When it comes to dim sum, too much is never enough, says Alex Rusmer
As a student I spent a term writing for Varsity, the university’s independent newspaper. Late one night, and on a tight deadline, a colleague suggested that we make the most of the paper’s limited food budget and call in some snacks. I agreed and left it to him to order. 20 minutes later he presented me with a plastic box and a set of chopsticks. Inside were what looked like six tiny Cornish pasties and a pot of pale brown vinegar. It was my first taste of gyoza. What began that night was a love affair with dim sum that continues to this day.
Dim sum is a catch-all term used to describe a wide range of snack-sized foods that, when eaten together, form a substantial meal. They range from siu mai – dumplings – stuffed with pork, seafood or vegetables to steamed buns filled with savoury and sweet fillings. For the more adventurous palate, chicken’s feet, crispy duck tongues or steamed tripe are also available, although slightly harder to come across than siu mai. It’s a convivial and communal dining experience and the range means that even the most varied tastes are catered for. A vegan dim sum experience is certainly not out of the question.
The popularity of dim sum has exploded over recent decades and dim sum has spread from its origins in the Canton region of China to become a staple across Asia, with each country adapting the cuisine to its own tastes. Think kimchi stuffed dumplings in Korea, tofu and mushroom offerings in Japan and punchy ginger, chilli and coriander flavours in Thailand.
“The range means that even the most varied tastes are catered for”
Sadly, Dojo, the venerable (and much missed) institution from where my first dumplings hailed, is no longer with us but Cambridge is actually brilliantly served by a number of places offering superb dim sum.
MEE and I on Castle Hill is the spiritual successor to Dojo and offers a very good range of Asian snacks including some formidable fried gyoza and some truly excellent steamed buns (if you haven’t tried the chicken katsu bao bun, do so immediately and thank me later).
On the other side of town, Café Oriental on Burleigh Street is also great, with an extensive range of authentic dim sum and a huge selection of dumplings. If you want to spice things up a touch, the pork wontons in chilli oil soup will certainly clear up any lingering winter colds.
After much painstaking research, however, I’m happy to conclude that the undisputed dumpling champion in this fair city is Zhonghua Traditional Snacks on Norfolk Street. I can think of nowhere else I would be happier to stuff myself into a state of heady bliss than here. And for around a tenner, you really can. The fried offerings are perfectly seasoned and generously stuffed. The soup is clear and clean, and hot and delicious. The steamed buns are little edible cuddles. Admittedly, I can’t comment on desserts because I’ve never yet managed to get that far, but that should tell you all you need to know. It’s all great. Go with a friend. Order too much. Regret nothing.