You Win Some, You Dim Sum

A look at how the ubiquitous 19th-century dumplings from Guangdong province in China became one of the most popular snacks in India in 2022
Shrimp Shumai, a steamed dish to enjoy the sweet tenderness of dried sakura shrimp
Shrimp Shumai, a steamed dish to enjoy the sweet tenderness of dried sakura shrimp

If we were to pit two oriental snacks that have taken India by storm in the last decade -the dim sum and the sushi&mdashthe former would win, hands down. If dim sums have seeped into your lives everywhere&mdashrestaurants, snack bars, fine-dine places, frozen counters in supermarkets, and food delivery apps&mdashblame it on the Indian chefs who seem to have given it a dose of their creativity and passion to Indianise it&mdashand with great success.

The dim sums first made an appearance in the 17th century in China and traversed across many geographies such as Indonesia, Korea, and Nepal, evolving with each stop it made. In the 1960s, when there was a Tibetan exodus due to the Chinese invasion, the refugees settled in several different parts of India, including Ladakh, Darjeeling, Dharamshala, Sikkim, and Delhi, bringing with them several culinary influences. Among them were the momos&mdashthin-skinned dumplings stuffed with meat, and vegetables.

Dim sums have another different story though. When Chinese civilisation was already more than 1,500 years old, traders carrying fine fabrics, jade, and other sophisticated goods to the West travelled along a network of routes called the Silk Road, which meandered along southern China into India and the &shyMiddle East. Along the way, they stopped for meals and rest at roadside teahouses, which would offer tea and snacks, like dumplings and buns.

Celebrity Chef Rakesh Sethi, a corporate executive chef of Radisson Hotel Group, Delhi, says, &ldquoDim sum in Cantonese means 'heart delights'."

Although people have been visiting India in search of Buddhist teachings, it was in 1778 that the first Chinese migrated to India (as records state), especially to Kolkata. Known at the time as Calcutta, it was the then-capital of British India.

Over the years, many people from China arrived in India, and by the early 20th century, a Chinatown was formed in Kolkata. Similarly, a Chinatown came up in Mumbai's Mazagaon. And while they were mostly dentists, tannery owners, sauce manufacturers, and beauticians, it was as restaurateurs that the Chinese made their way into the heart of India. Now divided into two parts namely Old Chinatown and New Chinatown, restaurants buzzing across these streets serve different cuisines including dumplings.

&ldquoAlthough dim sums are popular across all Chinese cuisines, the Cantonese ones includes more variations such as steamed or fried versions, shrimp balls and steamed buns. Unlike today, dim sums were carried in a trolley in China and served in restaurants or eateries where the guests would just point to the item they want, which was served to them in a small cane basket&rdquo, Chef Sethi says.

Many varieties became popular - like the steamed sui mai, which is not sealed on the top. Other varieties also gained popularity - like the Japanese gyoza, also known as pot stickers, and the Filipino siopao, etc.

Chef Ajay Chopra, founder and business consultant at Zion Hospitality, Delhi, believes that dim sums are as ubiquitous as kebabs nowadays, and can be cooked on a tawa, can be deep-fried or baked. Similarly, a dim sum could be deep-fried, steamed or baked. &ldquoIf we look at the past ten years, dim sums have traversed across India. Before 2010, there were hardly any restaurants serving dim sum,&rdquo he adds.

Dim sums have managed to occupy a place in fine dining restaurants too. At Mainland China in Phoenix Market City at Velacherry Road, Chennai, one can eat unlimited dim sums in 13 variations, ranging from the Red Curry dim sums, corn and water chestnut dumplings, rooster and coriander sui mai, to vegetable dumplings. &ldquoDim sums can take any shape-round, square, oval and that agility adds a great value to its visual appeal,&ldquo says MasterChef India 3 winner Ripu Handa who loves making dim sums for friends and family. He also talks about the variations in colours of dough, fillings and dipping sauces like black rice vinegar, doubanjiang/chilli sauce/chilli oil, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and plum sauce.

Nelson Nair, head of operations at Yauatcha Mumbai in Bandra Kurla Complex adds, &ldquoWe have 36 varieties of steamed dim sum, five of cheung fun (homemade variety) and 11 variations of baked and fried dim sum.&rdquo

Chef Nishant Choubey of Street Storyss, a bistro in Bengaluru, believes that dim sums are a rage in metropolitan cities. Gyoza, momos, kothe - these are all popular not only because of their taste but also because they are healthy.

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