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Northern Dim Sum Revisited

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  • Jonathan Slone Jul 18, 2001 09:01 AM
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I must apologize to those who responded to my post concerning northern style dim sum. After posting, I had to go off on short notice to travel on business and I only now checked my thread. Being a newbie on the site, I was not expecting much of response, but clearly I underestimated the culinary drive of the participants! Thanks for all the responses.

Just some background on northern style dim sum.

For the most part, northern style dim sum has been much less formalized than its southern relative due to a wider area covered (recognizable northern style dim sum can be found from Lanzhou to Shanghai) and more informal (less restaurants and more street and stall food) distribution. At its most basic level, you are talking about baozi (round dumplings), bing (cakes), jaozi (moon shaped dumplings) and a whole assortment of small dishes found in stalls, street markets and more recently, in fancy restaurants. What is really amazing is the variety you come by. Lets just consider the bao that you find.

In Shanghai, you would be eating, among other things, xiao loon bao, or as people call them here, soup dumplings the likes of which you find at Joe’s. Move a few hours inland to Tianjin, the filling stays the same, but the skins are made with lard, become more pastry-like and are often steamed and then fried on the bottom. Classic bao in Beijing are full-blown yeast risen, mostly just steamed, but sometimes fried on the bottom as well. Further west, your fillings start to change rapidly. Yes, you can get meat baozi, but you also have baozi filled with suan tai (garlic shoots) and eggs, potato and green vegetable and sometimes lamb. The further west you go, the bigger the bao seem to get. In Xining, you find huge bao filled with garlic shoots and salty yak butter. In Sichuan, they add boiled peanuts to their fillings and in Yili I’ve had bao filled with dried lamb that you dip in sweetened boiled milk. The permutations are endless.

Clearly, as China develops, the local nature of the food will tend to go by the wayside. It’s already popular in places like Lanzhou or Beijing to be taken out for Cantonese dim sum rather than the local fare. It’s more expensive and is seen to be more cosmopolitan than the local street food. Real regional food will become less distinctive overtime and some of it will disappear. First to go are the street snacks that you find around the railroad stations and food stalls the line the streets. Even some of the more fancy food is getting hard to find. During a recent trip to Beijing, I went to a place near the old Friendship Hotel that used to be famous for its stewed chicken with soy and black vinegar. It was served from a dim sum cart along with various dumplings and cakes. I was told that you now had to order the chicken in advance, but that they had plenty of shrimp dumplings and spring rolls to choose from. Very sad.

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  1. m
    Miguel E. Gierbolini

    Thanks for your excellent post Jonathan. One little qualm, perhaps this should be in the International Board. Anyhow, thanks for your insight.

    1. Wow, that was a great write-up. I agree that the regional cuisines have started melding together. I recall during a long train rides up the coast, I would get the local fare during the stops that would vary quite differently from each other (like the baos that you mentioned).

      But it's really cool for me to walk through Flushing and experience something similar without the painfully long train ride. But I must say, I have never heard of the bao-zi, dao-jiang (soy milk), etc. referred as dim sum, always as zao chai (morning meal)...again just a matter of symantics. Doesn't matter 'cause it's all good.