Behind the Scenes: The Secret to Buddakan's Dim Sum

By Danya Henninger  |  January 29, 2014
Credit: Danya Henninger

Stephen Starr restaurants - especially his early ones, like Buddakan - are known more for style and service than the authenticity of their food. That’s one reason we were pretty surprised to learn that all of the dim sum served there is made by a team of Cantonese cooks, a couple of whom have been around since the very beginning.

Lily and Mama Ha, as everyone knows them, have run Buddakan’s dim sum program for more than 14 years. In the past year, these dough wranglers and their team have made more than 57,000 pieces of the restaurant’s signature edamame dumpling, and that’s just one of eight different versions on the menu.

In honor of the Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Friday, January 31, we stopped in for a behind-the-scenes look at the dim sum magic.

  • Lily’s favorite dim sum is the soup dumpling, and the dough used for these is made in-house from wheat flour, then portioned into small, puck-sized pieces.

  • Each piece is rolled out by hand using a tricky twisting method that leaves the center much thicker than the edges, to help form a sturdy base for the hot liquid inside.

  • A cube of gelée is placed in the center of the scoop of chicken and spice filling on the flattened wrapper - when the dumplings are steamed, it will turn to liquid “soup.”

  • Starr originally found Lily through the newspaper stand outside his restaurant when he mentioned to the Chinese owner that he was looking for a dim sum cook.

  • Lily has now been making dumplings for so long that it’s nearly impossible to catch the moment the ball in her hands turns from a shapeless mass into a self-contained, elegantly decorated bite.

  • Somehow, it appears, out of nowhere. The finished dumpling is placed with five others in a steam basket for storage.

  • When an order comes up, the baskets are placed directly on a traditional steamer stove, with steam wafting up through perfectly sized circular vents.

  • You’re advised to eat a finished soup dumpling all in one bite, to make sure the flavorful liquid inside doesn’t escape.

  • Edamame dumplings are the best-seller, and these start with a different type of dough, one that is also made in-house but is based on rice flour.

  • The filling is relatively simple - mostly puréed edamames, truffle oil and salt - but delicious, even when cold.

  • Lily uses a different - though just as precise - technique to pinch together the edges of this dumpling.

  • The finished edamame dumplings will also be placed in a steamer basket for cooking.

  • They’re served in a slightly more elegant style, however, swimming in a truffle-Sauternes broth.

  • Two types of spring rolls are also on the dim sum menu, and each is made on a wrapper imported from China.

  • Egg yolk is used as an adhesive to hold everything together. Since the spring rolls will be fried, they have more of a chance of falling apart than dumplings.

  • The oil is so hot that the rolls take no more than three or four minutes to cook.

  • The Cantonese spring rolls - with chicken and shrimp - are served with a spicy mustard dipping sauce.

  • We've just scratched the surface of all the dim sum options made at Buddakan - you can easily spend a couple of hours working your way through the menu.