Way back in the early Eighties, when the Taj Group was planning its second hotel in New Delhi, it faced the dilemma of what kind of Oriental restaurant to open. The Taj already ran the massively successful House Of Ming at the Taj Mahal. How could it open a second restaurant without stealing business from its front-runner?
Camellia Panjabi, the then Taj’s executive director offered a solution. Suppose the hotel eschewed the Sichuan route and went in a different direction? The Taj could open a dim sum place. It would be a teahouse that would serve dumplings all day and guests could drop in whenever they liked and eat as much as they wanted.
The Tea House Of The August Moon opened at the Taj Palace soon after the hotel was launched in 1982. The dim sum menu was interesting but it rapidly became clear that the restaurant was ahead of its time. Delhi was only just getting used to real Chinese food (The House Of Ming had opened in 1978) and nobody had the patience to develop a taste for dim sum. Though the restaurant continued to serve dim sum for some years it became – bit by bit – a House Of Ming clone in terms of its menu, at least.
Looking back, I think Camellia was being too ambitious. In the early Eighties, it was rare to find a dim sum restaurant outside of mainland China or the overseas Chinese enclaves (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore etc.) Even New York and London had yet to discover the joys of dim sum. To expect Delhi’s Punjabis to forsake their Chicken Hong Kong and other House of Ming favourites for some delicate dumplings was probably unreasonable.
On the other hand, were the Taj to attempt something like that today, the idea may meet with more success. Suddenly, dim sum is a global craze. London’s Yauatcha opened its Bombay branch a few months ago (see last week’s Rude Food) and there will be more Yauatchas in other cities. The assembly-line dim sum chain Ping Pong is a big hit everywhere in the West. And Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung (DTF) is expanding at a massive pace, opening branches all over the world.
In India, Royal China owes some of its success to the high quality of its dim sum. The Delhi branch does an enormously successful dim sum brunch on Sundays and most people who go to the two Bombay Royal Chinas order the dim sum. In Delhi, one of the many attractions on the menu at Set’z is the cheung fan, a sort of dim sum rice crepe that is hard to find at most other restaurants.
What accounts for the sudden popularity of dim sum, a kind of food that has been around for years but has never been as highly lauded as it is today? I may be stretching the point but my guess is that the dim sum craze is not unlike the sushi phenomenon. Young people want simple foods that can be consumed on their own. Moreover, because most dim sum are steamed, they are also – like sushi – the healthy option for those who want to steer clear of oil, grease or fried foods.
Indians always act as though dim sum are an unfamiliar food but the truth is that we have been eating them for many decades now. We just don’t call them dim sum – we prefer to use the term momo.
There is probably a book – or a TV programme at least – to be done on the spread of momo in India. But whatever position you take on the origins of the dish – is it Tibetan? Is it Nepali? etc – the reality is that in much of North and Eastern India, momos have always been popular as a cheap and easy-to-make snack food. I once wrote that the best way to eat well in the restaurants of the North East was to stick to momos – to howls of outrage from the citizens of the North East who believed that I was disparaging their local cuisines. (I wasn’t. It’s just that you don’t get their local cuisines in the restaurants of the region.)
My momo memories stretch back to the streets of Calcutta. My dim sum memories, however, are more recent. Of course, I have always known what dim sum are but somehow I never really saw the point of fat balls of dough stuffed with minced meat of indeterminate origin.
Then, over a decade ago, I went to Taiwan. No matter what anyone may tell you, some of the best Chinese food in the world in not to be found in Shanghai or Hong Kong – you’ll find it in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. The Taiwanese are justly proud of their expertise with dim sum and my guide insisted on taking me to what he claimed was the best dim sum restaurant in the world: “Very difficult to get a table! Japanese tourists book it months in advance.”
It was a not terribly fancy place called Din Tai Fung, which I had never heard of before and the star attraction was the soup dumpling. This was a small dim sum that looked no different from anything else. But when you put it into your mouth and bit into it, hot soup gushed forth.
My guide was clearly used to taking foreigners to DTF and waited for my look of astonishment as the soup filled my mouth. Naturally, I asked him how they managed that. “They put in the soup with a syringe,” he laughed. “No, actually, they freeze the soup and then when they steam it, the soup melts.” Later, I was to discover that it was a little more complicated than that. They turned the soup into a gelatinous substance that liquefies while the dim sum are being steamed.
There is no unanimity over the credit for discovering the soup dim sum. The Taiwanese say they invented it. Other Chinese say that the recipe has been around for years and that the Taiwanese did no more than popularise it. Either way, it is hard for me to dispute that it was that one visit to DTF that opened my eyes to the glories of dim sum. The DTF dim sum were light, the skin was translucent and the filling seemed to glow from deep inside.
Within a few years, the West began offering great dim sum. I had been to the vast dim sum restaurants of Chinatown in New York and London but though the dim sum kept coming on trolleys and in baskets, the quality was rarely memorable. That changed with the opening of the original Hakkasan in London where the dim sum lunch was not just excellent, it was also good value. Then, Alan Yau, who started Hakkasan, opened Yauatcha, a restaurant dedicated primarily to dim sum and the whole of England fell in love with the concept.
In recent years, dim sum has gone mass market with the Ping Pong chain. I have never been overly impressed by the quality of the food but you can’t quibble with the chain’s global success. As far as I can tell, the idea is to make the dim sum at a central commissary and to then send them off to restaurants all over the world. At each branch of Ping Pong, they take the refrigerated dim sum and steam it for each order. It might sound like airline food but it works. I guess we should think of it as the dim sum equivalent of conveyor belt sushi – it’s not the real thing but it is real enough and cheap enough to appeal to a young mass market.
The problem with dim sum is that unless the chef is talented, the quality of the dumplings can be dire. DTF is now a global chain (something I could hardly have dreamt of when I went to the original restaurant in Taiwan) and I am not sure that this is a good thing. I liked the branch on Singapore’s Orchard Road (there are now four DTF’s in Singapore) but the Bangkok branch which opened at Central World a few months ago has failed to produce dumplings of great quality.
I went for lunch last week and was startled by how bad some of the fillings were and how the translucent skins of the original DTF dumplings had become thick balls of dough. But if dim sum are done right then they can be amazingly light and delicately delicious. If you’ve seen my Asian Diary episode on rice (part of the TLC show from some years ago) then you will have caught the footage of the chef at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong spreading rice batter on his griddle waiting for it to solidify, putting minced char siu on top and then slicing and rolling the sheets of the now solidified rice paste into porcelain-like cheung fan. We filmed at Tim Ho Wan a few weeks after the restaurant had opened.
A little later the Michelin guide found it and it is now the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Because the making of fragile cheung fan and of delicate dim sum is a great art, which tests the ingenuity of a chef much more than most other kinds of Chinese cooking, anyone who can produce great dim sum deserves a Michelin star, no matter how simple the restaurant.
Sadly, it works in reverse too. All too often, the dim sum we get in India – at so-called dim sum lunches and even at specialty restaurants – is mediocre, dull and heavy. Worse still, many chefs take the easy way out and simply deep fry their dim sum knowing that this is certain to appeal to a certain kind of Indian palate. (Can it be a coincidence that the deep-fried wonton is probably the most ordered dim sum at Indian Chinese restaurants?)
But perhaps things are changing. The success of the Royal Chinas and Yauatchas suggests that Indians are finally recognising quality dim sum. With a bit of luck, this will spell the end of all those terrible dim sum lunches at five-star hotels where the dim sum skin has the texture of old leather and the filling is made from the pulverised flesh of some animal whose identity you would rather not know about.
From HT Brunch, March 11
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