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.
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 ?