Even after 35 years of practice, I still get burned every day,” chuckles Pui Mak-wai.
The chef stretches out both palms to reveal the bright-red steam burns he suffered earlier that morning. He moves his hands with a surgeon-like dexterity, but he uses them for a different purpose: to make dim sum.
We have a couple of really interesting interviews lined up this week along with a review of India’s newest arthouse film, The Great Indian Butterfly.
These small bites have been part of China’s dining culture since the Warring States era (475-221 BC). In modern times, they are customarily consumed in tea houses with a cup of tea—the Cantonese term for eating dim sum is yum cha, literally “drinking tea”. But this Chinese brunch-time ritual, which often involves peering into steaming pushcarts in search of a favourite dumpling, now happens even in the far reaches of the world.
Star attraction: Chef Pui Mak-wai; and his Tim Ho Wun restaurant in Hong Kong.
Yet few are aware that making dim sum is a serious art that can take decades—some say a lifetime—to master. The tapas-size dishes are often dismissed as casual fare, minor-league items that pale beside the more elaborate Chinese dishes that come from the main kitchen. And dim-sum chefs go largely unacknowledged. That is, until recently.
Last October, chef Pui received a Michelin star—his first and the first ever awarded to a restaurant that serves only dim sum. His 28-seat Tim Ho Wun (Cantonese for “add good luck”) sits in a discreet alley in Kowloon’s Mongkok District and is ultra modest. Service is brisk and casual; tables are set with paper place mats and plastic tea cups. By all appearances, it seems chef Pui won solely on the merits of his dishes. It was a triumph for dim-sum chefs everywhere.
Chef Pui, 46, and three other dim-sum masters hold court in their kitchens in Hong Kong, where the world’s best dim sum is served.
There’s Wong Kan-sing, 59, head dim-sum chef of the storied Lin Heung Teahouse, Hong Kong’s oldest dim-sum restaurant, in business since 1923; Ng Poon-lap, 68, dim-sum chef of the legendary Fook Lam Moon restaurant, the only eatery left in Hong Kong that makes dim sum to order; and Lau Chi-man, 55, dim-sum chef of Man Wah restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong hotel. They are acclaimed by food critics to be among the top in their field. These men are part of an esteemed generation of chefs—survivors of a cluster of trainees who entered the field in the 1970s and 1980s, as dim-sum restaurants boomed amid rising prosperity in Hong Kong. Their stories illuminate the rarefied world of their craft, the lengthy process required to become a true master, and why their generation might be the last of its kind.
“We do a hard job that we wouldn’t wish for any of our own children to inherit,” says chef Wong, the Lin Heung Teahouse dim-sum master. When he started 30 years ago, he worked 16-hour shifts for HK$10 a day (around Rs58 now). Even these days, starting chefs make at most HK$50 an hour, barely enough to live on. “The figures simply don’t work out any more. You can’t pay people enough to make them do what we do.”
Indeed, in most dim-sum kitchens today, the chef is 40 or older, and the rest of the staff is starting to grey. The workforce has shrunk too: Dim-sum crews numbered in the 20s and 30s in the 1990s; today, they’re down to five or six. The fact is, fewer young cooks are choosing the dim-sum track: It requires living what chef Pui calls a “reverse life”—waking up at 3am and working until 5pm every day—and there are better, cushier options (in other non-dim-sum kitchens, the morning shift starts at 8am; the night shift starts at noon).
When chef Pui, whose father worked in a shipyard, started out 31 years ago at the age of 15, “getting two hot meals a day was reason enough to go work in the kitchen”, he says. Free housing was another.
Back in the 1970s, many dim-sum cooks were offered housing in dormitories owned by the larger tea houses. “It was an open floor, with cots lined up on both sides. Not much at all, but for a young kid, this was a chance to live in the heart of the city and move out of his parents’ house,” recalls Lin Heung Teahouse’s Wong. “The worst part about dorm life was the wake-up call. After the first two warnings, you get a bucket of cold water thrown over your head.” The tea house dorms closed in the 1990s.
The manual labour involved in this kind of restaurant-scale cooking requires brute strength: cutting large slabs of meat, carrying heavy stacks of filled bamboo baskets and working with cast-iron woks that weigh 10kg. Few women sign up.
With smaller crews, many restaurants today serve pre-packaged, frozen dim sum and a multitude of chefs now manage factories instead of kitchens. From a distance, the factory-made bites are indistinguishable from the handmade ones. But it’s there: “It’s hard to explain the difference,” says Chan Chun-hung. “You can’t taste the heart in it,” adds Chan, the head dim-sum instructor for the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute in Hong Kong.
Heart, it seems, is what dim sum—which literally means “touch the heart” in Cantonese—is all about. Hong Kong food writer Walter Kei offers one of the myths surrounding its origins: A tale of a general during a war in northern China. With just a little bit of cake left for rations, the general divided it into tiny bits to share with his men as a sign of appreciation. “It was this gesture—yat dim dum sum (“a little touch of my heart”)—that first gave dim sum its name,” says Kei.
There are two kinds of dim sum, he says. Northern-style—typically offered as small side dishes—consists mostly of large buns filled with sweet red-bean fillings and items such as pot stickers and soup dumplings. Southern-style, the type that’s popular today, features more meat and vegetables.
It’s an art: (clockwise from left) Ng Poon-lap prepares cheung fan, or rice-flour rolls, at the legendary Fook Lam Moon restaurant; filling a har gao (shrimp dumpling); folding it; a har gao with 12 or more creases at the seam is deemed the work of a master.
Earlier, incarnations of the dumplings were larger, starchier and cruder. But in recent decades, the bites have gotten smaller: “The coolies (the labourers who were once the key dim-sum market) needed something they could grab quickly,” says Kei. Today, the more filling dim sum, such as gai kou dai bao (chicken meatball over a large white bun), are dinosaurs on the menu.
The tradition of making dim sum is not in danger of dying, says chef Ng, the dim-sum master at Fook Lam Moon: “There will always be people who want to eat it, so there will always be people willing to make it.”
But the craftsmanship is slipping. “These days, five or six years with a culinary degree is enough to land a position as a head dim-sum chef in a restaurant,” says Chan, the instructor.
By contrast, a dim-sum trainee of the 1970s could expect to spend more than 30 years climbing to the top (they started as young as 10). The first three years were a sort of initiation that weeded out the weak. Trainees slogged as lang zai, or busboys, washing stubborn stains from chefs’ aprons and cleaning as many as 2,500 bamboo steamers a day. Only after impressing the master chef with such sweaty toil could a busboy graduate to the next level—the prep station.
A traditional dim-sum kitchen has six stations: Prep, cheung fan (a roll made of a thin sheet of rice-flour batter, steamed and then rolled up into long tubes, often filled with meats), steamers, deep-fryers, filling, and the last, the folding station, where the flour-dough skin of a dim-sum dumpling is “folded” over the filling. Only when a trainee has fully mastered a station can he advance to the next.
At the prep station of a dim-sum kitchen, where ingredients are cleaned and cut, freshness is key. Leftovers are tossed out at the end of the day. Details matter, says chef Ng. “Turn the water faucet on too high, and you’d get slapped on the hand for rinsing away the natural flavour of the shrimp,” he recalls. “Turn the water faucet on too low, and you haven’t gotten all the grit out; another slap.”
The next station is where cheung fan, the thin, transparent rice-flour rolls, are made. The process is called lai, or pulling: A damp towel is placed over a hot metal surface, a thin layer of rice-flour batter is spread on top and when the translucent sheet turns opaque—a signal it is done, which happens within seconds—the burning-hot cloth must be ripped away from the rice-flour sheet in a quick pulling motion.
At the steaming station, where 20-30 different bamboo baskets cook at a time, a little mental acuity is required. “It (takes) 6-7 minutes to cook each steamer depending on the size and type of dim sum, and the top steamers need to be rotated with the bottom to ensure even cooking,” says chef Ng. “Memory, memory, memory—you must keep track.” Cooks at the frying station, where blistering burns from the splattering oil are guaranteed, have little room for error. “There’s no saving an item that is overfried,” says chef Ng. “One blink too late, and the golden-brown spring rolls are darker on one side than the other.”
