“Never judge a Siu Mai by its wrapper.”
~ DIM SUM SERIES ~
Dim Sum (think ‘Chinese tapas’) restaurants are easy to find here in the Bay Area. However, good ones are another thing. They are but a handful, their credibility constantly reinforced by the ever-growing lines and wait times every weekend. True to Hong Kong dim sum tea houses, these establishments do not take reservations, so assured are they of their clientele. Patrons queue before opening times, those who arrive later jostle to get their names down on a piece of scrap paper and settle down for a long session bent over iPhones, usually without the benefit of benches or seating areas. Friends take the chance to catch up, children without electronic devices play or get restless, quiet conversation take place all around (though ‘quiet’ may be subjective).
One day, while I was idling flipping through Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook^ at the local library entranced by the delectable pictures of food that looked good enough to eat from the pages, I paused at a Siu Mai recipe (烧卖, also pronounced ‘shu mai’ or ‘shao mai’). While there are many innovative varieties of filling for this humble dumpling wrapped in a piece of dough, the Cantonese version made mostly with pork and shrimp is our favourite. Growing up, this was mostly the only type to be found and popping one of these hot and piping dumplings into the mouth today instantly reminds us of home. Inspired by the photos, a growling tummy and a desire to learn to make these popular appetizers myself, I set out to try my hand at it. Fortunately the Asian grocery store (refrigerator aisle) stocked several varieties of dumpling dough wrappers.
On my first attempt, I only made 12 dumplings. They looked a little like ‘ugly dumplings, no thanks to my amateur wrapping skills. However, the little morsels turned into swans the moment we bit into them, steaming hot and dipped in sauce. Oooohh… you know what they say about not judging books my their covers? So what if the dozen were not uniformly filled? So what if several had the wrapper bunched up on one side? And that one wrapper looked like it’s nearly lying flat open instead of holding up a piece of filling? “No officer, Siu Mai was not here.” Not a trace. Gulp.
On my next attempt, the Siu Mai looked considerably more presentable. I tweaked the recipe slightly to suit our tastes. I also wisely (rare, I know) decided to make a large batch to freeze extras. It’s like stocking my personal frozen aisle! I could just steam what I needed anytime I want, what could be easier? No defrosting needed and steaming takes no more than 10 minutes. Stir-fry an Easy Water Spinach and cook a pot of rice in the meantime, and dinner is served before anyone can say Jack Robinson.
- Wonton wrappers can also be used but the traditional Siu Mai uses plain flour wrappers made without eggs. The latter has a creamy white colour when frozen while the former is yellow.
- To prevent condensed steam from dripping all over and causing untoward incidences, wrap the lid of the steamer with a dish cloth or tea towel.
Notes on steaming:
- Some stainless steel steamers come with a inner tray that makes it super easy to use. I had received such an all-in-one steamer as a gift one year and love it for its convenience and ease of care. With these, fill with about 2″ of water and bring to a rolling boil. Place the Siu Mai in any heat-proof plate, lined with lettuce leaves, on the inner tray and cover the lid.
- If you do not have an all-in-one steamer, a stainless steel steaming basket will work just as well. My mother used this when I was growing up and it was my trusty method before I received the gift. Fill any medium to large pot with about 1 – 1.5″ of water, not enough to touch the base of the basket. Once the water is boiling, place the Siu Mai on the rack and place the basket in the pot. What I like about this basket is how the center handle is removable and how it is expandable to accommodate larger items such as fish, yet easily collapsible for storage. As a kid, I used to collapse and expand the basket just for fun 🙂
- If it’s a traditional, classic dim sum experience that you desire, you will want to use a bamboo steaming basket like the ones seen in dim sum restaurants, and an all-in-one steamer. Bring 2″ of water to a rolling boil without the basket. Line the basket with cheese cloth, lettuce leaves or parchment paper and place the siu mai on it. Place the basket on the inner tray and cover the lid.
Don't miss the next recipe from our Dim Sum Series!
- 8 oz prawns
- 8 oz ground pork
- 4-5 shiitake mushrooms
- Dumpling wrappers (I like weichuan brand)
- ½ stalk green onion, finely chopped
- ½ tsp ginger, minced
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp cornstarch
- 1 egg, reserve ½ of the white
- Several pieces of lettuce leaves
- Soy sauce
- Soak prawns in a bowl of water with 1 tsp sugar and 1 tsp baking soda for 30 minutes.
- Finely chop or mince the prawns.
- Cut mushrooms into tiny pieces, about ⅛".
- Mix prawns, ground pork, mushrooms, salt, pepper, ginger, green onion, sesame oil, cornstarch and egg in a bowl and mix well.
- Place 1 Tbsp of filling in a dumpling wrapper. Dap some remaining egg white around the edge of the wrapper. Using the fingertips of both hands, fold the edges as if to cover the filling. Pinch the edges but leave a gap at the top, not covering the filling completely.
- Layer lettuce leaves on a plate. Place dumplings on the lettuce leaves.
- Steam dumplings for 7-8 minutes.
- Serve with 1 tsp sugar dissolved in 2 Tbsp soy sauce.
Alternative topping options: tobiko, salmon roe, salted egg yolk pieces, pork/fish floss. For seafood allergies: Replace prawns with chicken.
Siu mai freezes very well. Prepare in advance, store in freezer bag and steam when needed. No defrosting required.
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^Although I am not affiliated with the author or publisher in any way, I recommend the book as a comprehensive starter to Chinese cooking. The photos are an inspiration to try the recipes.