It’s owned and run by Hong Kong-born chef Poon Ka Nang, 48, who had been the head dim sum chef at Spring Court, the popular longtime banquet restaurant in Chinatown, for four and a half years.
The youthful-looking man left his post in July this year to try his hand at entrepreneurship by opening a hawker dim sum stall. He named it Mama Dim Sum - the Cantonese term for grandmother - after his 88-year-old granny to honour her.
Family of dim sum chefs
Other than Spring Court, Ka Nang has also worked in the dim sum kitchen at other illustrious restaurants like Crystal Jade, Tung Lok and Furama Hotel’s Wo Peng Cantonese Cuisine. He moved to Singapore from Hong Kong at 17 with his family. “Just in time to serve two years of NS,” laughs the naturalised Singaporean. Making dim sum runs in the blood of the Poon clan — Ka Nang’s father is currently the head dim sum chef at Taste Paradise at Ion Orchard, while his uncle helms Tim Ho Wan’s Lavender Aperia outlet as its head of dim sum. Unsurprisingly, dim sum is what the Poons enjoy talking about when they gather. “We have a good time discussing the finer points of making dim sum. It’s nice to have a common topic we can talk about and commiserate over,” shares Ka Nang, who got into the trade in his teens. “I love making dim sum, so I really enjoy working in this line.”
Making restaurant-quality dim sum in a hawker stall
According to Ka Nang, working in a hawker stall is tougher than being in a restaurant kitchen. “The space is very small, and I have to think very hard about how to make restaurant-standard dim sum in a very small space,” he says. Part of the challenge is also figuring out how to get his tiny hawker stove to produce a similar kind of roaring heat that restaurants use to steam their dim sum. “And I have to work a lot faster too, since we get more customers who want a quick takeaway,” grins the chef, who sports painful-looking burn marks on his arms.
There are only seven items on Ka Nang’s dim sum menu, which are also what he used to make at Spring Court. The dim sum is sold by the piece for customers to mix and match with ease. There is Siew Mai ($1.20 each) , Fried Carrot Cake ($1.20 a piece) , Chicken Glutinous Rice ($2.20) , Fried Spring Roll ($1.20 a piece) , Fried Prawn Dumpling ($1.30 a piece) , Century Egg Minced Pork Porridge ($1.80) and Char Siew Bao ($1.20 each) . Given that dim sum items are usually served in a trio, Mama Dim Sum’s prices are only marginally lower than a restaurant’s. Except you don’t have to pay GST or service charge here. But chef Poon tries his best to offer elegant restaurant-grade dim sum at a hawker price point. “The most expensive ingredient for dim sum is prawn, so we control the portion used. There’s less prawn in our siew mai, otherwise everything is the same [as restaurant dim sum]. There’s lup cheong and chopped radishes in the carrot cake. I want to replicate the restaurant taste at a hawker stall,” he says.
Hawker assistant also a Spring Court alum
Ka Nang is assisted by his longtime staff, a formidable-looking but shy lady named Cui Yong who had previously left her job at Spring Court to take care of her mother. The 51-year-old has since returned to help her boss at his hawker stall, though she still dons professional chef’s whites and immaculate make-up for work. Impressively glamorous, we say.
Their seven-item menu is just enough work for Ka Nang and Cui Yong to manage. Which means you can’t find other dim sum mainstays like cheong fun and har gow at the stall. “It’s very labour-intensive to make them and there’s no space. We can’t make so many of them at one go with our current constraints,” Ka Nang shares. Which is just as well, since the hawker cheong fun scene is reaching oversaturation these days with copious Chef Wei HK Cheong Fun outlets and other CCF stalls popping up.
Chef Poon’s fabulous char siew bao
Our first impression of the good chef’s dim sum is that most of the items are lighter in flavour than the aggressively salty, mass-produced offerings from hawker dim sum chains like Kimly and Kuai San Dian Xin.
The delicate dishes like fried prawn dumplings and radish cake, Ka Nang explains, are meant to be dipped in his special house-made soybean chilli sauce and mayonnaise (for the fried items) for just the right amount of flavour.
Our favourite pick from the menu is undoubtedly his char siew bao. The recipe, he says, “was passed down by my father and uncle”. He hand-makes the baos from scratch in his little stall kitchen, fermenting the dough overnight with his four-year-old wine yeast starter that he had brought over from Spring Court.
Considered one of the most difficult dim sum dishes to perfect, the char siew bao here is excellent: Ka Nang’s HK-style buns ‘burst’ open during the steaming process to produce what Hong Kongers call an auspicious “happy smile”.
Char Siew Bao, $1.20 each (8 Days Pick!)
We happily hoover two of these petite buns at one go. They are ethereally soft and fluffy when eaten warm, with a caramelly fatty-lean char siew filling. Very, very good. “Some people order up to 50 buns at one go,” says Ka Nang, who makes them in advance and freezes them to speed up his operations. He also sells the baos frozen so that his customers can steam the buns themselves at home to enjoy ’em fresh and hot.
Siew Mai, $1.20 a piece (8 Days Pick!)
The handmade siew mai here, while a tad pricey by hawker standards, is also delish. Presented fancily on a piece of banana leaf, each morsel is stuffed with juicy prawn-studded pork till overflowing and crowned with a single goji berry.
It’s like what we would get in a swanky dim sum restaurant, though it’s a pity that the dim sum is not served in traditional bamboo steamers due to the coffeeshop’s plate-cleaning stipulations.
Fried Carrot Cake, $1.20 a piece (8 Days Pick!)
It’s painstaking work to make traditional HK-style radish cake. Ka Nang fries a large amount of chopped radishes in a large wok with other ingredients like lup cheong, and steams the mixture in a tray for an hour to get the firm cake that he then slices to pan-fry.
The laboriously-chopped radishes, which you usually only get in larger upscale Chinese restaurants instead of a hawker stall, gives each bite a burst of sweetness and fabulous crunch. We find the carrot cake’s flavour a little too light - though not bland - for our liking when eaten on its own, but it’s just nice when dipped in the sweet, mild chilli sauce that comes with whole soybeans in it. Pretty swish.
Chicken Glutinous Rice, $2.20
The glutinous rice here is also refined, though steamed too long for our liking (the glutinous rice turns a little mushy). Each disc is beautifully topped with a whole mushroom, garlicky chicken chunks and a slice of Chinese sausage. It makes for a very wholesome breakfast with some ‘ diao yu ’ Chinese tea from the coffeeshop drinks stall.
Fried Prawn Dumpling, $1.30 a piece
The fried prawn dumpling is tasty too, though we find its $1.30 per piece price a tad high. Each plump parcel is fried to a golden finish that’s not too greasy, and stuffed with a succulent prawn-pork filling that we enjoy with a dab of chilli sauce and mayonnaise.
Fried Spring Roll, $1.20 a piece
For those who like spring rolls, chef Poon’s version is pretty atas with thin, crispy skin wrapping a crunchy veggie filling. But compared to the other stellar menu items, this is one of the less exciting picks in our opinion.
Century Egg Minced Pork Porridge, $1.80
At $1.80, the comforting congee here is also worth your coins. The delicate jook is clean-tasting and delicious, though it doesn’t come with hefty chunks of minced pork or century eggs (perhaps due to its wallet-friendly price point). Still, a lovely bowl to savour especially on a rainy morning. Mama Dim Sum, #01-1215 Kai Xiang Food Centre (near Chinese Garden MRT station), Blk 349 Jurong East Ave 1, S600349. Open daily except Tues, 8am-2.30pm or until sold out. More updates via Facebook . Photos: Kelvin Chia