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Best dim sums in India

Anoothi Vishal

Dim sums, of course, owe their origin to trade on the silk route. Like restaurants that sprung up in medieval France to provide a break to weary traders on the road for days at end and the tapas culture in Spain that took route when inns started providing a piece of bread with wine to travellers, dim sums too were early refreshments fashioned by teahouses for tired patrons. Linked to the old Cantonese tradition of Yum Cha (tea tasting), the first dim sums possibly came about as an afternoon snack for traders and farmers wanting a break after an exhausting morning of hard work.

Today, dim sums (literally, meaning to touch the heart) are not thought of as merely snacks. From weekend meals in China (Yum Cha is now treated as a family treat for Sundays) to chic dim sum-only restaurants in London and New York, dim sum lunches are regarded as elegant and fashionable. And now, we are getting to see more of this trend in India too.

The dim sum tradition in Indian metros can undoubtedly be traced to the appearance of “momos” in student hangouts as a snack in the 1990s. Rougher than the delicate Cantonese bites, momos form a part of north-east India’s own indigenous dining traditions. Selling briskly through small stalls and having proved to be a hit in chaotic bazaars and popular shopping destinations such as Dilli Haat in Delhi, momos soon graduated to making sporadic appearances on restaurant menus, where they would be placed in the category of starters and consumed as such. By the turn of the new century, momo-making that used to be a speciality of isolated but celebrated “Tibetan vans” and shacks, became much more organized. Chain ventures with vendor carts providing quick takeaways and instant hot snacks in even neighbourhood markets in the metros sprang up. And India developed its own “dim sum” culture. Chains such as Yo! China, McDonaldising Indian Chinese took this popularity to new heights setting up stores in malls and putting up metres to record the number of “dim sums” sold till date.

On the other hand, a more exclusive – and authentic– dim sum culture in India was springing up courtesy the five star hotels. The Oberoi was perhaps the first chain to cash in on the potential of the dim sums by introducing their fabulous dim sum lunch on Sundays at their Chinese restaurant Taipan in New Delhi, which was quite the place for power dining, all through the 1990s, early 2000s. With Indian-Chinese finally taking a back seat and new, smart standalones as well as relatively authentic Asian restaurants within five-star hotels (Pan Asian at ITC, China Kitchen and China House at the Hyatt and Grand Hyatt respectively and 19, Oriental Avenue at Asian hospitality major Shangri-La that set up its first hotel in India) pushing the envelope, diners in India were finally exposed to the best of the dim sum tradition.

Today, one decade into the 21st century, we in metropolitan India are sitting at the cusp of a veritable dim sum explosion. While most Chinese or Asian restaurants today offer exhaustive dim sum menus, a future trend to look forward to in the next two years is exclusive dim sum restaurants or cafes for sure— quite like the trendy and popular Ping Pong in London, if you like.

But the art of making true Cantonese style dim sums is not easy. A chef in China takes several years before he can accomplish this. Only a couple of restaurants in India at the moment take care to invest in such accomplished chefs—which is why the quality of dim sums that we get is so variable at the moment. And no, dim sums are not the same as maida-encased momos.

According to dim sum chefs, critical to making authentic dim sums is the flour that is used— sometimes, special varieties of starch such as tapioca starch may be required to be added to refined flour. The rolling of the dough is an art in itself but dim sum chefs say that the most precious ingredient that is required for this task is their training itself!

Provided you are in a restaurant (see list below) which has an exhaustive dim sum menu. What would you order? Dim sums can be of many different kinds—and contrary to perception include both steamed and fried “parcels”. Thus, the very popular spring rolls that we in India like to eat are also dim sums. Traditionally, a dim sum chef is judged on the basis of the har gau (steamed, pouch shaped, prawn dumpling) he turns out. This is my favourite kind of dim sum, filled with prawns, and its wrapper is terribly complicated to get right. The skin should be thin and translucent—yet be strong enough not to break when the har gau is being picked up by a pair of chopsticks. The transparency of the skin comes from the wheat starch used in the wrap. The dim sum can be dipped in soy sauce or rice vinegar and eaten.

Another popular variety that you will invariably find in dim sum menus is the siu mai (flour dumpling filled with a combination of shrimp and Chinese black mushroom in small bits). The wrapper here is often open-faced and, sometimes, comes in unique colours. Cheong fun is made of wide rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats or vegetables. All these dim sums are steamed in bamboo baskets. Then, there are the Char Siu Bao, the famous steamed buns stuffed with barbecued pork. Jiaozi (jao-tze, Mandarin) or Gow Gee (Cantonese) are dumplings that may be cooked in many ways but jiaozi are usually are boiled in water or broth while Gow gee are frequently pan-fried. The Japanese pot stickers are also examples of pan-fried dumplings, which are only cooked on the underside (hence, the name pot stickers). The deep fried taro dumplings have a wrapper made from mashed taro root. The filling includes pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese dried mushrooms. And finally, on Indian menus, we also have the chicken kothe, very popular but whose genesis may not be Cantonese at all!

Vegetarians need not despair. Indian restaurants frequently come up with innovative fillings using water chestnut, corn, spinach, even almonds and so forth to satisfy the most fussy of green eaters. This, in sharp contrast to the cabbage filled veg momos you often expect and get at least at roadside stalls.

So where can you have some soul-satisfying dim sums this season? Here’s my pick of some of the best places across India.

  1. Sidewok, Delhi (Connaught Place): The new Sidewok has a marvelous terrace from where you get an aerial view of CP. On a lazy mild afternoon, this is just the spot you should pick for your dim sum lunch.  The chef is a former Oberoi hand and turns out some mean specials. There are interesting twists to the fillings: try the seafood asparagus dumpling, for instance, which is truly superb, or chives and rice flour or indeed the white cabbage with water chestnut one for vegetarians.
  2. Yum Yum Tree, Delhi: Few can beat the Rs 599 Tuesday lunch offer at this New Friends Colony restaurant when it comes to dim sums. For that price, you can gorge on unlimited offerings. There are two dedicated dim sum chefs who churn out all the staples and more.

3. Fu, Delhi: This new restaurant in GK i has one of the most extensive dim sum menus on offer. But what is really special here are the fresh home-made sauces to accompany the dim sums. The “black sauce” for instance is justly popular.

4. Busaba, Mumbai: Celebrity chef Nikhil Chibb’s restaurant in Colaba is special not just for its elaborate dumpling menu but also for the fact that you can indulge in unlimited dim sums very conveniently—not in the middle of a working day but in the evenings. For Rs 750, enjoy unlimited dumplings and khao suey on Tuesday evenings.

5. India Jones, Mumbai: At the Oberoi, Hilton Towers, is everyone’s favourite place for dim sums— whether it is the har gau or the minced prawn and scallop zi jiao that you are attacking. There is an unlimited dim sum lunch everyday (including main course and dessert) for Rs 1,350 per person.

6. Pan Asian, Mumbai: AT the ITC Maratha near the airport. This is yet another five-star restaurant that you can safely venture out to for some delicious dim sums.

7. Ping, Bangalore: The Garden city is often a surprising trend-setter in India and so is it with dim sums. Ping, in IT hub Koramangala, is Bangalore’s and possibly India’s first dim sum-only restaurant. Whatever be the quality, you must visit it only for that.

(A longer version of this article appeared in Spice Route magazine)

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