South China Dim Sum

Photograph by David Harrison

Photograph by David Harrison

Dim sum (Asian dumplings) is a staple of Cantonese cuisine and is found wherever there are Chinatowns in the West. Although not nearly as ubiquitous as sushi, dim sum has gone from being almost completely unknown when democratic South Africa emerged to becoming one of many regular options now available to the city diner.

You can get a range of deep-frozen dim sum (of uneven quality) in the many Asian supermarkets that have sprung up in our urban centres. I know 10 restaurants with good dim sum menus in Cape Town, and there are limited choices at many more, as well as at chains such as Simply Asia.

I Love My Laundry does Korean dim sum, Saigon has a range of Indochinese dim sum and Xiang Yuan on Sea Point’s Main Road is popular with Chinese residents.

Places such as Haiku took dim sum to a new level in Cape Town when they opened nine years ago. They remain one of the only places to do cheung fan (a steamed rice roll with various fillings) and the sticky rice-filled lotus leaf, lo mai gai (with chicken and mushrooms).

Wafu in Mouille Point (under the same ownership as Koi at the Ambassador Hotel, which also has dim sum), has dumplings adapted for the Western palate. Here the beef pot stickers remind one more of Mexican corn tortillas, the spicy prawns are deep-fried crackers, and the spinach and cream cheese dumpling is more cream cheese than spinach.

Newly opened in the dogleg of Kloof Nek Road, Hallelujah is a dim sum and “champagne” bar, serving a range of local méthode cap classique wines by the glass. Only open a few weeks now, owner Adam Whitehead feels it is unfair of me to review. But I was intrigued on their second day of business by their menu experiments. The crispy duck came with a delicate waffle instead of the traditional pancake, the pork rib bun was airy and open like a pita, and the kim chi was closer to coleslaw. Tamboerskloof looks forward to what they will come up with.

Literally translated, dim sum means “so close to the heart”, and close to mine for my regular dim sum fix is the South China Dim Sum Bar.

I first came across its owners Edmund Hung and Clinton Ho-Wing at the Hope Street market on weekends, where they served dim sum, noodles and could brag that their soya sauce was home-made.

The restaurant is a hole in the wall but still manages to seat about 35. In an old building with parquet flooring, it is attractively casual, with vintage Bruce Lee kung fu movie posters glued to the wall, and steel bar tables with wooden crates for seats. In the little over two years since it opened, there have been queues outside the door with 20-minute waiting lists some evenings.

Originally, the menu was on blackboards; now, there is a rather pretty, printed menu.

The dim sum is made fresh to order. Dim sum can be steamed, fried or deep-fried. The backbone seasoning for their Taiwanese-style dim sum is spring onion and ginger, and the garnish an attractive sprinkling of finely julienned carrots.

The dishes are served on biodegradable plates, and each is accompanied with its own carefully chosen sauce.

A favourite is the vegetable pot stickers — pan-fried wheat dumplings, served with Nuoc Cham sweet chilli (a Vietnamese dipping sauce), and a filling of caramelised onions, mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, ginger and garlic chives. The beef pot stickers, served with Chinkiang black vinegar, are not quite as exciting,

Siu mai are open-topped, translucent wheat dumplings, with a pork belly and shitake mushroom filling, and accompanied with a mustard and Hoisin sauce.

The prawn-filled har gow are served with spicy Sichuan sauce. These steamed, crescent-shaped, and translucent dumplings should be gluten-free, though Hung uses some wheat with the tapioca.

There are two types of steamed fluffy buns, char siu bao with a delicious honey-roasted pork and onion filling, and dow sa bao with a sweet red-bean paste filling.

The chicken wontons are poached wheat dumplings filled with chicken, water chestnuts, ginger and spring onion.

For dessert, I rather unconventionally favour the savoury turnip cake. Satisfyingly oily, it is a pan-fried rice cake with turnip, shitake mushroom, coriander and spring onion.

I highly recommend ordering a plate of each dim sum. If there are two of you it won’t be too much to eat. Although the mainland Chinese do not consider dim sum an appropriate dinner, I think it is an excellent choice any time of the day —including breakfast.

South China Dim Sum Bar, 289 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 078 846 3656

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian in 21 February 2014.

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