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May 2002 Issue
The Art of the Chinese Buffet
by Chris Schaefer
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It was an over-seas business trip to Hong Kong that first introduced me to dim sum. Sunday, just before noon, and my host and I climbed the steps and entered the well-decorated, but motionless, dining room. I was being promised a feast that I would never forget.

As soon as we were seated, tea was served, soon followed by a beautifully-dressed server pushing a steaming metal cart. Opening the lid revealed a dozen or more small, bamboo steamer baskets. Each basket concealing something noticeably different. Pieces of paper resembling a bingo card mixed with many Laplace matrices, all in Chinese characters, were placed at the table’s edge. My host begins pointing and smiling and soon at least three of the many differing varieties of foods were before us. The server picks up the “cards” and makes marks corresponding to each dish served. This was repeated six more times before we had sampled each dish the restaurant had to offer.

Welcome to the ultimate buffet: Chinese-style. Dim sum. What followed was an hour or more of savoring and sampling an eclectic assortment of dumplings, meats, sauces, and rolls. One would think that, with such smallish serving sizes, one could not become full. One would be sorely mistaken. It was a grandiose and sweeping exposure to Chinese cooking, ingredients, and preparation.

Watching the dining room flood with new guests was an experience in and of itself. It seemed to this author that Sunday dim sum was akin to my own family’s habitual excursion to the local “Bob Evans” for pancakes, sausage gravy and biscuits, and coffee. A tradition spent with loved ones over a set period of time for the purposes not only of dietary nourishment but for the soul as well.

Of course, returning to the United States, I was moved to re-create as best I could the tastes and smells I came to know in China. After many, many culinary disappointments and successes, I would like to share with you how to re-create a little bit of the dim sum experience at home. What follows are three unique recipes garnered from both the Web as well as my own trial-and-error as well as the equipment and ingredients you will need on-hand.

Equipment:

  • A food steamer or bamboo steaming baskets. The food steamer may be, in my humble opinion, the best kitchen small electric investment you will ever make. If not, bamboo steaming baskets are available at Asian groceries or on-line at chef stores such as www.chefskitchen.com. (I prefer bamboo to metal steaming baskets.)

  • A wok.

  • A sundry of various wooden spoons, spatulas, chopsticks, knives, and forks.

  • Waxed paper.

  • A small basting brush.

  • A variety of cups, bowl, and plates.

Materials:

  • Vegetable oil. (NOT olive oil)

  • Wanton wrappers (available in your grocer’s produce section).

  • Meat: cooked ground pork, cooked and peeled shrimp, cooked chicken, etc. All chopped.

  • Vegetables: onions, carrot, celery/bok choy, water chestnuts, peas, broccli, beans- all diced or finely chopped. Separate each for logistical reasons.

  • Sauces: Plum, soy, Hoisin, etc.

  • Other: shaved ginger, crushed hot peppers, minced garlic

The Recipes:

 

Transparent Steamed Vegetable and Meat Dumplings

The name comes from the effect that steaming the wanton wrappers produces. These are the most simple and versatile dishes.

    Begin with one layer of waxed paper on the bottom inside of the steamer basket or the included basket of your electric steamer. Coat very lightly by brushing with vegetable oil. Bring the steamer to temperature.

    Working quickly, fill the center of a wanton with your choice of meats, vegetables, and spices; being careful not to over-stuff (roughly 1.5 teaspoons of ingredients). Wet the edges of the wanton and, while cradling in the palm of your hand, pinch together the edges into a ball-like shape. Lay within the steamer with tongs so as not to burn yourself.

    Repeat this process until you fill the basket with some room to spare. Steam for 3 – 5 minutes and remove with spoon or wooden tongs. Allow to cool slightly, dip in your favourite sauce, enjoy!

 

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