The experience of stuffing your face with dim sum (點心, dim2 sam1) is obligatory when it comes to trying out Hong Kong’s culinary offers and any classic selection of hot steaming basket towers will almost always include siumai. Yet compared to other much-consumed and much-loved dim sum staples, siumai is one of the few without a self-explanatory name. The translucent shrimp dumpling har gow (蝦餃, haa1 gau2) for example, means exactly that – shrimp (haa1), dumpling (gau2). Perennial favourite cha siu bao (叉燒包, caa1 siu1 bau1) also fails to surprise with its descriptive heads up – roast pork (caa1 siu1) in a bun (bau1).
So where does the name siumai, literally translating into “burn-sell”, come from? Supposedly it all started in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia where little tea joints would sell shaomai (Mandarin pronunciation) as a snack to accompany Mongolian milk tea for tired travellers on the Silk Road. In this case the characters 捎卖 (saau1 maai6) actually meant “side sale” almost like a takeaway dish. However, when merchants from Shanxi province started spreading the popular dumplings to places like Beijing and Tianjin, the name evolved into different characters while keeping the same sounds. The original shaomai (捎卖) became 燒賣 (siu1 maai6) – similar sound, different meaning. The theory behind the name we use in Cantonese is that they were so good, they were never left unsold, hence, “burn-sell”, these jewels of juicy pork and shrimp always sold like hotcakes.
Many regions have their own version of shaomai. While the original version was mainly filled with a simple mix of mutton, scallion and ginger, its mutated cousins got more creative. In Shanghai, they include glutinous rice to give extra chew to a mixture of pork and mushroom. The Uyghurs swapped pork for beef or mutton and added green onions and radish. The region of Hunan probably wins the beauty contest with its chrysanthemum shaomai, using a wrapping that opens into flower petal shapes to reveal a peppery egg yolk in the middle.
The Cantonese version the world has come to love thanks to the Chinese diaspora is more commonly stuffed with ground pork, shrimps, black mushrooms, scallion and ginger. Wrapped in a thin yellow sheet of lye water dough, the crown of the dumpling peaks out and in the fanciest restaurants is often topped with a generous dot of crab roe. It can be dipped in soy sauce and chilli, but they are just as delicious on their own.
Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.