It’s ten o’clock in the morning and the kitchen at Chung Ying Gardens is already busy and hot.
Chefs have been busy for hours preparing the fillings, pastry and dough for the dim sum that will be served later in the day.
In the fridge, trays of perfectly-formed of delectable little nibbles await cooking.
Nearby, Chef Nam deftly forms spring rolls, encasing the chunky prawn filling in pastry so thin that it’s almost transparent.
He takes less than 10 seconds for each roll.
It takes me a heck of a lot longer despite his patient guidance… and mine are no where near as elegant as his.
It’s the same with the intricate beef siu mai – little open-top dumplings packed with pulverised beef fragrant with ginger and spring onion.
And with the steamed Shanghai dumplings which he fills with pork after rolling out bread flour into thin small discs.
For a big bloke, he shows remarkable lightness of touch.
Great speed, too.
Which is just as well because the three restaurants in the Chung Ying Group offer 100 different types dim sum and sometimes as many as 120 – the largest choice in England.
But what is dim sum, a style of food of which many of us are all too vaguely aware?
No-one knows for sure how these small dishes – similar in concept to Spanish tapas but pre-dating that style of cooking by many centuries – originated.
Let’s start with the most romantic story concerning dim sum’s roots.
Long ago, it’s said, a Chinese emperor with many concubines was approached by one of them who despaired that she’d soon lose her figure and allure if she continued to eat the lavish feasts that were served.
The emperor thought long and hard and asked the kitchen to start preparing exquisite small versions of dishes.
Thus the concubine and her chums continued to eat well and retain their svelte shapes.
A more prosaic story suggests that the dim sum tradition began on the ancient Silk Road which wad dotted with tea shops that served snacks to hungry and thirsty travellers.
But since dim sum translates as ‘touch the heart gently’, maybe the tale about the weight-conscious concubine is the true one.
Eating dim sum
Like tapas, dim sum is all about sharing.
Traditionally among Chinese people, these are daytime dishes – and often eaten for breakfast.
The usual accompaniment is tea – and it’s a sign of good manners to pour for your companions before yourself.
Likewise, with the food, take only small portions at a time.
You know how hungry you and your group are so there’s no point in suggesting how many dishes to order.
But for the best experience, order contrasting varieties so that you have a range of flavours and textures.
Types of dim sum
Now this could run and run because the styles and flavours are many and various.
But there are six broad categories.
Steamed dim sum might be made with wheat flour, glutinous rice flour, plain rice flour or potato starch.
They’ll be cooked in bamboo baskets over boiling water – the chefs acutely attuned to judging just when they’ll be ready, looking out for changes in colour and texture.
They include open-topped siu mai dumplings with seafood, meat or vegetable fillings, fluffy white char sui bao with pork and honey, monk’s dumplings with mixed fungi and vegetables and many others.
Then, of course, there are the deep-fried and shallow-fried dim sum – those crisp explosions of deliciousness.
These include spring rolls, gyoza dumplings which are fried after steaming, things like deep-fried squid, wafer-wrapped prawn, won ton and many others.
Cheung fun are made with sheets of rice flour wrapped round various fillings a little like an Italian filled pasta dish.
It’s literal translation is ‘pork intestine noodle’.
Typical fillings would include ground beef, dried shrimp and pork.
Then there are cold dim sum – small plates of tasty morsels.
Here you will encounter some of the ingredients that seem strange to Western palates such as chicken feet, duck tongues and jellyfish (all of which I’ve tried and enjoyed).
And among the the vast range there are also plates of gorgeous roasted meats – cut into small pieces because, in Chinese tradition, knives don’t appear on doing tables.
Congee is less another form of dim sum – a rice porridge which might come with beef, squid, eel, cuttlefish or other ingredients.
And finally there are the sweet dim sum – such as gorgeous fluffy white steamed buns oozing with caramel filling, water chestnut paste and lotus seed paste buns.
Where to eat great dim sum in Brum
Chung Ying Cantonese
16-18 Wrottesley Street, Birmingham B5 4RT.
0121 622 5669 .
Chung Ying Garden
17 Thorp Street, Birmingham B5 4AT.
0121 666 6622
Chung Ying Central
126 Colmore Row, Birmingham B3 3AP.
0121 400 0888.
This is the first in a series of articles about dim sum that I’m writing in conjunction with the Chung Ying group, with which I work as a freelance consultant.