Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dim Sum for Dummies

Sunday the hubby and I joined Benita and Don Giller for dim sum at Chinatown, and spent amazingly little on a sumptuous and fun meal. Since it had been too many years since I “dim summed,” I performed a little pre-research, hoping to avoid culinary faux pas. What I found was pretty interesting (to me at least), so of course I had to blog about it.

Dim sum, which literally translates to "touch the heart" or “point of the heart” (depending on the source), is a Cantonese term for a type of Chinese dish that involves small individual portions of food usually served in a small steamer basket or on a small plate. Dim sum is also inextricably tied to the experience of "yumcha" or the drinking of tea. 

The drinking of tea is as important to dim sum as the food. Thank gaud I found this out in advance. I would have probably ordered a diet coke!  It is also important to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup, which I found to be a particularly civil and sweet ritual. And a custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index finger if you are single, or by tapping both the index and middle finger if you are married, both of which symbolize 'bowing' to them.

I found the following tips for ordering via the San Francisco Chronicle which I thought was an appropriately knowledgeable source seeing as how SF is the American equivalent of Hong Kong, and the first place I ever ate dim sum. Of course I also tapped into Wiki for some of the info.

Order one thing at a time. Although it is soooo tempting to grab everything that looks good as the carts roll by (and it all does), it is recommended that you just get one dish at a time and finish your first dish before moving on to the next. That way everything stays hot, which is apparently a very important part of the ritual. Although we started out at an appropriately leisurely pace, before long our table was overflowing with dozens of dishes and the scene was frenetic! I finally told the hawking waiters that if they stopped at our table again I’d throw something at them.

Mix it up. It was recommended that you get a good variety of seafood, vegetables and meat and that you get some gai lan (Chinese broccoli) or other crisp green vegetable to provide textural contrast between the steamed dumplings. Although my food-friends at first turned up their noses when I ordered the broccoli, before long it became one of the favorite dishes at our table. 

Servers know best. If you can communicate with the server, it's always a good idea to ask for recommendations, although I’m not sure they aren’t on commission as enthusiastically as they were pushing their dishes.

Tips for tasting. I really wanted to move a little more slowly during the meal, to ask questions, and to be sure to taste the below recommended dishes, but it all seemed too adrenalin-fueled:  trays flying by every 10 seconds.  It’s still a bit of a blur. I think next time I’ll take a Valium before going for dim sum. 

Here’s what was recommended:

Har gau. Look for whole shrimp in the filling. This was delicious, and my favorite dumpling.

Siu mai. Traditionally siu mai is made from a filling of chopped pork, but may also contain shrimp and mushroom. When ordering siu mai, you'll notice a dark yellow or orange garnish of “crab butter” on top of the gathered dumplings. However, since it's hard to come by, duck egg yolk or fish roe are often used instead. Not sure if we got the “butter” or not, but it seemed just “OK” to me.

Vegetable dumplings. I have no idea if we tasted this dish. There may have been a little opium in my Chrysanthemum tea.

Egg custard tart. Although I wanted to try this dish, unfortunately I got lured into the Sesame Balls, which were OK, but a little like balls of dough with a dab of plumb in the center.

Fried dishes.  Except for spring rolls, fried foods aren't traditionally Cantonese.  They've been added to dim sum menus to cater to Western palates. Embarrassingly, we ended up with these French-fry equivalents on our table before you could say Kung Pow.

Although the chicken feet were recommended, I couldn’t bring myself to try them.  Not sure why since I’ll eat menudo.


OK – now to the chopstick info:

The Chinese word for chopsticks is 筷子, and roughly translates to “quick bamboo.”

Chopstick no-no's

1.     Keep your fingers tucked in while holding chopsticks; they shouldn't stick out (impossible for me, I tried),
2.     Never use your chopsticks to point or gesture (very difficult – so tempting).
3.     Use serving chopsticks to pick up shared food, or turn around your own and use the thicker end (I had to catch myself a couple of times, but did pretty good),
4.     Don't use your chopsticks to skewer or poke the food (I confess that I sneaked a few of these in),
5.     Try not to cross your chopsticks when picking up food (hey I’m just happy if I don’t flip my food into my friends' eyes).
6.     Don't cross your chopsticks when not in use; let them rest parallel (I think I followed this rule pretty well until my tummy had swelled to touch the table, then I didn’t give a).

Bottom line – I’d go back because it was fun, inexpensive and the food was yummy. I suspect that if I’d slowed down and tried a few different dishes, I’d find that the food is actually excellent. I’ll make another trip soon and let you know. Hope you’ll do the same!

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