The history of dim sum (partial) and....what are the traditional dim sum dishes?
CHer ipsedixit posed an interesting question in one of the other threads, "what are the traditional dim sum dishes".
This happened around the time of another thread about what is your favorite dim sum dish. Basically the classics were mentioned, i.e. the known the tried and true and most common, including ha gow and chicken feet (spicy/black bean sauce).
I don't think there's a clear cut answer to "traditional dim sum dishes" as everyone's opinion will be different. If we use a timeline to trace back the run of the mill items, some interestingly do not go as far back as the origin of tea houses in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. There is also insufficient historical data (at the moment in my search) online to determine what was actually served during those uber early days.
But I've looked up various sources on the internet and there's a lot of information out there that's worth sharing (unfortunately the real detailed historical data is in Chinese).
Some random things
The Hong Kong Museum of history has some old photographs of the early 20th century. One of Hong Kong's legendary dim sum restaurants, "Tak Wan" actually started in 1880 (and also sold mooncakes) and eventually shut down in 1993. This infers that tea houses that started in Guangzhou have an even earlier history
Ha gow/shrimp dumplings....it has become literally the representative single dim sum dish to many, and a lot of hard core purists use it (and siu mai to an extent) to determine the worth of a restaurant, similar to how some old schooler sushi purists use egg omlette/tamago to measure the skill of a chef.
11 pleats on the gow? Good. 12 pleats? Professional. 13 pleats? Pretty much considered perfection in form. According to Chinese wikipedia, ha gow was said to be invented in Guangzhou somewhere, in the township/village of Wufeng, to a defunct dim sum tea house called 怡珍茶樓 around 1920 to 1930. The owner had access to plentiful freshwater shrimp in a river nearby and decided to make shrimp dumplings with it, and the rest they say is history. As a result of the pleating that resulted in the dumplings having the shape of a Chinese comb or headband, it was initially known as comb or was it headband dumpling. Not shrimp dumpling, and not "Wufeng shrimp dumpling" either.
There were some tea houses that cropped up around 1845 near Sai Ying Poon and Wellington Street in HK, a few were probably open air sit down type places, basically for the blue collar workers to relax and enjoy a pot of tea with some bites. In addition to dim sum, they served a few other cooked dishes. However the quality of food was deemed inferior to those looking for something good.
Historical journals mention some examples of savory dim sum, circa 1920s that included meat buns, bbq pork (cha siu), steamed meatballs (beef), beef siu mai, pork ribs, fun gwor, pork liver siu mai and was 10 to 15 cents HK. Dessert items offered: chestnut cake, bean paste bun, taro dumpling (wu gok) and lotus seed bun. Bean paste bun (dau sa bao) was the cheapest at below 10 cents, and the rest between 10 cents to 20 cents per order. The dumplings like siu mai and ha gow at the time, were about 2 pieces per order, and were the size of an infant's fist (and meaty). It was common then for these tea houses to also offer noodles and rice items, such as cha siu over rice, soy sauce chicken over rice, noodle soups, and stir fry noodles, which averaged about 30 to 40 cents per (also 1920s price). The ha gow's were supposedly 3 to 4 inches wide. What is also interesting is that back then, it was popular to use upwards of 2 shrimp per dumpling.
Cha siu bao (the steamed kind of course). Supposedly back then they did a mix of fatty and lean pork. The requirement was simple back then...figuratively as big as a birdcage (basically they liked it big like Sir Mix A Lot), filling, and delicious. Nowadays it is healthier to use lean cuts of cha siu.
Chicken feet...love toes or hate it. This plus beef tripe dim sum, which used to be throwaway parts that British expats and quite a lot of higher class folk didn't care for, actually originated in the dim sum "alcohol" restaurants circa 1966 (just a quick recap, dim sum originally served in tea houses, "alcohol restaurants" which are the seafood restaurants of today, used to be brothels and fireworks vendors until HK outlawed polygamy and prostitution, the latter in the 30s, thus restaurants took on the tea house business as we know it today), as a means to increase the bottom line, and to recoup high initial investment costs (decor, energy, rent) and to stay competitive as a result of weaker purchasing power of Hong Kong people. Street vendors and dai pai dong's took chicken feet and tried to make some offerings out of it (as there was a huge glut of them everywhere) like chiu chow style soy sauce marinate version, chicken feet soup, chicken feet stewed with peanuts....but it wasn't until a defunct HK dim sum restaurant named Bak Jurk (Duke?) that came up with the idea of deep frying the toes then stewing them that resulted in the black bean sauce chicken feet that we know today.
