Learning to cook my favorite restaurant foods is satsifying on two levels. First, obviously, I get to enjoy these dishes in my own home, which is wonderful. Second, I develop a greater appreciation for how much time, effort, and technique goes into making a dish so I enjoy it even more the next time I go out to eat.
One restaurant experience I thought I’d never be able to recreate at home was dim sum, the Cantonese style of leisurely dining on multiple small plates while drinking tea. Dim sum was the perfect expression of the idea of brunch long before “brunch” existed in the Western world.
In a busy dim sum restaurant, servers with carts of warm food circle the dining room, handing out steaming trays of dumplings, ladling bowls of porridge, and drizzling oyster sauce over savory cakes and veggies. It’s a model for dining that benefits a lot from economics of scale, both tthe number of customers at a sitting and the number of people in a given party. Dim sum is best when you can try a bite of many dishes, brought to your table hot and fresh.
This experience, taken as a whole, doesn’t translate well to a domestic setting. I can’t make that many different foods at home in a reasonable amount of time, and a couple living alone can’t eat that much at one meal.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t break the experience down into its component pieces, explore the concept of dim sum recipe-by-recipe, and learn a great deal, which in turn enhances the full restaurant meal.
So far, I’ve tried to make a few classic dim sum dishes:
- Shu mai – steamed pork and shrimp dumplings with an open top
- Lo mai gai – lotus-leaf wrapped glutinous sticky rice, filled with meat
- Dan taat – egg tarts (I prefer Portuguese-style over Hong Kong)
- Char siu bao – BBQ pork buns, steamed and baked
The first three I attempted on one day, so we didn’t get to eat until 5pm. For my next attempt at dim sum, I focused on two iterations of one recipe, and we were able to eat at noon, which fit the idea of dim sum a little better.
Shu mai was the easiest of these recipes, and that made it one of the most satisfying. Lots of flavor with less effort. Win-win.
I used pork with big, recognizable chunks of shrimp and shiitake mushrooms because it felt fresher, but many restaurants prefer to grind all the meaty ingredients together to give the dumpling a consistent texture throughout.
Shu mai are great because they are also incredibly easy to assemble: you don’t need to seal the top off and they can’t explode or fall apart like other, more delicate dumplings. (I’m looking at you, xiao long bao…)
You can find the recipe I used here.
Lo mai gai
Lo mai gai is one of those foods that everyone recognizes from dim sum, but it seems few people feel strongly about. Except for me. I feel very strongly about the utter perfection that is warm, sticky rice loaded with savory nuggets of marinated chicken, chewy Chinese sausage, salty duck egg, crunchy dried shrimp, and hearty shiitake mushrooms, wrapped up in a fragrant lotus leaf.
That first puff of steam, laden with flavors that have been mingling for hours, as you peel back the leaf wrapper. Oh. My. Goodness.
Like I said, I feel very strongly about my lo mai gai. And it had been on my “maybe I’ll make someday but it seems hard” list for a long time. So I’m glad I finally bit the bullet and attempted this dish.
The hardest part is really getting all the ingredients together. You need a good specialty Asian grocery for the lotus leaves (bamboo leaves also work). The second hardest part is wrapping these into the ideal triangular prism. I couldn’t get the hang of it, and ended up making some square packets, and then dumping the rest of my filling into a steamer and cooking it in one delicious batch. Sorry I’m not sorry food-perfectionists!
Most recipes say you can use parchment paper as a wrapper if you can’t find lotus leaves, but I think that would take away a lot of that powerful fragrance that makes lo mai gai so great.
Portuguese Egg Tart
This was an easy recipe that combines two delicious components (buttery puff pastry and sweet egg custard) into one delicious dessert. This was also a tricky recipe that looked awful and taught me to be patient lest I turn a delicious pastry into a lumpy Franken-monster.
Two times where it pays to be patient, once for each ingredient. First, be patient rolling out the pastry dough. The recipes I looked at ask you to roll a sheet of dough into a tight tube, cut it into circles of even width, then roll out those circles to line the cups of the muffin pan. Make sure you roll up tightly and then roll out evenly using French rolling pin. If the circle of dough ends up misshapen, use a bowl to cut a perfect circle. Second, be patient with the custard. It’ll thicken rapidly and start to clump. Just stand there, stir, be bored for best results.
For the recipe and better photos than I took, see here.
Char Siu Bao
BBQ pork buns. The quintessential dim sum dish. You basically can’t go to dim sum without ordering these. Multiple times.
Though it sounds like one recipe, my version ended up needing 3 steps: the roast pork, the baked bun, and the steamed version. Each recipe took a couple of hours, and the whole process took me from 8am to 1pm on Sunday.
