General Discussion

The history of dim sum (partial) and....what are the traditional dim sum dishes?

K K | Sep 30, 201003:41 PM     24

CHer ipsedixit posed an interesting question in one of the other threads, "what are the traditional dim sum dishes".

This happened around the time of another thread about what is your favorite dim sum dish. Basically the classics were mentioned, i.e. the known the tried and true and most common, including ha gow and chicken feet (spicy/black bean sauce).

I don't think there's a clear cut answer to "traditional dim sum dishes" as everyone's opinion will be different. If we use a timeline to trace back the run of the mill items, some interestingly do not go as far back as the origin of tea houses in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. There is also insufficient historical data (at the moment in my search) online to determine what was actually served during those uber early days.

But I've looked up various sources on the internet and there's a lot of information out there that's worth sharing (unfortunately the real detailed historical data is in Chinese).

Some random things

The Hong Kong Museum of history has some old photographs of the early 20th century. One of Hong Kong's legendary dim sum restaurants, "Tak Wan" actually started in 1880 (and also sold mooncakes) and eventually shut down in 1993. This infers that tea houses that started in Guangzhou have an even earlier history

Ha gow/shrimp dumplings....it has become literally the representative single dim sum dish to many, and a lot of hard core purists use it (and siu mai to an extent) to determine the worth of a restaurant, similar to how some old schooler sushi purists use egg omlette/tamago to measure the skill of a chef.
11 pleats on the gow? Good. 12 pleats? Professional. 13 pleats? Pretty much considered perfection in form. According to Chinese wikipedia, ha gow was said to be invented in Guangzhou somewhere, in the township/village of Wufeng, to a defunct dim sum tea house called 怡珍茶樓 around 1920 to 1930. The owner had access to plentiful freshwater shrimp in a river nearby and decided to make shrimp dumplings with it, and the rest they say is history. As a result of the pleating that resulted in the dumplings having the shape of a Chinese comb or headband, it was initially known as comb or was it headband dumpling. Not shrimp dumpling, and not "Wufeng shrimp dumpling" either.

There were some tea houses that cropped up around 1845 near Sai Ying Poon and Wellington Street in HK, a few were probably open air sit down type places, basically for the blue collar workers to relax and enjoy a pot of tea with some bites. In addition to dim sum, they served a few other cooked dishes. However the quality of food was deemed inferior to those looking for something good.

Historical journals mention some examples of savory dim sum, circa 1920s that included meat buns, bbq pork (cha siu), steamed meatballs (beef), beef siu mai, pork ribs, fun gwor, pork liver siu mai and was 10 to 15 cents HK. Dessert items offered: chestnut cake, bean paste bun, taro dumpling (wu gok) and lotus seed bun. Bean paste bun (dau sa bao) was the cheapest at below 10 cents, and the rest between 10 cents to 20 cents per order. The dumplings like siu mai and ha gow at the time, were about 2 pieces per order, and were the size of an infant's fist (and meaty). It was common then for these tea houses to also offer noodles and rice items, such as cha siu over rice, soy sauce chicken over rice, noodle soups, and stir fry noodles, which averaged about 30 to 40 cents per (also 1920s price). The ha gow's were supposedly 3 to 4 inches wide. What is also interesting is that back then, it was popular to use upwards of 2 shrimp per dumpling.

Cha siu bao (the steamed kind of course). Supposedly back then they did a mix of fatty and lean pork. The requirement was simple back then...figuratively as big as a birdcage (basically they liked it big like Sir Mix A Lot), filling, and delicious. Nowadays it is healthier to use lean cuts of cha siu.

Chicken feet...love toes or hate it. This plus beef tripe dim sum, which used to be throwaway parts that British expats and quite a lot of higher class folk didn't care for, actually originated in the dim sum "alcohol" restaurants circa 1966 (just a quick recap, dim sum originally served in tea houses, "alcohol restaurants" which are the seafood restaurants of today, used to be brothels and fireworks vendors until HK outlawed polygamy and prostitution, the latter in the 30s, thus restaurants took on the tea house business as we know it today), as a means to increase the bottom line, and to recoup high initial investment costs (decor, energy, rent) and to stay competitive as a result of weaker purchasing power of Hong Kong people. Street vendors and dai pai dong's took chicken feet and tried to make some offerings out of it (as there was a huge glut of them everywhere) like chiu chow style soy sauce marinate version, chicken feet soup, chicken feet stewed with peanuts....but it wasn't until a defunct HK dim sum restaurant named Bak Jurk (Duke?) that came up with the idea of deep frying the toes then stewing them that resulted in the black bean sauce chicken feet that we know today.

The proliferation of chicken feet resulted in other dim sum offerings using parts...pork rind/skin, pork blood cubes with chives (a chiu chow classic I believe).

In the 1950s, there was a regular dim sum item called 淮山雞扎, or mountain yam chicken wrap, which shortened to 雞扎. Some versions used yuba (tofu skin) instead of mountain yam to wrap around chicken, chinese ham, fish stomach/fish maw, and mushrooms to steam. Very few places to this day in Hong Kong still serve this (perhaps Luk Yu and Lin Heung). Ditto for a dim sum called Dai Bao or big chicken bun. Some variants have salted egg, pork and mushrooms. I suppose the equivalent of Northern Chinese baozi, the idea was to jack up the calories (and stomach space) for the blue collar workers, so they have energy to perform their hard labor. Not sure about the big bun, but I don't think I've seen the chicken wrap in Northern California (although to be fair I have no clue about old time Chinatown).

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