The proliferation of chicken feet resulted in other dim sum offerings using parts...pork rind/skin, pork blood cubes with chives (a chiu chow classic I believe).
In the 1950s, there was a regular dim sum item called 淮山雞扎, or mountain yam chicken wrap, which shortened to 雞扎. Some versions used yuba (tofu skin) instead of mountain yam to wrap around chicken, chinese ham, fish stomach/fish maw, and mushrooms to steam. Very few places to this day in Hong Kong still serve this (perhaps Luk Yu and Lin Heung). Ditto for a dim sum called Dai Bao or big chicken bun. Some variants have salted egg, pork and mushrooms. I suppose the equivalent of Northern Chinese baozi, the idea was to jack up the calories (and stomach space) for the blue collar workers, so they have energy to perform their hard labor. Not sure about the big bun, but I don't think I've seen the chicken wrap in Northern California (although to be fair I have no clue about old time Chinatown).
OK this is getting fun. More random info to soak up:
In the old days, the standard morning greeting in Cantonese was "have you had your tea yet" (ie have you yum cha'd yet), versus "what's up" or "hi how are you". This was because morning yum cha was a common occurence. There are recorded cases of morning dim sum starting as early as 4 to 5 am.
As to the origin of the word dim sum, I guess this can be debated to death, but a more recent explanation for it at least from the Guangzhou perspective is that it came from the expression 點返個心頭好 (deem faan gor sum tau ho) which actually means "pick the item of your heart's content" or pick what you feel like, which got abbreviated to dim sum (touching the heart).
There's also some historical explanation of being murdered by a thousand cuts which you can read here:
It also appears that younger girls were once used to bring the dim sum out (on trays carried over the neck and shoulder via straps) but eventually that went away and now we have the dim sum maidens/grannies pushing the carts on weekends in certain cities (in the USA), if not checksheet ordering.
Siu Mai has a much longer history than ha gow and other dim sums put together (excluding perhaps bean paste dessert buns), and apparently dates back to the Yuen dynasty. It used to be called 稍麥 which was basically pressing wheat flour into thin skins. meat put inside and wrapped with them and steamed. This evolved to 燒麥 in the Jiangnan area of China which were thicker skins and more coarse interior (so perhaps those siu mai's in NY that my parents had in the 60s the size of a fist were Jiangnan style??)
Cheong fun - supposedly goes back 60 years or so in history, as plain cheong fun was then sold off pushcart vendors in Guangzhou. It seems that tea houses took this idea and added savory contents in them to add another dimension.
Spring rolls... one source says this dates back to the Song Dynasty and at the time many people relied on silkworms to make a living. They say the spring roll was invented and molded to be like the shape of a silkworm in tribute.
Another archaic local slang was 嘆吓一盅兩件, meaning "I feel like enjoying one pot with two items". Tea houses used to lure people in with great tea at boiling temperatures, served with two dim sum items that would fill your stomach up. This eventually became a restaurant motto for a minimum order (the equivalent of two drink minimum, but instead of drinks, it's dim sum).
re: K K
Well in terms of variations on a theme it's quite interesting. In addition to Indonesian and Filipino versions in English wikipedia, Chinese wikipedia says you can find the older northern style siu mai in Mongolia, Beijing, and variations of that in Tianjin, Shanxi, Shandong (with lamb), Ziziang, and Fujian.
The old style Cantonese quail egg siu mai is quite elusive these days.
Spring rolls (春卷) should be one of the oldest dim sum. In its previous form, it is called spring bread (春餅), and it traces back to Tang dynasty or even earlier.
