Steamed dumplings are kept hot in carts wheeled from table to table.
By Marlene Parrish Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Hong Kong is the epicenter of dim sum. People meet for "yum cha," which means "to drink tea," and to nosh on dim sum, an array of steamed dumplings and specialty dishes. The term "dim sum" has been used for centuries to mean a morning snack, but it has evolved to mean small dishes served from early morning to late lunch. In some countries, the two terms yum cha and dim sum are interchangeable.
I was in Hong Kong to visit family over the December holidays. A highlight of that trip was prowling the city for dim sum as often as possible. Even the kids, ages 5 and 10, are veteran eaters and wanted to show me "how to order."
City Hall Maxim's Palace in Hong Kong's City Hall gets crowds and raves, and I was wary of going there because all the guidebooks recommend it. But it's not a tourist trap. Eating dim sum there is an adventure -- entertaining, loud, gaudy, garish -- and I loved it. The main hall, and it is a hall, is bright. Who's there? Families, friends, office workers and tourists, all eating a communal meal and, it seems, trying to out-talk each other.
Maxim's is one of the last strongholds of old-time dim sum service, where middle-aged women push traditional wheeled carts or trolleys through the aisles, displaying and calling out their wares. Every trolley has several kinds of offerings, so it's best to take a look. In my fall-back esperanto fashion, I indicated my interest by nodding or pointing, and servers lifted up the steamer covers to show what was aboard. Kids especially love to peek into the baskets to preview their lunch. A downside of this system for the restaurant is that by late afternoon, dishes made in advance cannot be held over, and there are always leftovers.
Savvy business owners wanting to avoid waste also realized that carts take up aisle space, and the wider the aisles for trolleys, the fewer tables waiting for food. Nowadays, more tables are crowded together, diners are given a menu and a waitress takes the order. Yes, the women usually speak a little English (remember, Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years), but don't count on it. Better to take along an illustrated dim sum guide book so you can point out what you want to try. Even though dishes are made or finished to order, service is fast. Take your time and order a few things at a time.
Another huge and favorite dim sum restaurant is named, of all things, Cheers. It is on the fifth floor in a skyscraper. (Next to a Toys R Us. What a disconnect!) Two huge halls were packed with diners in various stages of dim sum service and conversation. And overhead, wall-to-wall banks of lights are lined up in I-beam configurations; sunglasses would not be frowned upon. With not a trolley in sight, a waitress takes the order.
While Many Americans think of dim sum as a treat for brunch on the weekend, many Chinese get started early every day. Retirees and pensioners come as early as 8:30 a.m. and stay until the lunch rush starts, nursing their pots of tea and ordering the occasional dish. (Sounds like an Asian version of Panera.)
Etiquette alert: Tables are set with chopsticks for serving only plus personal chopsticks for individuals. Don't pull a George. Forks are available if you ask, and I had to request one when confronted with a plate of slippery rice noodles that evaded all attempts with plastic chopsticks.
Here comes dim sum
A full dim sum array includes many steamed dumplings as well as foods that are deep- or pan-fried, baked and roasted. There are noodle and rice dishes, meats, vegetables and sweets. Back in kitchens you and I will never see, there are chefs chopping baskets and piles of produce and protein fillings, wrapping and kneading dough in great dustings of flour, and steaming and frying traditional dishes. Still, new dim sum dishes are created every day by designing chefs, but over two weeks' time I tried to sample the tried and true mainstays.
• Steamed buns usually come three to a basket. The fluffy, white dough buns are pleated or pinched together, slightly sweet and, like surprise packages, can be filled with barbecued pork, prawn, chicken and other goodies. I dipped in whatever sauce was presented -- sweet and hot, vinegary, eye-watering chile or soy-based.
• Lotus-leaf packages filled with savory chicken and sticky rice. Soft and delicious steamed meatballs. Steamed rice sheets filled with beef, shrimp or barbecued pork, and doused with soy sauce. Chicken feet in black bean sauce, better than they sound, especially if you don't mind eating with your fingers; I loved them.
• Tofu-skin-wrapped savories initially come off as eating a soggy egg roll, but given a chance, the flavors and textures are addicting. Barbecued pork also makes an appearance in puff-pastry buns, glazed with honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
• Deep-fried and crunchy dim sum are everyone's favorite. There are spring rolls, filled and fried wontons, taro and regular dumplings. Chicken wings!
• Vegetables eaten with gusto, because those served at dim sum are excellent. Steamed just until bright green, baby bok choy, broccolini and water spinach were drizzled with salty oyster sauce or ginger and garlic. A dish I actually squealed over was a platter of iceberg lettuce, steamed limp and doused in light soy sauce. So simple, so good.
• Plates of roast goose and roast pork loin with skin. Children loved plates of plain boiled chicken and bowls of rice, some studded with bits of prawn, scallions and sausage.
• Rice. Asian rice is wonderful comfort food. (In the United States, it never seems that good.) You might feel uncomfortable doing this, but over a billion people can't be wrong. Lift your rice bowl to your mouth, let it rest on your bottom lip, then, using the chopsticks, scoop rice into your mouth.
For dessert, we picked at custard tarts and sweet mango pudding. I managed to save a small corner of space for my favorite, fried sesame balls filled with red bean paste.
Serious nap time follows.
When you go
Plan to arrive during off-peak hours. An ideal time for dim sum is 11 a.m. The food is guaranteed to be fresh and the service won't be as hectic. Lines start to queue about noon and don't let up. Later in the day, you might get leftovers.
Go with a party of friends, if possible. Tables are big, and dishes are meant to be shared. There's no such thing as a deuce at dim sum, but if you are only two people, plan to be very hungry, because dishes usually serve three. Participate and revel in the ambiance, but don't expect to whisper secrets.
Relax over a beer or complimentary tea. Sipping tea is a necessary part of the dim sum experience. When you are ready for a hot-water refill, just tip up the lid of your pot. Your pot will be refilled until you holler uncle. Pouring tea is a sign of respect for others, so tea is always poured for others before serving yourself. When someone pours your tea, it's customary to say thanks by giving a few light raps with your knuckles on the table.
Take your time. Everything in a dim-sum restaurant is either ready or almost ready. Order a few dishes at a time, enjoy, drink tea, order a little more. Nobody will wait to clear dishes, asking if you are "still working on that, honey?" Ask what's in various dumplings. If one is not to your liking, surely the next one will be. This is not a timed contest.
It's easy to forget prices when it's so much fun to order new things. But keep an eye on the ordering card. When you make a selection, the waitress stamps the card with a chop. At the end of the meal, your server tallies up prices and you pay the bill.
Don't be shy. Slurp your noodles. Dunk your dumplings in soy sauce and if it spills, nobody cares. Kids walk around, babies cry, people splash things and everybody laughs. Dim sum is a happy, chaotic event for all the family.
Where to eat dim sum: New York City, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto have excellent dim sum restaurants. You could get lucky in any city with a large Chinese population. A few restaurants in Pittsburgh offer dim sum dishes such as pot stickers, wontons and fried tofu on their menus, but most of them will not be freshly handmade or served in the classic fashion. Best bets are Sun Penang in Squirrel Hill and Jimmy Wan's in Fox Chapel and Cranberry. And lucky for us dim sum lovers, Everyday Noodles, the latest restaurant from Mike Chen, will open next month in Squirrel Hill. Food will be make in an open exhibition kitchen, and the menu will feature all fresh, daily-made noodles, dumplings and dim sum. On my first visit, my order will start with Taiwanese-style pork belly sliders.