A Tale of Dim Sum
story and photos
By Mia Buchignani and Melissa Schilling
“The flavor is incredible. It’s just hard to get past the texture”—Shawna
Dim sum. It’s a recessionista’s Champagne brunch fantasy: The flavors and textures of Chinese cookery pair perfectly with sparkling wines, and most dim sum joints in the East Bay don’t charge corkage, so you can bring your own bubbles! What’s more, dim sum places are open on Sundays, and are inexpensive, so you can bring a crowd. The dim sum table won’t be a vegan paradise, but there are enough options for vegetarians and pescatarians that no one will go hungry. For the foodie adventurer, dim sum offers up the Extreme! Challenge! with some texturally unique culinary treasures. Get ready to open your mind to chicken feet and thousand-year-old eggs on the way to some new ideas about eating. With the right balance of an open mind and empty stomach, dim sum could very well become your go-to genre for the times you just don’t feel like cooking or spending every last cent you have.
A Brief History and Description
Dim sum, whose name is Chinese for “touch the heart,” is a culinary practice with a deep cultural identity. Each dumpling, cake, and treat has a special history or meaning. It’s also a beloved family tradition, which for Mia (one of the writers of this piece), is about her family’s Sunday tradition of eating at a big round table loaded with plates and plates of dim sum. “It was a bustling atmosphere; chopsticks clinking on plates, steaming baskets of dumplings, shuffling waiters in black vests and white dress shirts. We’d spin the table and, if you were lucky, you got the last shrimp dumpling or the last piece of taro cake.”
Yum cha is a Chinese expression that denotes the drinking of tea while snacking on small dishes that include meat, seafood, sweets, and fruit. Dim sum refers to the food part of the tea ritual. During the ancient times, when merchants and workmen traveled the Silk Road, they would take breaks to relieve their weariness at teahouses located along the route. With the discovery that tea aided in digestion, the portions of food increased and the dishes became more inventive. But it was the Cantonese who transformed yum cha from a quiet, tea-filled respite into a loud, happy, family dining experience.
Most dim sum dishes can be described as dumplings, with fillings of beef, chicken, pork, prawns, vegetables (including bamboo, carrots, greens, garlic, and bean pastes), as well as fruit or eggs, either alone or in combinations.Standard dim sum wrappers can be anything from translucent rice paper, sheets of paper-thin tofu (called yuba), lotus leaves, or thicker skins made from wheat starch, tapioca, wheat flour, or rice flour. When an animal is brought into the dim sum kitchen, every part of it is likely to be prepared for consumption, whether by steaming, braising, roasting, or frying (or a combination of these methods). The motto in a dim sum kitchen might be, ‘Leave No Scrap Behind.’ With hard work and determination, dim sum can be made at home, but when you peer behind the scenes of any dim sum kitchen, you see workers with guns for forearms. Then you’ll understand that making dim sum is a labor of love.
A Dim Sum Guide
“The squishy chicken feet texture is a bit weird, and you have to be careful of the bones”-Lisa
For those who are new to dim sum, we have prepared this guide to help you order and understand what exactly it is you are eating, and how to eat it. For perspective on our research, we headed down to Oakland’s Chinatown with two “dim sum virgins,” our friends Shawna and Lisa. Our instructions to them? “You must cast aside everything you’ve ever known about food and start all over. Also, stop thinking. S-T-O-P! Because if you don’t stop thinking, you’ll forget to enjoy the savory and warm flavors of something that required hours of labor to create, and instead you’ll be stuck wondering what exactly the slimy thing in your mouth could be.”
“You can’t really think about what you’re eating. Focus on the textures, spices, and aromas.”-Mia
• Xiu-Mai (shoe MY): An entry-level dim sum, this open top dumpling is all about the filling, not the wrapper. It’s a pork meatball with black mushroom, carrot, water chestnuts, and sometimes shrimp. Subtle, chewy, and delicate while providing satisfying and savory components.
• Har gao (harr-GOW): Inside this pleated dumpling you’ll find a delicious filling of fresh bamboo and shrimp with pork fat and sesame oil for added flavor depth. The tight tapioca-starch wrapper is thick, chewy, and creamy like a deliciously executed bechamel. The dumplings are steamed in a bamboo basket until the wrapper becomes translucent; it should be thick enough to withstand the pressure of your chopsticks when you pick it up. Good chefs are typically judged by how well they make har gao.
• Feng zhao, aka Phoenix Talons: The Chinese use and cook every last piece of an animal, and chicken feet are no exception. The feet are either deep-fried or steamed first, and then simmered in fermented black bean paste and sugar. Often eaten as a savory pre-meal treat, feng zhao are not for the faint-hearted. The edible arts consist of skin and tendon and the texture is chewy and gelatinous, with savor favor so intense ly rich that it’s worth the effort of navigating around the delicate ones. Suck the meat softly from the bones, just as you might suck a cough drop. One could say they’re like candy, or perhaps even like a cigar, where the mouth feel, texture, and taste are all important aspects. The gelatinous consistency is indicative of expressive texture in Chinese cookery.
• Haam sui gao (hahm-SHWEH-gow): This sticky, oval-shaped dumpling is stuffed with ground pork, chopped water chestnuts, and vegetables, then deep-fried. The result is a crispy, sweet, and sticky outer shell around a salty inside. Be sure to get one when it’s hot and fresh, as they don’t hold up for long periods of time.
• Niudu (knee-u-doo): Get over the fact that it’s honeycomb tripe and dig in. Gingery sweet with an incredible taste, texture, and flavor, this is not your grandmother’s liver and onions. The sauce is both sweet and savory and emits a fabulously enticing smell.
• Wu Tul Gao (woo tulle GOW): Taro cake is like Santa laughing. n other words, “a bowl full of jelly.” A spongey, gelatinouslooking ake, it’s reminiscent of calf ‘s foot jelly rather than sweet ponge cake or Jell-o. “We’re completely in Pork Town. It’s so savory. thought it was going to be sweet!”-Melissa
• Laopopi (laow poh pea): Literally “She who talks too much” cake. This soft, sweet pastry, filled with winter melon, almond paste, and lard, is sometimes called “sweetheart cake” or “wife cake.” Its dusty, coconut qualities are delicate and balanced. If you’ve been good, your grandmother might give you this special treat at a dim sum bakery early on a Sunday morning. •
Two Favorite Oakland Dim Sum Bakeries
Tao Yuen Pastry
Melissa Schilling is working on a Culinary Roadtrip Cookbook (sipsnapsavor.net). She also teaches consumable art classes through her consulting business, Praise Cheeses (praisecheeses.net) .
Mia Buchignani is a jet-setting world traveler. She recently moved to Doha and took with her 12 pounds of tapioca flour, 32 bottles of Sriracha, and 16 bags of lentils. She can be contacted through praisecheeses.net