“If we did something well at school when I was a kid, we would get a dumpling,” Kunsang, pauses as he reminisces. “So dumplings for me, have always been in my life.”
Chef owners of Makake and Ramen Momo Kunsang Tsering Dhondupsson and Erna Pétursdóttir, and Hrafnkell Sigurðsson and Eggert Gíslason Þorsteinsson from Mat Bar joined forces for what was meant to be an experimental pop-up that has since become Reykjavik’s first dumpling house.
For those of us longing for dim sum in Reykjavík, cravings have often had to be satisfied with daydreams of visits past to dim sum houses of Chinatowns abroad, yearning for broader choice at restaurants like Fine and Fönix who still make their own—a pining especially pronounced when confronted by frozen dumplings and spring rolls that continue to be peddled surreptitiously in local ‘Asian inspired’ restaurants. Support groups for those lamenting this vacuum as we pleated shoddy dumplings at home didn’t seem an exaggeration given that the numbers of the dumpling deprived seemed to be a growing reality.
Makake alleviated some of that withdrawal with its weekly ‘Dumpling nights’ but it was obvious that Reykjavík hungered for a more permanent fixture (if you were a guest at the Kaiseki pop-up by Ramen Momo at Mat Bar, that was a definite foreshadowing).
Hrafnkell echoes that sentiment, “When I worked in London for a year as a chef, it was a weekend tradition to go to dumpling bars,” he says. “Just the enjoyment of that scenario—eating dumplings and having a few drinks, was something I missed a lot. I sort of carried that idea to Iceland after my stint abroad and wanted to see if there was room for that [here].”
Dim Sum vs Yum Cha
While dim sum is enjoyed all over the world today, it refers to a large selection of small Chinese dishes typically served for breakfast late into lunch. Yum Cha, on the other hand, is Cantonese high tea with dim sum dishes.
It is believed that Cantonese dim sum culture has its origin in late 19th century tea rooms in the port city Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, after opium dens were banned in the country. Silk Route travellers and traders would take breaks and enjoy meals in these dim sum joints and took the tradition with them as they travelled, resulting in rapidly spreading popularity in the region. Today, it can include dishes and traditions from outside of China, although the culinary form largely remains the same. “It is always about meeting people, chatting and eating,” Kunsang explains.
For him, however, this food isn’t token inspiration drawn from a fortnight’s travel in the region. “I grew up making dumplings; they are the connection between family members,” he explains, “We meet, work the dough, cut the meat, shape the dumplings, steam them, then eat them together,” he explains, offering us a glimpse of family gatherings.
“Every country has given its own touch to dumpling culture,” Kunsang adds, “flour, meat, green onions are the main ingredients and the filling varies; in China, it is usually pork mince, in India and Nepal it is goat and beef, in Tibet it is lamb and yak. The way we shape them and cook them can vary from country to country.”
Then of course, there is the dumpling skin itself, from snowy, slightly chewy bread like bao giving way to generous fillings of slow braised meat to the jewel-like iridescence of har gow indicative of the mixture inside.
Dumplings are definedly rooted to place—from Turkish manti and the universe of Chinese dumplings to their unfilled namesakes of North America and Germany. So how does the dumpling translate to Iceland?
“Dragon [Dim Sum] is the perfect marriage between Icelandic ingredients and labouring of Asian dim sum passion,” offers Kunsang.
“My background (in fine dining) lends itself to focusing on locally sourcing and playing with ingredients that I have on hand rather than [only] referring to classical ingredients or classical flavours of any particular cuisine,” Hrafnkell chimes in. “It also gives me the freedom of creativity to play with whatever is local and not confining me with the constraints of cuisine—dim sum, in this case.”
Dragon Dim Sum for today
Hrafnkell makes a case long echoed even by those considered the gatekeepers of Cantonese dim sum culture. That dim sum chefs should experiment and be creative, and apply traditional techniques to conceptualise well balanced dishes that honour the old and the new. Ultimately dim sum is typically small and exquisite. Often seasonal and a showcase of the chef’s precision skills and techniques, dumplings are more than parcels of filling—a delicate interplay of textures, flavours and beauty.
The dumplings at Dragon aren’t strictly traditional and the nomenclature does ruffle feathers if you are familiar with dim sum—the xiao long bao are more bao than soup dumplings, albeit dangerously addictive once you get past the name (this dish has been through several iterations and the current braised beef is their best one yet) and the chiu chao are shorn of their signature crystal wrappers, although the beet and walnut filling is as Nordic as it gets. The shao mai are packed with flavour, a lighter counterpart to the deeply savoury ones at Fine. The sauces and presentation however, do set them specifically apart from their traditional counterparts. “It is definitely a nod to the Icelanders’ love for sauces,” the owners confirm.
Textures may be monotone with the dumplings (they are all steamed), but the spunky sides add variety; I am particularly partial to their slaw—punchy and fresh. I secretly do long for classic dim sum fare like lo mai gai (sticky rice in lotus leaf), lo bak go (crispy radish cakes) and divisive but delicious braised chicken feet, and fervently hope they will all make their way to Dragon.
Kunsang stresses the importance of the process. “I make sure the dough is on point and we shape every single dumpling by hand,” he shares, “Hrafnkell and Eggert oversee all the fillings and sauces.” Hrafnkell chuckles,“We’re a team of six and it is always all hands on deck—we barely manage to pull it off”, he says.
Having watched Kunsang expertly pleat each dumpling, I can personally attest that he is speedier than a machine, folding anywhere from four to eight dumplings per minute, depending on the type!
Labour intensive food is often indicative of time, patronage and a slow culinary evolution. To savour something handmade, in a fast-paced world where ready-to-eat convenience of ‘Asian foods’ belies the sheer effort and skills involved, is an experience worth seeking out. At Dragon Dim Sum, we are invited to share this joy.
“I love dumplings and make them for myself even if I’m eating alone. There’s nothing quite like it,” Kunsang sighs contently. We couldn’t agree more.
Visit the restaurant at Bergstaðastræti 4. Make reservations on facebook.com/dimsumdragon/.
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