Sunday 17 January 2010

Old School Dim Sum

Dim sum has been around in Britain for years and not just in London. My parents worked in a dim sum restaurant when they briefly lived in Birmingham in the 1960's and my earliest restaurant memories are of eating dim sum in Manchester in the 1970's. In those days, it was mainly eaten within the Chinese community but in the last decade it has become trendy and mainstream.

So when did it get trendy ? I guess it was in the early-noughties when hip London restaurants that served dim sum in designer surroundings opened up. Places like E&O and its siblings and Alan Yau's pair of Michelin starred restaurants, Hakkasan and Yauatcha. These places were soon followed by cheaper chain knock-offs like  Dim t and Ping Pong which took dim sum into the mainstream.

The literal meaning of dim sum is 'to touch the heart' and figuratively speaking, you'd be hard pushed to think of a more apt description as dim sum means much more than just food. Without sounding too mawkish, the best dim sum does touch the heart but on the rare occasions I've been to these trendy places, the only place they touched was my wallet.

At best you'll get high quality imaginative dim sum in opulent surroundings with prices to match. At worse, you'll dine on mass produced dumplings in a chain version of a designer dining room. But irrespective of the quality of the food, there's something missing from when eating out at these places that I can't quite express.

When pushed, I say it's because I like old school dim sum. But other than sounding like an embarrassing uncle trying to be cool, what do I actually mean by 'old school' ? That's the question I'm going to attempt to answer with my 'old school' rules.

Is Granny there ?
It's an old cliché that the best Chinese restaurants are those where the Chinese eat. This may not always be true but I think it applies to dim sum restaurants at the weekend, especially if granny is there. You've definitely landed in an old school joint if it has more than its fair share of Chinese matriarchs. But what does granny look for in a dim sum joint ?

zhaliang (cheung fun filled with fried dough stick) - Harbour City

Check out the menu
Loads of places sell the more common dim sum such as har gau, siu mai and cha siu bao but since these can be bought in frozen, it isn't really a sign of the real deal. You have to examine the menu closely and look for the following:

Chinese language menu – some places have their menu in English only which isn't much use to granny who can only read Chinese. An old school place will have its dim sum menu in Chinese usually with imprecise English translations and occasionally pictures.

Cheung fun – these steamed rice noodle rolls with a variety of fillings are a dim sum essential which begs the question why some new school places don’t sell it ? That's because you need someone who can do more than watch over a steamer with a timer to make cheung fun – someone like a trained dim sum chef.

The hardcore – esoteric delights such as chickens' feet (fung zao) should be on the menu with extra old school points if the likes of steamed tripe (ngau pak yip) and ducks' tongues (aap lei) are available.

The sides – no dim sum feast is complete without side orders of Cantonese siu mei such as roast duck and noodles like beef ho fun. You should also be able to order congee or juk.

Tea always tea
Yum cha is the Cantonese term used to describe the act of going out to eat dim sum. Please note the literal translation is 'drink tea' and not 'drink lychee martini' or any other cocktail. Granny might let the young 'uns have a soft drink but cocktails are not old school.

By tea, I mean proper Chinese tea like tieguanyin, pu-erh, and oolong served in a pot with unlimited refills. What I don't mean is a big jasmine flower served in a glass that is too bloody hot to hold for the duration of the meal costing upwards of £3. And before you ask, a green tea cocktail does not count.

Regardless of who's paying, granny won't tolerate poor value for money. She'll approve of Chinatown dim sum prices which start from around £2 per portion. She may make a fuss at classier old school places like Royal China and Phoenix Palace where prices start from £2.60. But you'll never hear the end of it if you pitch up somewhere where the cheapest dim sum cost upwards of the £3 mark.

I don't mind paying a bit more for quality dim sum but there are some places that really take the piss e.g. Ping Pong charge £3.99 for cha siu bao which is double the price in Chinatown. But that's nothing compared to the £6.50 that Min Jiang charge for a portion of three xiao long bao. I've heard these are excellent but are they really that much better than those at Yum Cha that cost £2.40 ?

Anything else ?
Lest anyone be confused I'm not harking back to a bygone age where the dim sum is on trolleys and there are no gweilos around. Nor am I saying that dim sum shouldn't evolve and must be authentic. It's worth remembering that some dishes that are now considered staples are less than 25 years old and there is some great fusion dim sum e.g. wasabi prawn dumplings. On the downside, there are some shockers like Ping Pong's satay chicken spring roll with pineapple – whoever invented this car crash is a total knob.

wasabi prawn dumplings - Phoenix Palace

Nor does old school necessarily mean eating in a dining room that is conspicuously 'Chinese'. Whilst I admit I can be wary of trendy interior design, I don’t really care as long as a place fulfils the criteria for being 'old school'. For example, Pearl Liang is very stylish with its modern art, trendy wallpaper, and big purple cushions, yet for all that I'm happy to eat there as it ticks all the old school boxes.

The last word
This is a personal view and isn't meant to be a dig at anyone who got into dim sum through places like E&O and Ping Pong. Having said that I hope you understand why I like my dim sum old school but if you remain unconvinced just ponder this, who would you rather trust when it comes to Chinese food ? A Chinese matriarch or a lychee martini drinking fashionista ?


  1. Nice analysis and write-up. Where would you rate the top 3 dim sum places to check out, irrespective of new/old-school or price? I used to go to Imperial China but quality has really dropped in the past couple of years.

  2. Yes! I totally agree. For me, dim sum isn't about cocktails, low lighting and high prices. It's about brunch with the family or friends (preferably on a Sunday). I like old school.

