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The Art Of Making Dim Sum

HONG KONG – The chef's hands were hardened by the crusted flour. Every day, thousands of pieces of dim sum, each one hand rolled. Every wrap mixed, mashed and flattened in the blink of an eye. Bamboo baskets stacked ten high, waiting to be steamed and served.

Dim sum has its origins many thousands of years ago in the tea houses of southern China where it was served as a snack accompanying tea. Because of these origins, eating dim sum is still known as “drink tea” (飲茶 - yum cha) in Cantonese. However in the centuries since it has evolved from a snack to the staple meal of Hong Kong. Throughout the city dim sum is served in bamboo baskets (as seen in photo 1)  to ravenous patrons in venues that range from the tiniest of street food stalls to Michelin-rated restaurants housed in skyscrapers.

I recently went into the kitchen of The Peninsula Hotel – Hong Kong's oldest and most refined hotel – to discover the art of making dim sum from one of the hotel's renowned dim sum masters, Chef Lee (as seen in photo 2).

Chef Lee has been making dim sum at Spring Moon – the Peninsula's Chinese restaurant – for 25 years. Every day he and two staff hand wrap each and every piece of dim sum served in the restaurant. But today, before opening the restaurant, he was taking the time to show me the art of making dim sum.

Two dishes were on the menu for the day: har gau (shrimp and bamboo chutes) and gow choi gau (shrimp and chives). The ingredients for each were already carefully laid out on the dim sum station's counter as I walked into the kitchen.

The first step into turning these ingredients into dim sum is making the wrap. For this we had two different types of flour: a high-protein flour and a bean flour. For har gau wraps the mixture has to be a perfect 50/50 split, while for gow choi gau slightly more high-protein flour is used. After the flour is mixed, boiling water is added to harden the flour.

At this point Chef Lee takes a small piece of flour and methodically flattens it into a small circle using a Chinese chef's knife that resembles a cleaver (as seen in photo 3). The key to this process is a small towel soaked in oil which is used to lubricate the knife.

Chef Lee then places the flattened wrap in his hand and puts a small amount of filling inside it.

His hands carefully shape the wrap and create its textured decorations at almost impossible speeds. In what seems like a flash he has already filled several bamboo baskets with dim sum.

Designing the wraps is harder than it seems and each design is a bit different. My clumsy fingers were virtually incapable of shaping the dim sum without creating a mess (as seen in photo 4).

The final step in the dim sum process is loading the bamboo baskets onto the high-powered steamer, where they are stacked ten baskets high and steamed for exactly three minutes (as seen in photo 5).

After all of this it was finally time for lunch. As we sat down to feast, it was easy to tell between the mangled pieces of dim sum that I had made and the elegant pieces Chef Lee had labored over. It's hard to believe that he goes through so much effort every day just to make delicious dim sum, but such is the price of being a dim sum master.

All photos courtesy of Dakota Smith