Finally, the filling and folding stations: Only the most promising cooks make it here; the two at these stations are considered second-in-command to the head chef. And both play an important role in the final product: “The way a dim sum is folded is the first impression it gives to the diner. But the filling inside the dim sum—that’s the lasting taste that keeps them coming back,” says Chan.
At the filling station, cooks learn that the foreleg of the pig is used for xiao long bao (soup-filled “little dragon” dumplings) and upper leg for the siu mai (pork dumplings). They figure out how to measure different quantities of seasonings without a scale. And they learn to blend ingredients by folding in a circular motion so the filling doesn’t get overworked.
There’s a careful choreography to the work at the folding station, or on ban (“on the board”). This is where the skins of wheat or rice flour are made and folded, and only the “on board” chef knows how to do it properly. Even the amount of water to add to the mixture is a matter requiring judgement; it varies based on the humidity and with every newly opened bag of flour (because the flour varies from bag to bag).
Using two wooden rolling pins, one slightly thinner than the other, and a wooden paddle, the chefs form intricate shapes—flowers, rabbits, crescents. The Mandarin Oriental’s chef Lau can fashion a miniature masterpiece in 10-15 seconds. “The rest of the kitchen is just cooks, but the one folding the dim sum, well, he is an artist,” he says.
There is a price to pay for mistakes. A burst dumpling is considered the worst of all and the maker’s punishment is to eat every one. “For a newcomer, this could easily be 20 or 30 cha xiu baos (barbecue-pork buns) the size of your fist,” says Chan. “I remember sitting in the corner, eating all my blundered pieces until I vomited.”
Today’s chefs learn to make the core dim-sum pieces, such as siu mai (pork dumplings), cheung fan (rice-flour rolls), cha xiu bao, gnau yok yuen (beef meatballs), chuen guen (spring rolls), pai guat (spare ribs), feng zao (braised chicken feet) and lo bat gou (turnip cakes).
But one, in particular, is considered a true test of a chef’s skill and is often called the “final exam” of dim-sum cooking: har gao (shrimp dumplings). The telltale sign of a perfect har gao lies in the number of creases along the edge where the rice-flour skin seals together: 12 or more is deemed the work of a master. The har gao skins are harder to work with than wheat-flour skins because they are stickier and break easily. To prepare a skin for folding, dim-sum chefs use the flat part of the Chinese kitchen knife to smack it against the table and flatten it so that it is paper-thin. “There’s a four-word idiom, yi hok, nan jin, which translates to ‘easy to learn, hard to perfect,’ that summarizes dim-sum making,” says chef Lau.
In recent years, the hazing has relaxed and the path to promotion has accelerated. Chefs now multitask on multiple stations and seldom gain the old degree of command over any of them. With the condensed training process, something else is lost too. “There was the part of the training where you learned the actual techniques,” says chef Lau. “And there was another part where you earned the chef’s trust.” Without that, many chefs are unwilling to pass on their secrets, for fear a pupil will prove undeserving—botching the recipe, or even worse, sharing it with a competitor.
Today’s dim-sum masters acquired their recipes through hard work and keep them safely guarded. Chef Wong of Lin Heung Teahouse can make at least 600 different dim-sum items from memory. Chef Lau’s speciality is his signature “96-layer puff pastry”, the recipe for which he has never shared.
Real dim-sum connoisseurs are willing to wait for the good stuff. Chef Pui’s Tim Ho Wun restaurant has a perennial waiting list and on any given day, there’s a line outside Lin Heung Teahouse. The tea house, which generates an average of about $6,250 (around Rs2.8 lakh) daily from dim-sum sales alone, seats 200 diners, but chef Wong insists it can fit up to 700 because with dim sum, “if someone comes in, you scoot over”.
Inside the restaurant, nestled between the clusters of grey-haired regulars, a group of photo-snapping tourists ask for English menus. They are reminders that times are different now, and for a moment, chef Wong seems wistful. But then he laughs. “There’s still a few more years of work left in these old hands yet,” he says, sliding over a bamboo steamer filled with dumplings.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Amy Ma is a writer based in Hong Kong.
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