A Hong Kong dim sum essential: why bamboo steamers are such a vital part of one of the city’s most loved food traditions

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After his family relocated the business from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in the late 1950s, trade boomed. By the ’80s, the landscape had shifted, rising labour and production costs combining to send factories scurrying to cheaper mainland China.

Lam is the fifth-generation descendant of the founder of the Tuck Chong Sum Kee Bamboo Steamer Company. Photo: Kylie Knott

Today, most bamboo steamers are mass-produced by machines across the mainland Chinese border. Lam’s company is one of the few in Hong Kong still hand-making them.

The Legacy House in the Rosewood Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui, sources its bamboo steamers from Tuck Chong Sum Kee. Preserving traditional crafts aligns with the Cantonese restaurant’s philosophy.

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“We deeply value the craftsmanship that goes into creating these steamers,” says executive chef Li Chi-wai. “By supporting local artisans, we also contribute to the preservation of traditional craftsmanship and promote sustainability in our sourcing practices.”

Chinatowns around the world also import from Lam. “I ship to San Francisco and other cities. This package is going to Hawaii,” he says, turning the box over to show a stamp marked “Honolulu”, the US state’s capital.

In an age of rapid technological advancement, when many traditional skills have sadly disappeared, it is comforting to know that bamboo steamers, synonymous with Hong Kong’s much-loved yum cha – brunch of tea and dim sum – have stood the test of time.

Staff of the Din Tai Fung restaurant in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, can be seen preparing dumplings in bamboo steamers. Photo: Kylie Knott

Through a frosted window near the kitchen, staff can be seen busily hand-rolling dumplings as waiters shuttle dishes to and from tables.

Bamboo steamers are woven into the city’s culinary identity, says customer Kitty Wu, who treats her mother to weekly yum cha. “Dim sum would not be the same without them,” she says, removing the lid of one of them to reveal six steaming xiaolongbao.

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Chef ArChan Chan Kit-ying, of Ho Lee Fook restaurant in Central, agrees. “Bamboo steamers are an integral part of Hong Kong’s food scene – you cannot have dim sum without bamboo baskets,” she says.

“I hope this craftsmanship does not fade like so many craftwork traditions and I hope people continue to pass it down through generations.”

While glass, metal and silicon steamers have entered the scene, bamboo varieties – with an open-weave bottom, domed lid, and a stackability that allows multiple dishes to be cooked simultaneously – have a staunch following. And there is a basketful of reasons for that.

“The design of a classic bamboo steamer allows ingredients to cook evenly, which is essential to the dish’s quality,” says chef Tam Tung, of Yat Tung Heen at the Eaton HK, adding they are a must-have in any Chinese kitchen.
Chef Vicky Lau’s appreciation of bamboo steamers grew after she attempted to make a steamed sponge cake with a metal version. It did not end well.

“I had issues with water vapour, temperature and moisture trapped inside the container,” recalls Lau, who owns Sheung Wan restaurants Tate Dining Room and Mora.

Ho Lee Fook executive chef ArChan Chan (left) and dim sum chef Winson Yip at Ho Lee Fook in Central. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Bamboo steamers, she says, have the advantage of absorbing excess water vapour. “As steam condenses on the inside of the cover, the bamboo fibres absorb the moisture, preventing it from dripping back onto the food,” she says.

“This is beneficial when steaming delicate items like cakes or dumplings, as it helps maintain their texture and prevent them from becoming soggy,” says Lau, adding she could not use anything else when making steamed sourdough or sticky rice.

Bamboo’s ability to retain heat is another bonus.

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“If you leave the cover on a bamboo steamer after cooking, it keeps the food warm for longer, which is useful when serving multiple courses or when you want to keep the meal hot until it’s ready,” Lau says.

Bamboo is also a natural material free from harmful chemicals. “Even at high heat it is safe to use,” she says, adding the only disadvantage is with Hong Kong’s humidity.

“A bamboo steamer can get mouldy easily so it needs to be kept in a dry space.”

The Legacy House chef Li Chi-wai lifts the lid of a bamboo steamer at The Legacy House in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Edmond So

Chef Chan Yau-leung, executive chef of Duddell’s in Central, has used bamboo steamers for more than four decades – and he has no desire to stop.

“Despite the changing times, there are certain traditional practices that cannot be easily replaced,” he says. “While modern steamer alternatives have emerged, I prefer traditional bamboo-made ones.”

The general consensus among the local chefs is that balancing steam is a bamboo steamer’s superpower. Nobody wants soggy buns.

“If a steamer can’t release steam, water droplets form, which is not ideal for traditional Chinese food items such as buns,” Chan says.

Durability is also a plus, says chef Li of The Legacy House. “A bamboo steamer can last around a year with proper care,” he says, adding they are essential for preparing dishes such as dim sum, chicken, fish – even Chencun rice noodles.

In contrast, adds Li, stainless-steel steamers tend to dissipate heat quickly, resulting in water dripping onto the food. “They can also rust when exposed to moisture or prolonged heat,” he says.

Forget glass steamers – they are too fragile, says Li. “They can break at high temperatures, making them less practical for professional use.”

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Chef Chen Tian-long, of The Merchants in Central, says bamboo adds a subtle, earthy flavour to food, giving it the edge over stainless-steel or glass steamers.

A natural and renewable material, bamboo also ticks the sustainability box, says Chen. And they look good when serving dishes such as The Merchants’ jasmine-tea-smoked duck, osmanthus honey-glazed Jinhua ham with crispy bean-curd sheet and xiaolongbao.

“They add a traditional touch to the food’s presentation,” says Chen.

Bamboo steamers impart a subtle, earthy flavour to the food, says chef Chen Tian Long, of The Merchants in Central’s Landmark. Photo: The Merchants
Chan of Ho Lee Fook says the historical role bamboo baskets have played in Chinese cuisine – they have been around for 5,000 years, originating in southern China during the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220) – cannot be overlooked.

Neither can their sensory allure, he adds.

“Bamboo steamers have a materiality and familiarity that I love, and I always touch them when having yum cha with my family,” says Chan. “I think that impacts the overall experience.”

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