Dim sum is the traditional Chinese Sunday meal comprised of an endless array of small dishes that are brought to each table. The dishes range from fried to steamed, sweet to savory, and are usually enjoyed with a big chatty group of friends or family. Everyone passes around the dishes and discusses the latest gossip. Its not unlike a Chinese tapas. The term dim sum has different translations but the one I like the best is “a touch of the heart,” because it’s a meal best shared with those close to you.
I find that I usually prefer the vegetable dim sum dishes, so I was intrigued by Wai Hon Chu‘s Vegetarian Dim Sum class at the Natural Gourmet Institute, offered this past January.
Wai is the author of The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide and was originally born in Hong Kong. He came to the States as a young boy and was raised in Chinatown by a family that owned a restaurant in the heart of this bustling neighborhood. All of this to say, Wai has a lot of street cred in this dim sum arena. His expertise with the ingredients and the preparation came through clearly as he guided us through the recipes.
Here is the menu that we prepared together in the class:
Translucent Shiitake Mushroom and Cabbage Dumplings with Soy Vinegar Sauce
Sticky Rice Bundles Wrapped in Lotus Leaves
Savory Daikon Cakes with Caramelized Shallots and Wood Ear Mushrooms
Bean Curd Rolls Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots
Seitan Meatballs with Watercress
Almond Jelly with Fresh Fruit
We had an ambitious menu to get through, but Wai kept the class moving at a good clip, and we all had lots to contribute. Wai started with a little introduction on basic knife skills so that no one cut off their digits during the prep work. We julienned, diced, minced . . . it was all great fun because we helped build the dishes and taste the final results.
Many of the ingredients were exotic and unfamiliar to me (but not to many of my classmates who seemed to spend much more time in Chinatown than I do). We worked with beautiful fans of lotus leaves that we rehydrated and then used to create savory rice and vegetables bundles, tied with string. When they were steamed, the lotus leaves imparted a delicate tea-like flavor to the fillings, which made the original flavors more complex and delicious.
We also learned how to make a traditional dumpling dough out of wheat starch, tapioca starch, salt, hot water, and oil. This dough was easy to work with and had that pleasing, almost gummy dumpling texture once steamed. I never knew what gave certain sum dumplings that unique texture, so that was a mystery solved for me. We all molded the dough, stuffed each with filling, and then steamed them. When they were done, we dipped our dumplings in soy-vinegar sauce and nibbled as we watch some of Wai’s further preparations.
Mushrooms figured prominently in the dishes we prepared, and they all had their own unique flavors and textures. The mushrooms provided the satisfying umami flavor we all crave, which is usually found in meat. We also worked with dried and fresh shiitake, maitake, and wood ear mushroom (shown here).
One of the dishes we made looked like strudel, but the wrapper was made of bean curd sheet. This shriveled sheet has a somewhat Star Wars-like appearance to Western eyes and feels unlike anything other food substance I know. However, its pleasantly neutral flavor makes it a great vehicle for other flavors. It comes in very thin sheets that you rehydrate, stretch out and then fill. We made a big roll with ours, filling it with wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots. We then painted the curd with a spiced soy sauce mixture as we rolled it so the sauce’s flavor infused the roll and the ingredients. Once assembled, this roll is steamed until its cooked through and all the flavors have mingled. Its then cut into slices to be served.
Thankfully, Wai also provided us with an extensive list of where to gather all of these wonderful ingredients in Chinatown so we can recreate them at home. My mind is racing with all the dumpling variations! We also got recommendations of the best, most authentic dim sum places in Chinatown and Sunset Park to inspire our future creations.
Wai will be teaching another class at Natural Gourmet on May 19: Homestyle Chinese Vegetarian Cooking.
Here are some pictures from the Vegetarian Dim Sum class: