China – Dim sum, spring rolls, and tangerine cake balls

China – Dim sum, spring rolls, and tangerine cake balls

Well, it’s about time that you know the truth.  I’m in love.  With China.  Asia in general, really, but especially China.  My relationship with China is complicated.  I love the food.  It’s sort of amazing that I don’t just eat dim sum daily.  I love my Chinese co-workers.  I don’t love Chinese politics. Fortunately, we’re just here to talk travel and food (mostly dim sum)!

I briefly lived in Hong Kong, so finding a balance between stories and brevity will be tricky.

A short lifetime in China

This chapter opens with one terrified South Carolinian (me) landing in Hong Kong late at night and a cab driver who doesn’t speak English and believes I am trying to go to a restaurant instead of my new home.  Petrified, I hid for half a day in my temporary apartment, then slowly expanded my reach – one block at a time.  By the end of the first day, I mastered the bus network, found The Chinese University of Hong Kong (my exchange school), and stocked the kitchen.

Beijing street food

We have no idea what we are eating here, but we’re smiling anyway!

Two of my best friends joined a few days later and we embarked on a five month journey that would change the core of my being and is a piece of the puzzle that led to you and I meeting.  Proof that my curiosity for food is not a fad – I vowed to eat one thing every single day that I did not want to eat.  Sampan congee, sea urchin, funky pickles, and – the game ender – shredded pigs ears.  If you would like to hear about this novice wanderlust navigating a completely foreign land, developing a still present affection for European boys (you’ll meet a few along the way), and eventually returning with a deeper sense of self, check out my first blog.

Why dim sum – pot stickers, shrimp dumplings, spring rolls,and tangerine cake balls?

You can’t visit China without growing to love dim sum (all but the cake balls are dim sum).  Restaurants serve dim sum on never-ending carts and you eat until your heart’s content and your belly could bear a small child. Dim Sum is popular during Chinese New Year, which hit shortly after we landed in Hong Kong.  We learned about the Chinese New Year traditions.  Read more about the Chinese New Year culture.

An Austin Chinese dim sum experience

You’ll get to know Lauren along the way.  For now, know that she is my amazing foodie, lawyer friend and that we co-host a Chinese new year party each year.  My duty is always dim sum.  It began because we are both dragons in Chinese mythology and it was our year (you have special luck in your year).   I’ll focus here on my contributions to the party, but know the pictures also include Lauren’s whole fish, lettuce wraps, and accompaniments.

Chinese New Year Dim Sum Austin

Lauren and I standing over part of our Chinese New Year feast. I didn’t take the best pictures at this point in the project unfortunately so you can’t see everything we cooked.

Kitchen gear 

This bamboo steamer is really cheap and does the trick perfectly.  You can’t make the dim sum dishes without one of these.

Helen Chen's Asian Kitchen Bamboo Steamer

Inspirational dim sum and cake ball recipes and resources

The dim sum recipes (pork dumplings, wontons, spring rolls) were born of a Whole Foods cooking class (recipes not available online) and I found this cute recipe for tangerine cake balls.  If you are looking for creative dessert ideas, make Diamonds for Dessert your first stop.  Dim sum can intimidate even the best cook.  If you are in Austin, I HIGHLY recommend taking a Whole Foods cooking class.

Full dim sum, spring roll, and tangerine cake ball menu

Tweaks and cautionary tales

Dim sum –

  • You can pre-make the dumpling stuffing, but NOT the spring rolls.
  • Plan for lots of time for actually creating the dumplings or have an assembly line of friends/ family.  You will need a bamboo steamer (and you will love having it from this moment forward).
  • IMPORTANT:  if you pan fry the potstickers, be EXTREMELY careful when you add the water to the dumplings.  Have the pan full of pot stickers.  Ensure the grease is not too hot.  If you add water to hot oil and then put a lid on it, you’re going to cause an explosion.  I don’t have a picture to prove it, but trust me.
  • Dim sum is not a quick dinner choice, but it’s worth every second.

Tangerine Cake balls –

  • Trust me, only use oil based food coloring or buy pre-colored chocolates.  Also, getting really good chocolate is important if you are going to use coloring.   If you use water based coloring and mediocre chocolate, the chocolate will seize and will not cover your cake balls.  Trust me on this one as I have TWO disasters with cake balls.  Here is one of those disasters:
Tangerine cake ball

Notice how the frosting is more “patted on” than covering? They still tasted awesome, but they were not pretty.

How to make dim sum and cake balls healthier

Spring rolls are healthy and you can choose to make them vegetarian my eliminating the shrimp.  Dumplings are not terribly unhealthy when steamed. You could also choose to bake the wontons (make sure you flip them half way).    Don’t make the cake balls healthier.  Just don’t.

Freeze dim sum for later

You can freeze the dumplings, pot stickers, and crab rangoons before you cook them.  Lay them on a baking sheet and freeze for a couple of hours before putting them in a long-term storage container.  This way, they will not stick together and you can pull out a small amount later.  Don’t freeze them after cooking.  They turn pretty disgusting.  If you don’t want to make all the cake balls, you can also freeze them before you frost them using the same method above.


