India is slowly catching up with the unique dining experience of the Far East
One of my favourite dining experiences last week in Hong Kong was a dim sum meal (yum chaIndia) with Chinese friends. In a bustling restaurant filled with happy, noisy diners, we sat around a large table, ticked dishes off a list and watched the Lazy Susan pile high with bamboo steamers and plates of dimsum of different shapes, sizes and flavours. Continuously-filled cups of fragrant tea accompanied the food; translucent dumplings filled with a variety of vegetables, pork, chicken, and seafood; plump baos stuffed with sweet-spicy meats, cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) and of course the ever-popular fung zao (‘phoenix claws’ or chicken’s feet)! Finally, dessert – glistening yellow Hong Kong egg tarts and red bean paste-filled sesame-studded jin dieu. It was a wonderful lunch of discovery.
It also got me thinking how convivial the entire experience was: sharing dishes and refilling one anothers’ tea cups. As with most Asian dining experiences the accent was on sharing — so much more relaxed and intimate than formal dining.
So how does the whole dim sum experience fare in India? I asked the Leela Palace’s executive chef Mir Zafar Ali, who curates popular dim sum Sunday brunches at his restaurant Zen. “The concept is catching on, though nowhere as popular as in Hong Kong,” he says. In the Far East, people begin working days by 8.30 am and finish early, but the entire cycle is much later in India so leisurely meal breaks are rare. “In Hong Kong, it’s about light bites, catching up over tea and a chat with friends during the day, maybe late afternoon. It fits perfectly with the lifestyle there.”
He has a point. Ritz Carlton’s executive chef Anupam Banerjee has another — light, healthy dining, which a dim sum lunch embodies, is here to stay. “Dim sum offers a healthful variety of different flavours in one value meal, and shows off the art of the craft,” he says, “This brings the diner back again and again.”
Of course, Indian diners have not yet completely embraced the entire dim sum experience as it exists at its centre, Hong Kong. “It will take some doing before we are ready to accept traditional Chinese dim sum like duck’s feet or duck’s tongue, chicken’s feet or pig’s stomach here,” Ali says, adding, “But when our Chinese chef at China XO at the Leela Chennai experiments with these — they’re fantastic!” Meanwhile, his delicate, flavourful siew long baos and har gaos keep local diners happy.
So the professional chef’s brigade enjoys traditional dim sum experiences during visits to Singapore or Hong Kong — chef Banerjee recommends Din Tai Fung (with its special xiaolong bao), Tim Ho Wan and the Four Season’s Jiang-nan Chun in Singapore. He also vouches for his own Lantern’s dim sum, a fact borne out by the numerous lunching ladies and corporates seen wielding chopsticks over chef David Chang’s edamame dumplings with truffle oil, lobster money pouches, cheung fun and char siu baos. “Dim sum isn’t a fad anymore. It’s here to stay,” he says.