Spring bread eventually splitted into spring rolls, which became very popular in Qing (清) dynasty. It was considered one of the nine main dim sum by the Imperial Court. The Qing Imperial Court recognized one hundred twenty four Dim Sum; Tea Sacks. (...點心茶食一百二十四品)
Keep in mind that the phrase Dim Sum is not the same as Yum Cha (飲茶). There were Dim Sum long before modern Yum Cha. Sure, there are many famous Dim Sum which are not ancient. Char Siu Bao is old, but not ancient. On the other hand, if you get into simplier Dim Sum like red bean paste buns (豆沙包), those probably has hundreds of years behind them.
Interesting parallel on the spring rolls, evolving from spring bread (which has northern origins).
Virtually identical to Cantonese wontons in origin, where the birthplace was in Guangzhou and they say were brought down by Hunanese immigrants (who took their receipes for northern style huan duan and it split and evolved into the HK comfort food as we know it as time elapsed).
"Why are you telling me this? Are you saying that spring rolls are not Dim Sum or that Red bean paste buns are not?"
Just pointing out for those that may be less erudite than yourself, or just a bit confused, that when people talk about "dim sum" they aren't really describing what they are doing when they go to a restaurant to eat har gow, baos, etc. What they are really doing (as you say) is "yum cha".
I've not seen any written scholarship to date connecting Spring Rolls back to the Tang Dynasty. It is known that Cakes - Bing3 (饼) made of rice, wheat and sometimes barley flour were quite popular then, "the gold of the Tang dinner table" according to Edward H. Schafer (1913-1991), the former Tang Dynasty scholar at Cal Berkeley. Most of these cakes were fried in oil. One famous cake, said to be a cure-all for hemorrhoids, was a rice cake cooked with camel fat. Uhmmmmmm camel fat!
Chinese wikipedia (for "ren bing", the delicious soft crepe roll in Taiwanese night markets) claims spring bread dates even further back to right before Qin Dynasty/Warring factions period, although they didn't quote the source. I don't understand the phrasing completely, but it somehow came about via the forbidden 5 vegetables/spices/herbs in buddhist vegan (e.g. garlic, cilantro), and somehow those things got initally put into the spring bread. But the writeup basically does say spring bread eventually split and evolved into ren bing and spring rolls, of which ren bing has some origins going into Fujian (Hsia-men) during the Ming dynasty.
Are we becoming Chinese history geeks yet?
re: K K
You are a Chinese history geek, not me. Don't pull me into water with you :D
Nevertheless, my original point is that there are many Dim Sum have moderate history behind them like Cha Siu Bao, while there are other Dim Sum with longer history. I think at the very least we can agree spring roll exist in Qing dynasty and that the Qing Imperial Court recognized 124 types of Dim Sum and tea sacks, and those are just the type which the Imperial Court considered as worthy. I would be surprised that we don't have Dim Sum several dynasties before Qing.
I mean just think about red bean paste buns or green bean paste buns. That got to have a long long history behind them.
Interesting stuff to know.
Thanks for the research.
Never understood how you could get a meat ball to have a spongy texture like they do...not a favorite.
Dai Bao beats an egg McMuffin for me any day. I get them at Family Pastry in LA Chinatown for 80 cents. They are big buns !
Yeah I've seen some of these giant steamed buns in SF Chinatown too on occasion, and some look quite hideous. Some are baked by non HK Cantonese, or Toishanese. Never had one in HK so I can't tell how authentic it is.
Even the steamed buns have variants in the 50s/60s....at Long Wah in Macau, they have the steamed bun with preserved sausage inside (lap cheong). Some places do mini versions of the chicken dai bao, called gai bao jai, which are like some of the dinky cha siu bao's in size (at the ripoff places that make them smaller and charger higher prices).
Yep sure did, they called them 茶樓 (cha lau in Cantonese) back in those days. I suppose it was all about the tea back then (rather than the dim sum which wasn't so much the focus) but then there became a balance where the food came into the spotlight.
