In the menus of Chinese restaurants in the West, the item dim sum is translated as steamed ravioli. A very imprecise definition, however, because dim sum is not a dish in itself but a collection of small dishes similar to the Spanish tapas, the Italian antipasti, the French hors d'oeuvre, the Middle Eastern mezze and so on.
Dim sum literally means "touching the heart" and tradition has it that these small and delicate dishes were the exclusive prerogative of the emperors of the Han Dynasty, celebrated in poems and songs of over 2,500 years ago. However, it was in the tea houses along the ancient Silk Road that the art of dim sum slowly became established, little offerings with an attractive appearance but not too heavy, ideal for serving with tea. Since the last century, dim sum has been accepted in Cantonese restaurants and cuisine, particularly in major cities such as Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macau, and has become an art in the hands of the most creative chefs.
Be careful, though: although some restaurants dare to serve them at dinner (such as the starred restaurant Duddell's, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street), dim sum is only to be eaten at lunch, better still if it's the weekend.
Among the most famous dim sum in the shape of a flower. The top is vibrant with coloured ingredients. Shumai are steamed, quadrangular-shaped dumplings stuffed with spicy pork, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and Chinese water chestnuts. Sometimes they can also contain shrimps and are presented with a mix of soy sauce and mustard. They have a long tradition. They were even enjoyed during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in northern China. An imaginative variant is offered by the sophisticated Mott 32(Standard Chartered Bank Building, 4-4a Des Voeux Road, Central) which fills them with spot prawns, Iberian pork, flying fish roe.
Char Siu Bao
Stuffed and steamed rolls, the dough of which is closed to resemble a flower again. Unlike shumai, the white petals are barely half-closed and here you can see a dark heart of grilled pork (Char siu is the barbecue pork typical of Cantonese cuisine), soy sauce, shallot, sesame oil, oyster sauce and a sweet and sour spicy dressing called hoisin. They can be steamed or baked and are the highlight of Dragon King, 280 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay.
Xiao Long Bao
A super classic. The real steamed Chinese ravioli. The name comes from Xiaolong, the typical bamboo basket for steaming. The original filling is pork, but in one of the most common variants you add ground crab meat and fish eggs.