Asians love to stuff things. They love to stuff little things into bigger things, or roll leaves, dough or meat with all manner of minced vegetables, cheese and meat. From Georgian hinkali to Philippine lumpia with Indian samosas and Tibetan manti in between, dumplings, rolls, fritters, turnovers and tricorners are ubiquitous throughout the Asian continent. These morsels are eaten largely as appetizers in the west, but are enjoyed as part large multicourse meals or even as light meals throughout most of the Asian expanse. No where else, however, is the dumpling concept so perfected (or arguably, strained) as it is in Chinese Dim Sum.
For the uninitiated, Dim Sum is a meal consisting almost entirely of smaller bits of food, usually in the forms of rolls, buns or dumplings – sometimes in broth or soup but sometimes in the form of steamed or fried eggs or other animal parts. Generally, Dim Sum is a leisurely meal shared with family and friends that takes place over the course of hours. Tea or other drinks are enjoyed, stories are told, in parts of China, cards or other games are played and throughout all – a delicious wave of shared food binds everyone together to create the experience. Think tapas or mezze – Chinese style.
Dim Sum started in Canton as a light meal enjoyed with tea, enjoyed sometimes as early as dawn, but generally from about midmorning to noon or mid-afternoon. Dim Sum has evolved a great deal from these humble origins. Today, Dim Sum is eaten at any time, with traditional presentation still served as a brunch. It has also developed from a lighter meal or snack to a large multicourse meal that can last for hours, and it is enjoyed not only all over China, but all over the world as well. Each province and region has its own variations and specialties – so you can ask for a char sui bao or meat stuffed bun“Singapore Style” and get something different from a char sui bao in Canton.
My favorite part of the Dim Sum experience – other than the leisurely pace which appeals to my Italian side – are the cart ladies who compete with each other to hawk their dishes as if on a stiff commission. Carts roll and dishes and steamers rattle as they pass turnip and rice cakes, steamed, baked and fried dumplings and rolls, and exotic body parts – my favorite of which are Phoenix Talons. Say it with me – “Phoenix Talons” – that name conjures up Jungian archetypes of life, rebirth by fire, and the majesty and beauty of soaring raptors. What you get is a plate of chicken feet – sometimes in a black bean sauce or vinegar dipping sauce. Now if you’ve never eaten chicken feet, let me tell you – its sort of like trying to suck tiny bits of pork out of a tight surgical glove (don’t ask me how I know what that’s like – I’m not ’fessing). Andrew Zimmern may love chicken feet but I’ll pass in favor of another shaomai steamed dumpling, thanks.
All of this is leading up to the fact that to celebrate a recent family birthday, we headed out to a Sunday afternoon of Dim Sum in the neighboring county which is 12 percent Asian. Arriving at the restaurant named, Asian Court, I was thrilled to find that we were the only Caucasian customers in house. Everyone else there was of some Asian flavor. There were older ladies gossiping as they watch a large screen TV behind us, there was a couple dining with a woman and her new infant who was kept tightly wrapped in his carrier and slept through most of the meal. There was a large party of men watching football, a South Asian couple and us. Dim lights, large decorative fish tanks with clown fish darting between anemones – I thought, yeah, this is the place as we walked in.
We ordered in concord with the traditional Dim Sum rhythm, lighter, steamed dishes, followed by heavier fried ones. We skipped the exotic dishes that usually come between the lighter and the heavier dishes and yes, we were too full for dessert as well. We did, however, spend the better part of and hour and half there enjoying the atmosphere and drinking chrysanthemum tea – which is something of an accomplishment with two children in tow, and we left with several boxes of delicious leftovers.
For those who would like to try to cook some of the dishes they find at Dim Sum, I recommend you to start with Andrea Nguyen’s beautiful Asian Dumplings book. The book is beautifully illustrated, and has clear easy to execute recipes – complete with copious illustrations. Although it contains a few South Asian and Himalayan recipes, its focus is on eastern Asia. For Asian dumplings rolls and snacks from western, southern and central Asia, please consult The Silk Road Gourmet.
If you haven’t eaten Dim Sum – I urge you to get out there and try it. Because of the proven market for mezze and tapas dining, Dim Sum is experiencing something of a surge in popularity here in the states. This is a centuries old payback, of course, because these Arab and Mediterranean styles of eating were inspired by traders and travelers bringing back tales of the tea-house feasts popular in Canton in the early days of the Silk Road. So, another way that the Silk Road continues to touch our lives is through these “little bit” dining styles which taken together can add up to something grand. (Words by Laura Kelley, photo of Dim Sum Buffet by Obscura@Dreamstime.com; photo of Chicken Feet by zkruger@Dreamstime.com and photo of Making Dim Sum by Billysiew@Dreamstime.com).