The old saying was 上茶樓, or let's go to the tea house/upstairs (if you were a richer spendy time, as the ground floor were for the blue collar plebs, upstairs seating was the quieter more luxurious sit down spot), or 上酒樓 (go up to the seafood restaurant). Then it became just "yo let's go yum cha" when referring to hitting up these tea houses and drinking tea (amongst eating dim sum).
As to the origin of the word dim sum, there are quite a few stories. Touching the heart is the loose translation, and one blogger even traced it back to something about a thousand pricks of death or something like that. wiki says it came from the Cantonese expression 點返個心頭好 which means pick one that your heart desires which evolved to 點心/dim sum...
In fact if you go to Chinese wikipedia's page for "yum cha"...
廣州（茶樓發源地）現存的老茶樓： Guangzhou: the origin of tea houses, the following are a list of old tea houses that still exist (the year in parenthesis is when they started)
成珠樓（1745） - a little further research shows that some conglomerate entity purchased this place, revamped it, and renamed it to something else, but locals still refer to it by its original name.
蓮香樓（1889）- yes Lin Heung in HK started off in Guangzhou then they opened in HK
酒家- alcohol place or seafood restaurant that served liquor
The old school dim sum places in HK
得如酒樓（Duk Yu in Yau Ma Tei, where an old granny services the elevator, pulls a lever or something like that!）
陸羽茶室（1923）- the legendary Luk Yu
Macau's oldest dim sum restaurants
龍華茶樓（1962, probably the most famous one, their verison of Lin Heung but it looks more like a 1950s HK cafe like Mido in Hong Kong)
You can copy and paste the Chinese names of the places in Macau and Hong Kong into openrice.com and there should be some reviews/pictures.
And of course.....who knows about wikipedia....anyone can edit it. So don't believe everything 100% but it's still a great read nonetheless.
There is a pdf file that i found online that has all this info (and more history that doesn't pertain as much to food) in Chinese, I'll link it once I dig it out for those who want to read, and it was written by a collective of HK high school students (amazing...) that footnoted numerous journals, some are articles that don't date back very far (1987, 1990, 2006) from local scholars/journalists who have had access to the data. A lot of this stuff I didn't even know, so it was a pleasure knowing the information is out there to an extent.
ipse, I think the more appropriate term is more along the lines of "old school", or "reminiscent" 懷舊 with some historical sentiment, instead of "traditional". Much like sushi, there are white fish fans, and there are red fish (tuna) fans. It is definitely a personal issue. The picks for "traditional" or old school really depend on what you grew up eating. My parents generation certainly had it different than we lot, or Gen Xer's who grew up in the 80s in Hong Kong, to the youth of today who have never had the baseline of their Gen X predecessor's/earlier gen folk. There are many dim sum businesses that try to keep that tradition alive (at least Lin Heung and Luk Yu are keeping that spirit alive and essence to this day, and insist on the old way) and some that attempt to revive the stuff that faded away (and unfortunately sometimes are used as gimmicks to lure customers in, it's a plus if done acceptably, but a disappointment....although I applaud the effort).
Agreed...dim sum (and food) is evolving. Just like how sushi evolved (from pre-saucing to no pre-saucing to pre-saucing again and fish is king vs rice is king movement) and is evolving.
KK, thanks for doing the research. I think that the definition of "traditional" is nebulous at best when it comes to food. Recipes, ingredients, taste, and cooking technology can change very quickly. Even in the US, with its relatively brief history, food has changed a lot. Two hundred years ago, there did not have hot dogs, hamburgers, California cuisine, pizza, hot wings, Tex-Mex, or other things that are very common today. Many things back then probably are no longer served in restaurants. Even as recently as 100 years ago, restaurant dishes were still quite different. I'm sure they were fattier and richer than they are these days.
Wow, K K, great journalistic work on your part. Kudos.
After reading through that history, I am now even more inclined to say that there is no such thing as a list of "traditional dim sum dishes."
I think ultimately, dim sum is more about the experience of communal dining from small plates (either menu driven or cart style) than anything specific about what is actually eaten on those small plates.