Start with a nice fatty pork shoulder, about 2-3 pounds from your favorite butcher. Marinate overnight. The sauce has a lot of ingredients which contribute to the complexity of the flavor, so I’m glad I didn’t skimp and substitute on this.
The next day, bright and early, roast the pork at 475 or 500F for 1 hour, flipping and basting after about 25 minutes. This should really be done on a wire roasting rack to allow hot air to circulate around the cut. I did not do this because I don’t have a wire roasting rack. Sad!
After the pork is done, make the filling for the buns with soy sauce, red onion, and chicken stock. It’s the same filling for both buns.
Then on to the bread. The important thing to know if you want to make both steamed and baked buns is that the steamed bun dough rises once for 2 hours, while the baked buns rise twice for 1 hour each time. Start by making the steamed bun dough, then on to the baked. I used a traditional tangzhong method for the baked buns, which requires making a roux of flour, water, and milk before combining the wet and dry ingredients. Next time, I’ll try a simpler, sweeter, and fluffier milk bread recipe.
For both recipes, the weight of dough needed for a single bao is approximately 75 grams. Roll the dough to 2mm thick and about 10cm (5in) in diameter. My steamed bao were too thick on the bottom and a tended to explode open at the top – a thinner, wider wrapper with more dough to pleat at the edges would help with this. Similarly, my baked bao had a lot of bread and not enough meat. Going thinner would im prove the meat-to-dough ratio.
Overall though, these bao came out great. The flavors were true to the restaurant staple that Jay and I both love. If you only have time to make one type, go with the steamed. It’s fluffy and sweet, yet still hearty and filling. It’s beautiful, beautiful dark magic.
Eating out, looking in
Just because I can make char siu bao (or shu mai or lo mai gai) at home, doesn’t mean I want to do it every time I crave dim sum. It was a great learning experience, but a huge time sink. If anything, I’m more excited to go to my favorite dim sum restaurant because I understand the effort it takes to craft each bite by hand. And this budding appreciation for restaurants extends beyond dim sum. Learning to cook at home has fundamentally shifted the way I think about eating out, the latest step in the evolution of how I think about food.
When I was little, my mom cooked basically every meal at home. On weekends, she was in the kitchen most of the day. Eating out was rare, either a special occassion or someone was working late and we ended up with take-out. These mediocre, fast casual restaurant meals seemed special because they were novel. I coveted fries from Piccadilly Pub more than my mom’s slow cooked beef curry (which in retrospect sounds insane).
During college, the foods that seemed so special in my youth revealed their true nature: bland, massed produced “American” food that I had to eat every day in the dining hall. During this period, as a student with no real income, the foods that attained special status were my first forays into cooking (things like beef stew and fried rice that kept well in large quantities in the dormitory fridge) and my occassional meals out – sushi or peanut butter noodles at one of Princeton’s three Asian restaurants.
On to grad school, and a stipend that was small yet infintely more than my previous income of nothing. I was living in LA and had a car so there were abundant, cheap options for great food, mostly Asian. This was my Asian phase. I wanted to try everything, all these foods that were brand new to me, to absorb this knowledge and make it my own. I’ve never eaten out that much in my life. I didn’t really care where these restaurant meals came from or how they were made. Dishes were presented to me in their final, edible form and I ate without question or curiosity. On to the next thing.
Then, grad school geographically phase-shifted to Chicago. I tried to stick to my old ways, eating out and trying new things, but that didn’t work with my budget, especially while Jay was out of work. The Chicago food scene is different from LA, less ethnic perhaps, with a greater emphasis on new American/fusion restaurants and their celebrity head chefs. It was expensive, and something about it didn’t feel authentic to me. I’d been spending too much time in divey ramen joints.
So I started cooking more at home, longer and more involved recipes, drawing on my favorite experiences from LA. With cooking came humility and gratitude. The more you know about what you’re eating, where it came from and how it’s made and how it was transformed into something delicious, the less you take it all for granted.
Now I feel less compelled to try lots of different restaurants, to look like a Chicago foodie. I’m more selective about where I want to go and what I can learn from going there. I’m more cognizant of opportunity costs: a $100 meal in the West Loop that takes 2 hours to eat vs. $100 worth of ingredients for a five-course homemade pasta dinner that takes 10 hours to prepare.
I eat out less, but I’m happier to spend more when I do go out. I’m not secretly fuming because “I could make this at home for so cheap!” I’m not going to stiff the waiters with a small tip. If I’m going out, I’m committing to that experience and I’m going to respect everyone involved in the transaction.
Eating out, like cooking, has taken on a very personal quality. Does this experience reflect my values?