It’s tough being in the food business. Say you are a restaurateur. You bring in something new to excite a palate that’s been jaded by the same old tastes and flavours. The new cuisine is exciting. But a diner goes there regularly and soon gets used to it. Now the diner wants something new. So, the food on the table has to be re-invented.
Scallop Sui Mai
Something like this has been happening to dumplings. Indians have for long years known about momos — dumplings filled with meat or cabbage leaves that are found in various parts of India, and especially in the Northeast or in regions which have seen the growth of settlers from Tibet. Then, in the last decade but more specifically over the last five years, people have got to know about Chinese dumplings — or dim sums. Dim sums are so popular now that we all know our sui mais (thin-skinned dumplings usually filled with pork) from our baos — thick buns with fillings.
But the other evening, at a restaurant called Dimsumbros. in Delhi, I came to the conclusion that there is more to dim sums than what we’ve been offered so far. Dimsumbros. has a huge dim sum menu, and I was struck by the many references to Malayan and Thai cuisine in it.
Dim sums, of course, have been a part of cuisines in regions where there has been a strong Chinese influence. Chinese merchants who travelled to and settled down in Southeast Asia centuries ago added their own dishes — including, of course, dim sums — to the regional pot. But what I find interesting is the way dim sums have been tweaked in these parts, incorporating local ingredients and giving a new avatar to the dumpling.
|laksa crab dumpling
How is a dim sum from Malaysia — or any one of the other Southeast Asian nations— different from their Chinese counterparts, I asked chefs Sam Hee and Michael, who have specialised in Malaysian food and are conjuring up various kinds of dim sums at the Delhi restaurant. It all depends on the use of ingredients, they stress. A Malaysian dim sum, for instance, tends to use Malaysian flavours. And that’s why they have something called the laksa dim sum. Laksa is a creamy broth cooked with chillies, spices and coconut milk.
The Chinese hardly use black pepper in their dim sums, but you’ll find the use of pepper in Southeast Asian dumplings like chicken black pepper dim sums or crystal chicken dumplings. Also, in the dim sums of Thailand and Malaysia, the stuffing —meat, seafood or vegetables — is often flavoured with galangal, a ginger-like ingredient used for flavouring dishes in the regional cuisine.
You’ll also find other ingredients that we identify Thai and Malaysian food with. Coconut milk — which you are unlikely to find in Chinese or Tibetan dumplings but is a veritable part of the Southeast Asian cuisine — is often used to sauté the filling of a dumpling.
Or take something like curry powder, which is used to flavour Malaysian dishes. This powder — which is a mélange of familiar spices such as cumin, fennel, turmeric and coriander — lends aromas to the minced lamb stuffing in wheat lamb dumplings.
If the Malaysians use curry powder and laksa in their dim sums, the Thais like to flavour their stuffing with tom yam paste, which consists of all kinds of delightful flavours such as kaffir lime, lemon grass, lime juice, galangal and chillies. Thai spicy asparagus dumpling — where the stuffing consists of chopped button mushrooms and asparagus — has the subtle but memorable flavours of tom yam in it.
I think the time has come for us to acknowledge that food — as we know it — is going to take newer and newer forms with each passing day. That’s because when it comes to food, doors are never closed. And the flavours that waft in from a neighbour’s kitchen are soon your own.
Thai spicy asparagus dumplings (serves 1)
Ingredients: 10g button mushroom
1/2 tsp lemon grass
1 tsp galangal
1/2 tsp tom yam paste
maida (as needed)
salt to taste
Method: Mix maida with salt and lukewarm water. Knead into a ball of dough. Make two small sheets and keep aside. Roughly chop mushroom, asparagus, celery and carrot. Stir fry with lemon grass, galangal and tom yam paste. Once it is done, remove from the heat. Set aside and then refrigerate. Now place half the portion of the vegetables on a sheet and roll into the shape of a dumpling. Repeat with the rest. Place in a bamboo basket and steam for two minutes.