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The Dimsum Experience Part I - April 2003 Newsletter

 

Imagine for a moment that you are a Guangzhou farmer in ancient China. The sun is hot on your back. The fields around you appear vast and unconquerable. Dust stings your eyes and throat. Your body screams for rest. There are no words, you think, for how tired and hungry you are. There is only your worries stretching as far as the open fields. Your only temporary relief comes from the simple anticipation of the day’s end—and of the local teahouse where tea and snacks are served regularly. For hundreds of years, only tea was available at these teahouses due to the widespread belief that it was inappropriate to combine tea with food. You recall a tale once told to you about a 3rd century Imperial physician who had claimed this combination would lead to excessive weight gain. But now, centuries later, many in China have come to believe that tea, in fact, aids digestion and should be enjoyed with one’s meal. You are happy with this new way of thinking because teahouse proprieters all over Guangzhou have begun to offer a variety of delicious snacks with the usual pot of tea. The teahouse has become a kind of gathering place for the weary and famished alike. Stepping inside one, your humanity will be restored to you as all your senses come alive with the teahouse’s varied sights and smells. There, you will also find friendly, familiar faces as well strangers from distant lands. These travelers will have many exciting stories to tell of their adventures on the Silk Road. You may even share some of your own experiences—all, of course, over a delicious meal of tea and snacks.

Eleven centuries later, it is hard to believe that these little teahouse snacks—first served in the Guangzhou (Canton) region of China—have become what we now refer to as dim sum. Even more surprising, is the strong similarity between the Chinese teahouses of old and our own modern-day dim sum establishments. Like the farmer in our imagined scenario, we too, know the profound value and pleasure of good food. We can identify with the desire to seek momentary refuge from a harsh and uncertain world within the walls of an inviting restaurant, to be among those with whom we can share our stories of hardship and truimph. Food in such instances become more than just sustenance; it lifts and replenishes our spirits. When prepared with exquisite care, a particular dish has the power to reawaken our passions and hopes. Perhaps this is why the word dim sum is variously translated as “heart warmers,” “heart’s delight,” “dot hearts,” and “to touch the heart.” The evolution of dim sum, however, from their humble origin as teahouse snacks to artfully-prepared dishes that are almost too beautiful to eat did not occur overnight. Rather, these little snacks were elevated from their modest “fast food” status (they were originally prepared very quickly) to a high art form when the Empress Dowager of the Chi’ing Dynasty (1875-1908) held a competition among her royal palace chefs to determine who could create the most sumptous and visually imaginative of these finger-sized delicacies. Each afternoon during Yum Cha (tea time), the palace chefs would ceremoniously present their creations to the Empress for her approval. This continued for over a year until each creation was more stunning and delicious than those that came before. This is why there is such a wonderful variety of dim sum dishes today and why dim sum chefs are wooed by fine restaurants around the world.

But what exactly is dim sum in our present context? And how and where might one enjoy this centuries-old tradition? As touched upon earlier, dim sum is the collective name for these small, varied snacks. A meal at a dim sum eatery generally includes steamed or fried dumplings with meat or seafood fillings, steamed buns, shrimp balls, and a few desserts. It is a Chinese custom to enjoy these tiny morsels with a pot or two of fragrant tea. Dim sum, or yum cha as it is somethimes called (because of its close ties with tea drinking), has become a tradition on Sunday mornings in most cities with a sizeable Chinese population. The little delicacies are displayed on trays and stainless-steel trolleys which pass by your table, tempting you to try them. The rolling carts are brought around constantly so you needn’t take more than one or two dishes at a time—this way, they can be enjoyed while they’re still hot and fresh. In a dim sum restaurant, it is perfectly acceptable to point at whatever appeals to you or to politely call out, “Yee She” (“over here”) to catch a waiter’s attention. The atmosphere of a dim sum establishment is therefore both lively and dynamic with all kinds of delightful sights, smells, and sounds competing for your senses. Laughter and conversations are also as much a part of the dim sum experience as the cuisine itself.