    (That pineapple roll thingy is a monstrosity)

  3. This is an excellent round up of what to look for! I stopped into Dim T once to see what it was like and the dumplings were just nasty. Love Pearl Liang and also went to Royal Dragon recently (or was it Golden Dragon?! I can't remember!) and it wasn't bad there either. Was very disappointed with Royal China last time I went.

  4. Thanks for the positive comments - this post was born out of my frustration at otherwise savvy food bloggers bigging up places like Ping Pong and Dim t.

    WB - good question. I've actually only been to three dim sum places in London in the last year. The main reason for that is cos I love Phoenix Palace so much - I posted about their dim sum last October. I also like Pearl Liang but you'll have to wait a couple of days to read my post on Harbour City. At some point I want to try Leong's Legends, Princess Garden, and Yum Cha - all old school. I doubt I'll go new school anytime soon unless it's a business lunch.

    Lizzie - old school definitely rules ! Some of Ping Pong's dim sum are truly bizarre - what is their obsession with pineapple about ?

    Su-Lin - I've not been to either of the 'Dragons' in years - Golden Dragon was a fave of mine (many) years ago before it went downhill. Royal China seems to be on the slide based on your comments and what other bloggers say.

  5. I love the old school menu! We are lucky our favourite yum cha place still using push carts! Funny seeing all these trendy yum cha places over there!

  6. In terms of places to go, I would recommend the xiao long bao at Leong's but not a lot else. I like Peninsula at the Holiday Inn, North Greenwich.

  7. This is a great posting, and very cleverly written. I am very "old school" when it comes to dim sum, although I have to admit trying Ping Pong in the past - it wasn't good, and everyone was drinking cocktails... bizarre.

    I am going to Phoenix Palace on Sunday after reading your earlier review, and another by Noodle Capricciosa.

  8. Yes yes yes! I agree!
    I didn't grow up with dim sum, though during my childhood (and still today) we used to go to a local Chinese family, very close friends, for steamboat every Chinese New Year. And of course, they didn't just offer steamboat but a whole array of goodies.
    I only really became addicted to dim sum when I moved down to London after uni about 15 years ago.
    I am pleased that the restaurants where I enjoy dim sum, in China Town, seem to pass all your old school criteria!
    I also used to enjoy eating at Oriental City's food court, and still miss it dreadfully.
    I also feel extremely sad that I have not yet had dim sum in 2010. A truly distressing lapse on my part - I think this is the longest continuous period (excluding when I've been travelling) that I've not had dim sum for many, many years!

  9. PS I have tried Ping Pong twice. It is not to my taste. Not only did I not think the dim sum very enjoyable (though a couple of dishes were acceptable) I didn't like the clubby interior, the loud music, the low tables and low, low lighting or the slow and inattentive service.
    Goodness, I feel old school now!

  10. 3HT - funnily enough the last time I had dim sum off a cart was in Oz albeit in S****y rather than Melbourne ! Pray tell, what is your fave yum cha joint in Melbourne called ?

    Lizzie - thanks for the tips, I'll add Peninsula to the list.

    LF - I look forward to hearing what you think about Phoenix Palace.

    Kavey - welcome ! Great to hear that you're such a fan of old school dim sum ! What are your Chinatown faves ? Personally, I think many of the better places are outside of Chinatown nowadays - have you tried Phoenix Palace or Pearl Liang ?

  11. No still not been to Pearl Liang, though I read of it often, especially on World Foodie Guide Helen's blog. But living up by Woodside Park tube station, I find China Town so much easier than the other enclaves of good dim sum!
    Although some don't love it, I have been enjoying Gerrard's Corner for many, many years and also like Crispy Duck. Find that both are better than the other for certain dim sum dishes. It seems GC is a bit of a polariser though, some seem to rate it as I do and others not at all!

  12. I'm going to Phoenix Palace for my CNY dinner with friends but hopefully I'll get a chance to get some dim sum there soon too. Pearl Liang is my current favourite for all-round good quality dim sum. I've tried some stuff at Leong's but everyone advised avoiding their Cantonese dim sum stuff so I didn't try those either. Lots of people rave about Yum Cha but I found their stuff generally inferior in quality (but cheap).

    Will keep an eye out for your review on Harbour City.

  13. The interiors are the only thing I like about PingPong - that and the fruit drinks!

    Have you been to Plum Valley on Gerrard St? The decor is PingPong-ish but the dimsum is decent/good, I think. Not sure if grandmas would like the low lighting and occasional mango in the dimsum, though =)

    Looking forward to trying Pearl Liang...

  14. I love going to either Sharksfin Inn or Red Emperor. Although they are some really good ones in the suburbs where there are a large numbers of Chinese population.

  15. Kavey - Can't say I've been to either Gerrard's Corner or Crispy Duck for dim sum although I have eaten at the latter. Imho, Chinatown is better for one-dish meals and noodles than dim sum. As you can see from my latest post, both Helen WFG and I were underwhelmed by Harbour City ! That said I am very fussy.

    WB - thanks for your feedback.

    JenJen - Welcome ! I haven't been to Plum Valley - it disqualifies itself from being old school for being a bit too pricey. Let me know how you get on at Pearl Liang.

    3HT - it's been a few since I was last in Melbourne but I'm pretty sure I've eaten at one of the Shark's Fins in Chinatown albeit for dinner not yum cha. Red Emperor looks the business too - I love it that they have two sittings for Sunday brunch/lunch ! How I wish London's Chinese restaurants were of the same quality as you get down under.

  16. I love the trolleys! They're still prevalent in Chinese restaurants in the states. It's too bad they aren't here.

  17. Christina - welcome ! I think they still use trolleys at New World in Chinatown but sadly it's a bit of a dump. I have mixed emotions about trolleys as when done well, it's the best but when done badly, you end up with bad dumplings.