The origins of shumai: How an iconic dim sum staple came to be

Feb 02, 2021

Shumai is popular street snack in Hong Kong, but its origins can be traced further north to Inner Mongolia.

Hong Kong’s street food scene comes alive after dark. As the sun sets, workers stream out of offices and flock to the city’s hole-in-the-walls for a quick bite.

In Tuen Mun, a suburban neighborhood in the northwestern reaches of Hong Kong, a line forms outside Yue Lai Lao Zhu Snacks 悦来老朱小食, a nondescript storefront on a busy street.

Most of the people are commuters stopping by on their way home from work. They’ve come to grab a box of the store’s specialty: shumai, a steamed dumpling made with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and sometimes fish paste.

Shumai is a popular street snack in Hong Kong.
Shumai is a popular street snack in Hong Kong. / Photo: Xiaomei Chen/SCMP

Among shumai fanatics, Yue Lai Lao Zhu is the gold standard in Hong Kong. The proprietor, Patrick Chu, opened the shop in 2001, making shumai based on his father’s recipe.

The dish is a street food staple, easily identified by its yellow outer skin and tiny orange garnish, usually made with crab roe or carrots. It’s typically enjoyed dipped in chili oil and soy sauce.

(Read more: 8 quintessential dim sum desserts, illustrated)

In Hong Kong, shumai can be found everywhere, from street stalls to high-end dim sum restaurants. For people on the go, it’s a convenient snack, which is why it can even be found at 7-Eleven convenience stores.

“Shumai is part of Hong Kong people’s lives,” Chu says.

The origins of shumai

Although the Cantonese version is now the most familiar version of shumai, many historical records say the dish actually originated further away in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia.

There, it was known as suumai, which translates to “without being cooled down” in Mongolian. It’s said to describe how people should eat it while it’s still hot. Instead of pork, suumai consisted of a mutton filling with scallion and ginger.

The dish has its origins in Inner Mongolia.
The dish has its origins in Inner Mongolia. / Photo: SCMP

Chu has another story for where the name shumai comes from. “I think what the chef meant by suumai' was that he wanted them to sell like hotcakes,” Chu says. In Chinese, shu 烧 means “burn” and mai 卖 means “sell.”

Today, there are different varieties of shumai around the world, in Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as many parts of China. They differ in the type of meat, spices, and aromatics used.

In the Philippines, for example, one can find shumai stuffed with ground pork, beef, or shrimp, and combined with green peas, carrots and garlic.

The best shumai in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong takes its street food seriously, which is why Chu is particularly proud that his little shop has carved out a spot among the shumai-obsessed.

Regulars say his shumai is softer and twice the size of average shumai. Chu says it lets customers enjoy it “bite by bite” rather than eating it whole as most shumai is consumed.

(Read more: The most authentic Hong Kong fish balls)

Chu’s dumplings have a blended filling. Fresh fish is grounded into paste, which is then mixed with minced pork. The recipe comes from his father, who developed it after decades of working in different kitchens.

“The shumai I make today is the one he would have enjoyed,” Chu says. “But I can never surpass his skills and human touch.”

Still, he tries and continues to serve the shumai fanatics who flock to his store for Hong Kong’s quintessential street snack.

Street foodHong Kong

Credit

Producer: Tiffany Ip

Videographer: Guo Yong

Editor: Joel Roche

Mastering: Victor Peña

Music: Audio Network