Photo courtesy of Digital Tribe.
When I was a kid I hated dim sum. My parents used to force us to go every Sunday to a Chinese restaurant that was on the top floor of the Whiteley’s shopping centre in Bayswater and the dim sum was always terrible. We would order the same things – char siu bao (steamed buns filled with roast pork), har gow (prawn dumplings), cheung fun (a rice noodle roll, usually filled with different meats), pai gwat fan (spareribs rice; we called this ‘pee goo fan’ which means ‘asshole rice’ – I know, we’re a terrible witty family) – and we’d be horrendously disappointed by them but for some reason every Sunday, without fail, we were back again. I loathed Sundays, hated having to trudge all the way out to Bayswater just to eat sub-par food (usually wearing my Sunday best) and dim sum became like a swear word in my vocabulary.
That is until I was a little older and in Hong Kong with Momma Lee. For some reason we’d travelled out there by ourselves and spent our first few days wandering around her old haunts, eating Shanghainese food and dim sum. It was like I’d never eaten food before: I simply couldn’t get enough of it. I was hungry for Shaghainese xiao long bao (soup-filled dumplings), drank gallons of guk fa cha (Chrysanthemum tea) and ate blocks and blocks of lo bak go (fried turnip cake). When I returned to London all I wanted was dim sum, and though our usual haunt had long since been closed down (thank goodness) just up the road was a fantastic restaurant whose dim sum was authentic and delicious. This was several years ago and I still rarely go anywhere else for dim sum.
So when Ping Pong invited me to a blogger dinner at their Appold Street venue I was, understandably, a little dubious. I have grown up with dim sum, have had bad dim sum and excellent dim sum, have been to Hong Kong almost every year since I was born; this is not new to me, and the idea of modern dim sum, as Ping Pong claims to be, is one I find very hard to get behind. But I’m always open to having my mind changed and I had heard about Ping Pong for a long while, so off I trotted for dinner.
The Ping Pong special cocktail: a ‘Chinese Sling’.
Dim sum for dinner is, in itself, quite a strange idea for me. Dim sum, literally meaning ‘touch the heart’, evolved from the Chinese tradition of ‘yum cha’, meaning ‘drink tea’ (though in Malaysia when one goes to ‘yum cha’ it actually means going out for a midnight snack). Tea tasting inevitably got paired with small dishes, usually steamed or fried food (as both methods of cooking are quite quick and easy) and so dim sum was born. As it is a combination of small dishes, this type of meal is best suited for lunch, and, particularly on Sundays, you’ll find hoards of Chinese lining up outside their various dim sum houses at 11am, ready for their fare. It is also notoriously cheap.
Ping Pong had laid on a special dinner for us, consisting of a tasting of the special cocktail (alcoholic or non-alcoholic – I went for the latter as I had an early flight to Copenhagen the next morning) and some of the special items on their menu. The venue was mostly black with a fantastic background playlist and an extremely sexy and sultry feel – there were little touches of history all over the room, with Chinese art pieces hidden away in little nooks and crannies. We chatted over our drinks and nibbles, and then the food arrived fast and furious.
Hoi sin duck spring rolls; pork ribs; char siu puffs; fish and black pepper griddled dumplings; pak choi dumplings; beef dumplings; chicken and prawn dumplings.
There were a variety of steamed specials and other Ping Pong favourites that we were presented with for the evening. They were certainly very attractive, I particularly liked the bright purple chicken and prawn dumplings which used red cabbage for the colour, but the skins of the brightly coloured dumplings looked a little too thick – the skill of a dim sum chef is usually measured by how thin they can make the outside wrapping of the dumpling without it tearing when you pick it up with your chopsticks, mixed with how delicious the fillings and combination flavours are. Having said that, the flavours weren’t bad, they were definitely interesting and original: you would never find dim sum like this in a traditional Chinese tea house.
There were other dishes that I neglected to photograph (I was having issues with space on the table!) that we sampled, including their versions of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves (there was a prawn version and a vegetarian one: both were about half the size of regular sticky rice bundles), prawn and crab dumplings, and various crackers and nibbles. My favourite dumpling, for flavour, was probably the beef dumplings. My least favourite were probably the fish and black pepper griddled dumplings, which are a little bit on the fiery side – the pepper really hits the back of your throat!
What was fantastic about Ping Pong was that the service was excellent. Dish after dish came out of the kitchen and arrived steaming on our table, seemingly endless stacks of plates and bamboo steamers were piled on top of one another in a desperate attempt to make more room on the table. When we’d finished I was so stuffed I wanted to fall asleep there and then at the table. As a result we decided to pass on desserts but were intrigued by the various flowering teas they had on offer, and so all opted for a different tea.
The history of flowering tea is a little ambiguous, some say it’s centuries old, others that it’s a fairly modern creation as there’s little evidence in historical documents to say otherwise, but the idea of entertainment through food and drink has always been prevalent in Chinese culture, so it is not an entirely new concept. Regardless, it apparently originated from one of the southern provinces of China and today this is where most of the production of said teas occur. The tea itself is made by sorting the tea leaves by equal length and weight, then flattening them by rolling, and finally sewing them together using cotton (or sometimes silk) threads. The finished designs are then dried out and go through an oxidation and firing process, before being packed and shipped. The result is a small tight dried ball of tea leaves that unfurls when submerged in hot water, producing the most beautiful little shapes and designs.
We were given three different flowering teas to try: the Red Dragon, Jasmine Pearls and Yellow Gold Oolong. The Red Dragon and Jasmine Pearls had a lovely fragrance to them, but the Oolong had a beautiful citrus flavour – it was definitely my favourite. The Red Dragon was the most spectacular to watch as it revealed itself, however.
So how did Ping Pong stand up to my own dim sum experiences? Well it wasn’t bad… but it’s probably not for me. I think they’re doing a great thing by trying to modernise dim sum for the West and there are plenty of people out there who will (and who do) love it. But me? I’m a bit of a traditionalist. When it comes to Chinese food and particularly dim sum, I know what I like: I like what I can eat in Hong Kong, I like the closest approximation to it that I can find in London, and I like the history and stories behind each dish. Though Ping Pong’s dim sum is very attractive and they utilise Western ideas well, it’s not a place that I will be queuing up to for my Sunday lunch fix… but that’s just because I’m pretty picky about my dim sum. Also, Ping Pong, whilst not bank-breaking, is not exactly cheap, which kind of goes against all of my philosophies about dim sum.
I would encourage you to try them, however, especially if this is your first experience of dim sum. I mean, I’m the girl who insists on eating stewed chicken feet in black bean sauce every time I go for dim sum, so dumplings filled with pak choy isn’t really going to cut it for me, but I also know that what I like is not for everyone. So give it a go and if you do let me know what you thought – I love to hear other opinions, especially when they differ from my own! It’d be boring if we all thought the same things, wouldn’t it? And hey, if you’re feeling adventurous and want to try some chicken’s feet – call me. I’ll take you out.
A massive thanks to Ping Pong and to Digital Tribe for the dinner – regardless of my opinion of the dim sum it was a lovely evening.
So that’s all for now, lots more coming in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned! Peace and love.
Please note whilst Ping Pong paid for our dinner, I received no monetary compensation for this review. All opinions expressed are my own.