  • Learning Curve:  slightly steep
  • Pre-work: make the meat stuffing
  • Vegetarian: with tweaks
  • Healthy: with tweaks

Final recommended dim sum recipes

Chicken, cabbage and garlic pot stickers
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
This is a great pot sticker recipe. You can pan fry the pot stickers, but know that it is a bit of a skill. You can also toss them in the deep fryer and save everyone the hassle.
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Asian
Serves: 6 - 8
  • ¼ small head cabbage, thinly sliced and chopped
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, plus ⅛ teaspoon for seasoning
  • ⅓ pound ground chicken
  • 1 small carrot, diced
  • 2 thinly sliced scallions, diced
  • 4 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
  • ½ egg, lightly beaten
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 30 pot sticker wrappers from 1 (14 ounce) package
  • ¼ cup safflower oil (or more if you are using a deep fryer)
  1. In a large bowl, toss together cabbage and ¾ teaspoon salt and set aside for 30 minutes. Transfer to a clean dish towel and squeeze out as much water as possible. Wipe bowl clean, then return cabbage to it. Add the chicken, carrots, scallions, and garlic and stir to combine.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sesame oil, and egg, then stir into cabbage-chicken mixture. Stir in pepper and remaining ⅛ teaspoon salt.
  3. On dry surface, lay out 1 wrapper, keeping remaining wrappers covered with dampened cloth or paper towel. Spoon 1½ teaspoons filling into center, then moisten halfway around edge with wet finger. Fold moisture free half of wrapper over moistened half to form open half-moon shape. To seal, use thumb and forefinger of one hand, form 6 tiny pleats along the un-moistened edge of wrapper, pressing pleats against moistened border to enclose filling. Moistened border will stay smooth and will automatically curve in semicircle. Stand dumpling, seam side up, on a baking sheet and gently press to flatten bottom. Cover loosely with damped cloth or paper towel. Form remaining dumplings in the same manner.
  4. I strongly recommend you use a fryer on 300 degrees rather than the skillet method below. However, if you insist, be really careful!
  5. In 10-inch, lidded, non-stick skillet over moderately high heat, heat oil until hot, but not smoking, then remove from heat and arrange pot stickers in tight circular patter standing up in oil (they should touch one another). Cook, uncovered, until bottoms are pale golden, 2 - 3 minutes. Add ½ cup water, titling skillet to distribute, then cover tightly with lid and cook until liquid has evaporated and bottoms of dumplings are crisp and golden - 7 - 10 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons more water if the skillet looks dry before bottoms are browned. Remove lid and cook, shaking skillet to loosen pot stickers, until steam dissipates - 1-2 minutes. Invert large plate with rim over skillet. Using pot holders, hold plate and skillet together and invert skillet. Remove skillet and serve pot stickers warm.

Crab Rangoons
Definitely deep fry these. Cooking them in a pan will make an utter disaster.
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Asian
  • 8 ounces of cream cheese
  • 8 ounces of fresh crab meat or canned crab meat, drained and flaked
  • 1 teaspoon chopped red onion
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon light soy sauce
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 finely sliced green onion
  • 1 large minced garlic clove
  • 1 package wonton wrappers
  • 1 small bowl of water
  • Safflower oil for deep frying
  1. Combine the cream cheese and crab meat. Mix the remaining six filling ingredients (up to the wonton wrappers) one at a time.
  2. On a flat surface, lay out a wonton wrapper in front of you so that it forms two triangles, (not a square). Wet the edges of the won ton.
  3. Add 1 teaspoon of filling to the middle and spread it out towards the left and right points of the wrapper so that it forms a log or rectangle shape (otherwise the wrapper may break during frying).
  4. Fold over the edges of the wrapper to make a triangle. Wet the edges with water and press together to seal.
  5. Keep the completed Crab Rangoon covered with a damp towel or paper towel to keep them from drying out while preparing the remainder.
  6. Heat wok and add oil for deep-frying. When oil is ready (temp between 360 - 375 degrees), carefully slide in the Crab Rangoon, take care not to overcrowd the fryer. Deep fry until golden brown - about 3 minutes - turning once. Remove with a slotted metal spoon and drain on paper towel. Serve hot with sweet and source sauce or Chinese hot mustard.

Steamed shrimp, ginger, and green onion dumplings
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
You will need a bamboo steamer and a food processor.
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Asian
Serves: 8 - 10
  • Shrimp filling:
  • 1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • ½ pound ground pork
  • 2 finely chopped green onions
  • 1 minced garlic clove
  • 1, 3 inch piece of grated fresh ginger
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • ½ juiced lemon
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce plus extra for dipping
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • For the wrappers:
  • 1 10-ounce package of round wonton wrappers
  • canola oil for brushing the steamer
  • Cabbage for lining the steamer.
  1. To make the shrimp filling: Pulse all the ingredients in a food processor until partly smooth but not completely pureed. It should have a little texture. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. To assemble dumplings: Hold a wonton wrapper in your hand. Dip a spoon in cold water and then drop 1 tablespoon of the filling on the the center of a wrapper (dipping the spoon in cold water first will make the filling come off easier). Gather the edges of the wrapper up around the filling and squeeze the sides slightly with your fingers. The sides will naturally pleat, leaving the filling slightly exposed. Tap the dumpling on the table so the bottom is flat and it stands up-right. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. (You can freeze the leftover filling for 2 or 3 weeks).
  3. Lightly oil the bottom of a 10 inch bamboo steamer and line it with the whole cabbage leaves. Stand the dumplings in the steamer on a single layer and don't let them touch. You should be able to get 12 dumplings in the steamer at the same time. Bring 1 to 2 inches of water to boil in a pot that is slightly more narrow that the steamer. . Set the bamboo steamer over the pot and then cover it with the bamboo lid. Steam for 10 - 12 minutes or until the filling feels firm and is cooked through. Serve int he steamer bask3et and garnish with additional green onions and soy sauce.


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