Chinese invasion: Is it just a matter of time before dim sum wave sweeps India?
The popularity of dim sum is clearly spreading across the country. Apart from hotels and private parties, one finds dim sum stalls popping up at clubs, fairs and festivals.
My introduction to dim sum happened not in China but in San Francisco. It was a first-of-a-kind experience at Yank Sing – an award-winning dim sum restaurant close to the city’s Chinatown. As we sat down, a waitress placed a large pot of tea and Chinese handleless tea cups on our table while a steady procession of trolleys passed by carrying an amazing array of dishes – some on small plates and others in bamboo baskets with open lids. Luckily the women spoke English (which was not the case when I later visited dim sum places in Hong Kong and Shanghai). With some guidance from them, one selected items from each cart. The attendant noted the orders by checking boxes on paper chits, which were put into bamboo tumblers kept on the table to be totalled later for calculating the bill. Being new to dim sum, I had expected to see an assortment of steamed dumplings in various shapes and sizes each containing a different filling. But what I found to my surprise was a variety of other preparations like meat-filled buns, sticky rice cooked in lotus leaf with pork, curried spare ribs, trotters, octopus, feet of chicken and other hard-to-recognise objects. Most interestingly, there were also desserts like egg and mango custard on the lower shelves. The overall range was mind-blowing for a dim sum newbie like me.
That was in the nineties when dim sum was an alien concept in India. Since then, it has made its way into the menus of Chinese restaurants, but even now there are no dim sum only places in India from what I know. Dim sum is rightly regarded as a collection of starters or appetisers in oriental eateries. Though dim sum lovers can make a meal out of them, they are not part of entrees and the main course. Dim sum may be regarded as the Chinese equivalent of French hors d'oeuvres, Spanish tapas or even the Japanese sushi plates.
Its history can be traced to the tea houses of the Silk Road of China. The tea room culture started in the latter half of the 19th century in the port city of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, after opium dens were banned throughout the country. Silk Road travellers and traders would take breaks in tea houses for a dim sum meal. As they continued to travel, the practice continued to spread and gained popularity throughout the region, especially in Hong Kong. Later, it crossed the Pacific to reach the west coast of America through the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York. In the United States, I had some great dim sum in Seattle as well.
In India, I had my first taste of real dim sum at the Taipan -- the old roof-top Chinese restaurant of the Oberoi, Delhi. But one of the pioneers of dim sum in India is the Royal China in Mumbai. Over the years, several other high-end Chinese restaurants like Yuatcha have joined the dim sum train. However, in my reckoning, Royal China’s original outlet in Azad Maidan near Victoria Terminus, behind Sterling Cinema, still reigns supreme and scores even over its own branches in Mumbai and other cities. It first introduced Cheung Fun -- rice noodle rolls with a filling of roast pork or beef, steamed spare-ribs in black-bean sauce, yellow curried squid and steamed asparagus in minced beef casings. It was just a matter of time before vegetarian dim sum caught on. So, dim sum counters have become a standard feature in top of the line vegetarian banquets at weddings and functions. Meat and seafood are replaced with exotic ingredients like truffle, wild mushrooms, morel, edamame, water chestnuts and mock duck.
The popularity of dim sum is clearly spreading across the country. Apart from hotels and private parties, one finds dim sum stalls popping up at clubs, fairs and festivals. However, the idea of all-day dim sum dining is yet to arrive in India. The reason for that is primarily because we Indians cannot think of a meal without a staple of rice or bread. We need a substantial main course at lunch and dinner. Everything else qualifies only as a snack. But I think there is another factor that has stymied the growth of dim sum when other forms of Chinese cuisine, especially noodles, have taken off big time. It is the new-found craze for momos among all communities and across regions.
Originally seen as a Tibetan-Nepali food, momo mania has taken the country by storm. Earlier, momos could be obtained mainly in the hills which had a large Tibetan and Nepali population -- in Sikkim, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Darjeeling and also parts of the North East. Then there were pockets of Tibetan settlements in cities -- like Majnu-Ka-Tilla in Delhi. Kolkata had a bunch of momo-thukpa joints off Chowringhee near Elgin Road. Bangalore too had some Tibetan-Chinese restaurants as there was a Tibetan community near Mysore. The most popular variants were pork, chicken and occasionally mutton. Vegetarian momos were less trusted as some suspected they were made with chicken stock. But all that has changed in recent years. Now, momos have acquired the status of street food and convenience food, available in frozen packs ready to be steamed in the microwave or fried at home. With that has come Indianisation or rather “Punjabification”. The trend has gathered momentum post Covid. The menu card of Wow Momo, a fast food chain that started with just momos, has now extended to other “Chindian” (Indian Chinese) fare with hybrid momos like paneer momo, chicken cheese sizzler momo, corn and cheese momo and chicken tandoori momo. One would expect orthodox momo eaters to throw a fit seeing these innovations but then food is all about evolution.
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Coming back to dim sum, India does not have a tea house tradition like the Chinese. Elegant bars serving beer and wine can be a substitute but the market may not be ready yet. However, with Indians becoming more global in their culinary tastes, it may be just a matter of time before a dim sum wave sweeps the restaurant landscape of the country. Till then, the closest clone of the dim sum concept is found in toddy shops in Kerala with their amazing buffet of “touchings” or my favourite Shaw’s Bar in Kolkata where street vendors walk in with trays of snacks and salads in small leaf plates and go from table to table for the drinkers to pick what they like against cash. It works pretty well for me. I won’t be surprised if next time I find them selling momos and someday graduating to dim sum.
(Sandip Ghose is an author and current affairs commentator. He tweets @SandipGhose.)