Steamed pork dumplings (siu mai) are a mainstay of dim sum brunches. The dumpling is made of pork, shrimp, black mushrooms, scallions, and seasonings. The filling is wrapped with wonton skins or other thin dough. In many cases, you’ll see a small orange dot on top. This is usually done with crab roe or minced carrots. A good siu mai dumpling will have rather large, firm chunks of pork and shrimp that separate as you eat it. They are great dipped in a little chili oil and soy sauce.
Baked barbecue pork buns (guk char siu bao) are the oven baked version of the very popular steamed barbecue pork buns. The baked buns have the same barbecue pork filling but the golden brown bun is quite different. The buns are more similar to baked bread and are top coated with honey or sugar mixture. In addition, baked barbecue pork buns are quite a bit larger than their steamed cousins so you get more for your money. These buns are commonly available in Chinese bakeries as well as dim sum restaurants.
Steamed spare ribs (pai gwut) is a major treat for meatlovers. The pork ribs are cut cross-wise into small pieces and steamed with fermented black beans and a touch of sesame oil. Sometimes, the dish will be garnished with hot peppers but any spiciness is subtle. The juice in this dish, unfortunately high in salt and fat, is great on rice. I’ve seen some mediocre restaurants use larger pieces of spare rib for this dish. The small ribs and tips are much better.
Warning: It takes some effort and attention to eat this dish if you don’t want to chip your tooth. After a few pieces of practice, however, you should be able to carefully nibble around the bones. It’s acceptable to spit out your bones. In some places in China, diners will spit them out on the floor but I don’t recommend you do this if you want to be welcomed back by the restaurant. Steamed spare ribs have quickly become a dim sum favorite of my kids.
Steamed barbecue pork buns (char siu bao) really need no introduction since it may well be “the classic” dim sum item. Small pieces of tender, sweet Chinese barbecue pork are stuffed inside a soft steamed wheat bun. The bun itself should have a dry surface, a hint of sweetness, and a delicate, fluffy and somewhat chewy texture. The baked version of barbecue pork buns is quite different but equally delicious.
I use this dish as one of standards for comparing the quality of dim sum restaurants.
Warning! These placid-looking buns can be lethal: I’ve seen dim sum virgins get addicted to dim sum after eating these buns. It’s usually a good idea to order enough dishes so that everyone in your party can have a whole bun. These buns will quickly dry out when kept in the refrigerator so it’s best to eat them fresh.