Late dim sum master Chen Xun, 97, leaves behind legacy in Cantonese cuisine

Published (HKT): 2021.04.07 16:17

Fans of Chinese prawn dumplings and barbecued meat buns have the legendary chef Chen Xun to thank for the popular small dishes that invariably grace every table in a dim sum meal.

Chen, who could unabashedly lay claim to being a master and even a pioneer of Cantonese dim sum, died at the age of 97 late last month in Guangzhou of southern Guangdong province after more than 80 years in the business.

He left an indelible mark on certain types of dim sum that came to be the most commonly sold, and created some of his own as well, captivating both Cantonese people and foreigners alike.

The talented chef started out in the 1930s as a 14-year-old apprentice under well-known dim sum masters Chen Xi and Cui Qiang in a Guangzhou restaurant called Qimiaozhai.

In 1946, the young Chen Xun joined the famous Liuguo hotel in Guangzhou and was promoted two years later to supervisor of the dim sum department. At just 20, he devised the plan of promoting different varieties of dim sum each week — deep fried, pan fried, baked, steamed and stewed: you name it, he had it on the menu.

His time at Liuguo was notable for working with fellow chef Luo Kun to produce the fluid barbecued pork bun in the shape of a bird cage. They modified the recipe and roast pork filling so that the bun could be steamed upon customers’ orders and served hot. Diners tearing it apart would find the gravy-rich filling oozing out.

So good was the pair’s improved version of the barbecued pork bun that it used to sell 1,000 baskets a day, adding a feather in Chen’s cap.

Then in the 1950s, when food in China was scarce following the establishment of the Communist Party, Chen created more with less. He dreamed up the idea of rolling a layer of steamed sticky rice flour around a deep-fried dough stick to create a new type of dim sum, and also flavored steamed glutinous rice with soy sauce instead of meat filling to make rolls.

The master was also the one who suggested singling out four traditional snacks — the barbecued pork bun, prawn dumpling, siu mai and egg tart — to represent Cantonese dim sum in a national cooking competition in 1983 and promote the cuisine to the rest of the country.

Huang Renwen, an apprentice of Chen, remembered the dim sum legend as a humble and sincere person who was willing to teach and had no airs.

Chen would be kind and patient with his advice whenever he corrected people about problems with the food, Huang told Apple Daily.

He also had an attitude of acceptance toward new things, including ingredients and equipment, Huang said. The master practiced “innovation under heritage” and was open to East-West fusion, North-South blending and a merging of ancient and modern ideas to cook up new Guangdong dim sum.

Chen’s passing was a great loss to the industry, Huang said. “We have lost our spiritual support, at least a master who would keep nagging at us.”

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