In the United States, dim sum can be found in any of the Chinatowns that were built with the arrival of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. Most of these immigrants were from the Canton region and settled on the East and West coasts, namely in large cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. These gathering places continue to play a vital role in the social life of each community. Nowadays, dim sum is often served in large banquet halls that can accommodate hundreds of people. Visually, they are a far cry from the teahouses of old-World China. But on a more deeper level, their purpose is the same. On weekends, it is not unusual to find three or four generations of a family seated at a single table in a dim sum establishment.

Back in China, dim sum can be found practically everywhere, but particularly in Shanghai. There are exciting regional variations that exists among them such as jiaozi dumplings in Bejing and pearl balls and spicy wontons in the Szechuan provice. Many dim sum aficionados believe that the best dim sum can still be found in Canton with their wide array of sweet and savory dishes. Still, others like Martin Yan consider Hong Kong to be the city where you will find the world’s most daringly inventive dim sum chefs.

Currently, there is thought to be over a hundred dim sum dishes with new recipes being created every day. The art of dim sum is thus an ever-evolving one, but as is the case with many art forms, there are a few guiding principles for their creation. This is especially true where aesthetics is concerned, for dim sum at its best is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the palate. Their beauty, however, is governed by strict rules that are uniformly adhered to by all serious dim sum chefs, regardless of their individual cooking styles. Regarded as the holy trinity of Chinese cuisine, there are basically three rules governing the making of dim sum: first, the food must look delectable, creating a visual harmony in color, shape, and size; second, it must smell delightfully aromatic and tantalizing; and third, it must taste as wonderful as it looks and smells. Aside from these rules, however, the dim sum chef is free to exercise his or her creative talents.

Dim sum dishes are also perfect for Asian-themed parties. However, making them at home can be quite an undertaking for the novice. Since it is nearly impossible to make the huge selection of dishes that are available in a restaurant, it is better to focus on just two or three carefully selected dishes. Most recipes can be prepared ahead of time, with the steaming and frying left for the last minute. All that is usually needed in the way of equipment is a good quality wok and some bamboo steamers. It is also important to remember that dim sum dishes should not be left sitting around: hot dishes are meant be be served as hot as possible. They can also be served with an amazing array of dipping sauces; from the conventional soy sauce and chili sauce to the more exotic sweet cilanto sauce, ginger soy sauce, lime and fish sauce, or easy plum sauce.

One or two dim sum dishes also make an elegant and surprising appetizer to serve with drinks before dinner and is considered excellent cocktail food (but keep in mind that for a coctail party of any size, you’ll need a helper in the kitchen to keep the food coming). If you are interested in serving dim sum for a casual brunch, 8-10 bite-sized pieces per tray/person will work quite nicely. But remember to stay true to the spirit of dim sum by serving the morsels on small Asian-themed plates,or if you prefer, in the steamers they were originally cooked in. Set each place with a small, beautiful bowl and a pair of fine chopsticks, and serve with Chinese tea. Using authentic Asian tableware will turn an ordinary dim sum experience into an extraordinary one! At Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen, we proudly feature some of the world’s finest Asian plates, teapots, chopsticks, and decorative items. They are sure to dazzle your guests. Be sure to visit our web site often for new arrivals.

Dim sum is more than just Chinese cuisine at its finest. As its name implies, it is an experience meant to delight the heart. So call up your friends and loved ones and head over to a dim sum restaurant today! Or, for a more intimate affair, create your own special dim sum experience right at home. For fantastic dim sum recipes and suggestions, be sure to return to Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen for next month’s newsletter, The Dim Sum Experience: Part II. It will help even the novice cook create dim sum dishes with flair. See you then!

  OUR 2003 NEWSLETTERS

Discover Your Cup of Tea

The Mythical of Dragon and Phoenix

Korean Celadon

The Art of Japanese Cuisine

Chinese Horoscope

The History and Art of Tea

A Taste of The Philippines

The Dimsum Experience, Part II

The Dimsum Experience, Part I

The Art of Paper Cutting

Feng Shui for the Home

New Year's in Asia

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