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New flavours, exotic but balanced
Tongue Twister
Nondon Bagchi

Things are cooking at Mainland China. A new menu was launched last week, chefs are here from Shanghai to oversee this and navigate new territory. They are specialists in Dim Sum, of which several new varieties are available with more in the pipeline. Experiments are on, and in about a week, a new menu devoted exclusively to Dim Sum will be on the tables.

I first came across the term, which means literally 'to touch your heart', in storyteller extraordinaire James Clavell's novel Tai Pan, in which he describes a Chinese banquet where these dainty, artistically shaped steamed dumplings are served. Dough, rolled very thin and cut into small portions, is wrapped around a stuffing and this is then steamed, sometimes deep fried or even baked.

We have been familiar with forms of Dim Sum for decades, knowing them as wontons, which we have had steamed or fried or in soups. We have also known them as momos, served first in the small Tibetan restaurants that came up on Suburban Hospital Road.

But why they touch your heart and are considered works of art in China became evident last Sunday when four of us trooped into Mainland China for lunch. A round of Chinese Tea and a couple of cold hors d'oeuvre and then a platter of three kinds of Dim Sum.

What was special about these delicate dumplings was the wrapping. The dough is made out of a gluten-free flour called tang min, a little potato starch, hot water and oil. The dough cannot be rolled as there is no gluten; it has to be pressed flat with a cleaver and then wrapped around the stuffing before being steamed. Because of the particular flour being used, the wrapping is snow white and translucent, like a very fine fillet of the flesh of a lychee.

The first kind was Har Gao, in which the stuffing is made of shrimps, carrots, mushrooms, a dash of light soya sauce, sesame oil, white pepper and other seasoning. Then came the Crystal Fish Dumplings; here the stuffing is made with fish, chopped coriander leaves, water chestnuts, sesame oil and seasoning. These Dim Sums were shaped like small fish, and two green peas were placed on each to represent the eyes. The third variety was made with mushrooms and tofu.

All three were delicious and subtle in their flavour, a sauce with wine and vinegar was served with them as a dip. If there had been no anticipation of more dishes to come, we could have made a meal of them. In fact, many people do. In many parts of the world, there are restaurants that serve only Dim Sum, including some with a sweet stuffing.

To go back to the cold items served before the Dim Sum, one is unusual and interesting. The person who brought it to the table described it as Shrimp Salad, which it was, of course, but the preparation involves boiling large shrimps, in their shells, in beer. They are then allowed to cool, the shells are removed, they are cleaned and deveined, marinated in lemon juice, light soya sauce, chilli oil and seasoning, then chilled and served garnished with chopped coriander.

There were other starters too, such as Prawns Hunan style, Sauteed Fresh River Water Prawns, Chicken with Dry Red Chilli and Szechwan Pepper and Chicken Supreme with Celery and Pepper.

The main-course items were served with three kinds of staple dishes: Singapore Rice Noodles to which they impart a tanginess by pouring hot oil on curry powder, straining it and then tossing the noodles in this oil, a light fluffy White Fried Rice and Szechwan Minced Chicken Fried Rice.

Apart from the staple dishes, there were five items served, the one most enjoyed by me being the Crabmeat with Pepper Garlic Sauce. The flesh of mudcrabs from the Sunderbans is removed and mixed with a little egg white. This is passed quickly through hot oil to set the egg; once set, it is washed with boiling water and then stir fried with garlic, ginger and fresh red chillies and finished with sesame oil, a little wine and sauteed broccoli.

There was Diced Chicken with Cashewnuts and Green Pepper, which is made very simply by passing the boneless chicken pieces to seal in the intrinsic flavour of the meat and then simply stir frying it with capsicum, cashewnuts, dry red chillies and adding vinegar, soya sauce, rice wine, sugar and seasoning.

Sliced Fish with Chilli and Oyster Sauce was another delicious item. Throughout the meal, the lighter more subtle flavours of Cantonese cuisine were alternated with the pungence of Szechwan-style items.

True to Chinese practice, the attempt create a balance was there, as there was to create a balance of colours to please the eye. Dessert items to recommend are Lychee Souffle and Toffee Walnut.

The new menu is full of exotic yet doable items; there is continuing research and regular visits to the Chinese mainland by local chefs take place, as do visits by chefs from there to here. Talking to Mr Hu Zhi Yong and his assistant Ms Sun Kou Hua through an interpreter (they spoke in Mandarin) was an experience for me. There has been no attemot to bring in Thai, Japanese or other Far Eastern cuisine. It has been unnecessary. This restaurant is a success story.

My only feeling is that Chinese cuisine is somehow incomplete without pork. But there is a commitment here to serve authentic Chinese food in rich variety that goes beyond just doing business. Someone, somewhere is a dreamer.

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