while to do all the bits of rolling out and wrapping, particularly if you aren’t experienced with the wrapping methods. It’s worth it though!
Rice and Rice Flour Dishes: Chicken and Sausage Rice Bowl, Rice in Lotus Leaf Packets, Glutinous Rice Bowl, Rice Flour Sheets, Rice Flour Rolls with Beef, and more.
A good selection of the recipes in this cookbook are vegetarian or come with alternate vegetarian versions, but the meat-eaters certainly aren’t left out either. A few ingredients will be hard to find if you don’t have access to an Asian market (like Chinese sausage and lotus leaves); however, a lot of this stuff can be ordered online at this point.
Greens and Pan-Fried Dishes: Greens with Oyster Sauce and Oil, Pea Shoots with Garlic, Stuffed Bell Peppers, Turnip Cake, and an absolutely delectable Stuffed Mushroom recipe (stuffed with a pork mixture!).
Here I have to point out just how accurate and well-tested the recipe instructions are. As my husband pointed out while we were making the stuffed mushrooms, almost any recipe that says to cook for a certain amount of time until all water has evaporated is guaranteed to be wrong. Don’t ask me why–it just seems to be a truism of cookbooks. There’s all this water in there, usually surrounding an item (like mushrooms) that also gives off a lot of liquid of its own, and somehow the water never cooks off in anything remotely like the amount of time specified in the recipe. In this cookbook, however, that truism breaks. We’ve made two recipes now that involved cooking until all water evaporated, and they worked perfectly, exactly as written.
Deep-Fried and Bean Curd Sheet Dishes: Here you’ll find handy tips on setting up for deep frying, followed by a recipe for Taro Dumplings that has my mouth watering! There are Deep-Fried Pork Dumplings, Deep-Fried Crab Claws, Deep-Fried Stuffed Eggplant, Spring Rolls, Salt-Fried Whole Prawns, Bean Curd Rolls, and more.
Meats: The Char Siu recipe is found here (for the filling of the Char Siu Bao), as well as a few others: Steamed Spareribs, Beef Meatballs, and Beef Stew.
Sweets: How could I resist little cubes of light almond “pudding” served with fresh fruit? Or a Mango Pudding, or my favorite: Baked (or Steamed) Sweet Bao? (In case you can’t find the lotus seeds necessary for the sweet lotus filling, there’s also a sweet red bean filling.)
Sauces and Condiments: While some dim sum dishes (like Bao) taste like they have their own flavorful dipping sauce built in, others are designed with accompaniment in mind. So here you’ll find recipes for a fabulous Soy Vinegar Dip, Sweet Soy Sauce, Sweet and Sour Sauce, Chili Oil, and more.
Finally you’ll find six simple menus in case you have no idea what to serve with what; a list of supplies you’ll want on hand; contact info for suppliers of equipment and ingredients; a listing of more useful books; and a very thorough and easy to use index.
In short this is a fantastic resource, with more than 60 recipes, for those of us who just can’t live without dim sum. Most of the recipes take a little work, but the results are more than worth it.
Now you’ll have to excuse me–I need to go to the fridge and get one of those Pan-Fried Bao before I pass out from review-writing-induced hunger!