A few years ago, I discussed the merits of ordering dim sum from a menu versus serving dim sum from heated carts. I argued that menu-driven dim sum is more conducive to creating new and better dishes, because offerings would not have to wheel around the dining room.
Carts have been dishing out longtime favorites like steamed barbecue pork buns, har gow, siu mai, cheung fun (rice noodle rolls), pineapple buns, turnip cake squares, lotus leaf sticky rice, and many others since arriving on the dim sum scene in the 1960s and 70s.
But America’s dim sum palaces are innovating all kinds of new, non-traditional dim sum items. Here are five ways they’re changing our expectations of Chinese brunch.
Chefs are dressing up basic dim sum items with gourmet ingredients. Siu mai with truffles and foie gras har gow are two examples of the new and innovative. Longo Seafood in Rosemead, California replaces the traditional shrimp in its har gow with lobster meat.
Dragon Beaux in San Francisco substitutes red rice flour for regular rice flour to create a stunning bright red cheung fun rice noodle roll. Other restaurants have followed suit with their own red and even purple creations.
Even when the original ingredients are retained, a fresh and innovative take can be achieved through a stark visual change. H.L. Peninsula in South San Francisco serves mango pudding, typically served in a small glass bowl, shaped into little piggy figurines.
Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Palette Tea House & Dim Sum takes the ordinary taro puff and turns it into something fanciful. By turning the color to black and adding what looks like a long neck, taro puffs transform into graceful black swans.
Pineapple buns are so named not because they are made with pineapple, but because the crusty top resembles the texture of a pineapple. Dragon Beaux creates a purple version filled with yam paste.
Other restaurants have since followed suit. You’ll find green or white versions (the white ones are often called snow buns) filled with almond paste, durian paste, oatmeal, sweet hot egg yolk, and whatever else the chef can imagine.
The baked barbecue pork bun first made its appearance some 40 years ago and has since become a modern dim sum favorite. The traditional pork-filled bun is pillowy soft with a sticky (often honey topped), light brown colored top.
Hong Kong’s Tim Ho Wan, led by chef Mak Kwai Pui, turned this well-known dish into a fabulously crispy pale sweet bun. The reinvented dish almost singlehandedly propelled Tim Ho Wan to become the least expensive restaurant to ever garner a Michelin star.
Copies of the new dish have spread to dim sum parlors around the world. One California restaurant serves a matcha tea version.
The sky is the limit for non-traditional dim sum.
At Casa Victoria in Markham, Ontario outside of Toronto, you’ll find a lamb roll with cucumber and avocado in teriyaki sauce, duck with chive dumplings, chicken with black fungus dumplings, and crispy fried mashed potato cake with shrimp.
At Koi Palace in Daly City, California, you can order pumpkin cake rice balls, crab claws with fish paste, and baked green tea lemon buns. At H.L. Peninsula Pearl in Burlingame, California, find porcupine custard balls (they resemble a porcupine), orange-flavored winter melon, and two of my favorites: bird’s nest pandan tarts and pumpkin buns with green bean paste.
In addition to the piggy mango pudding I noted above, I want to mention the piggy bun. This piggy doesn’t fall neatly into any one of my classifications, as you’ll find a wide variety of fillings depending on the dim sum restaurant. But doesn’t he look good enough to eat?
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.