How to Throw a Dim Sum Party Like A Pro
Dim sum brunch is one of the loveliest things to do in New York City, especially on a cold afternoon, and it's a beautiful way to entertain a large group of friends, especially if you're already feeling turkey burn-out despite not having eaten turkey since last Thanksgiving.
Preparing a dim sum spread at home might seem like a daunting task, but it’s a lot less stressful (and considerably more fun) than making a traditional Thanksgiving feast. We tapped chef Chris Cheung from Nashville’s Tansuo, which offers authentic dim sum cart service during Sunday brunch and Monday evenings, and chef Joshua Walker from Xiao Bao Biscuit, a Charleston staple featuring dim sum specials on Friday nights, to give us all the pro-tips you'll ever need to pull off an Instagram-worthy dim sum party.
Plan a perfect menu
Common dim sum dishes include a variety of dumplings (steamed, boiled, pan-fried, open-topped shumai and the coveted xiao long bao), bao buns, char siu (barbecued pork), steamed radish or turnip cakes with pork and dried shrimp and a many items wrapped in rice paper rolls or tofu skins. If you’re feeling daring, add chicken feet into the spread. “The chewy texture is a favorite quality,” Walker says. “I’ve even seen a type of basically ‘Chinese spaghetti’ in Hong Kong and sometimes Peking duck gets lumped in, although in my mind it's really a separate thing altogether,” he adds. “Congee (rice porridge), which can be sweet or savory, and on the sweeter side, small egg or custard tarts and fried sesame balls, are common as well.”
The easiest dishes to make at home, Cheung notes, are sui mai and spring rolls. “Sui mai are ground pork and shrimp formed in a wonton wrapper open faced and steamed,” he says. “Spring rolls are chopped vegetables and shrimp in spring roll wrappers and deep- or pan-fried.”
Fake it until you make it
Wrappers for items such as spring rolls and sui mai can be found in the freezer section at any Asian grocery store or market, or opt for pre-made dumplings and steamed buns to cut corners if time isn’t on your side. “If you want to make your own char siu, Lee Kum Lee makes a lot of Chinese sauces that are decent,” says Walker. “That said, nothing beats homemade!”
Serve family-style, in any order you want
Since dim sum is all about sharing, there really is no right or wrong way to do it. “The general rule is the more on the table the more fun you're having,” says Walker. Always serve it family-style where dishes come out as they’re ready. The most fun, though, is to “make friends and talk about all the great food on the table,” says Cheung.
“The fun of dim sum is that there is no particular sequence to eating,” adds Cheung. “When the cart comes, you choose what you want. Many times, you sit there for quite a while so you snack—a couple of bites here, a couple of bites there. You can also sneak a dessert bite and then go back to savory.”
Make the spread Instagram-worthy
For table settings, seek large bamboo baskets lined with banana or bamboo leaves. “We generally use spices like star anise, cinnamon, coriander and cumin, which work well as part of displays when presenting food on platters,” says Cheung. “There are no traditional plates for dim sum—most things in Hong Kong are always on white plates—with the exception that quite often anything steamed is actually served in the metal or bamboo basket it gets steamed in,” says Walker. “As a lot of things are steamed, keeping a lid on top helps seal in the warmth and makes for a fun presentation. We use a lot of melamine plates with Asian patterns at Xiao Bao—they're cheap, kitschy and nearly indestructible.” Toss chopsticks and spoons into the mix and voila, a stunning tablescape filled with delicious food and great conversation.
Choose booze that pairs well
Tea is the most common beverage pairing of choice, but let’s face it, wine is obligatory at any holiday gathering. Cheung suggests Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley and, the most obvious pairing, rice wine. “In China, many of the restaurants serve rice wine in house to go with all meals and services,” he adds. “The terroir matches the food, and rice wine is the more common wine in China.”
Incorporate holiday traditions
If you feel the need to add turkey into the equation, use the meat as a main dim sum ingredient. “Turkey dumplings could be fun, as well as using turkey wings and feet into braises like the dim sum chicken feet dish,” Cheung says. “At Tansuo we are doing Three Cups Turkey, which is a Taiwanese chicken stew. Or create some of Walker’s holiday culinary mashups such as scallion pancakes with green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with steamed ribs and steamed buns with turkey. “I don’t think you can go wrong here,” he adds.
Find the best recipes
Cheung recommends checking out The Woks of Life for recipes and cooking advice. “I also like The Cleaver Quarterly, although it's more about the stories than recipes. As for books, I’m a big Martin Yan fan and his books are great.” Walker suggests perusing The Dim Sum Field Guide for “essential dim sum reading and recipes.” Food & Wine also has a cheat sheet for recipes here.