Growing in up in New York City allowed me to have dim sum almost every weekend in Chinatown. It was always a cause for excitement. It is a complete full on sensory experience.
Arriving at the restaurant, there is the din of the crowd waiting for tables. There is always a crowd in front of a Chinese restaurant on the weekend just after noon. You take a number and wait. If your party is large, you will be seated at a private table. If you are alone or with a smaller party, you may be seated with complete strangers. But not to worry, they will not bother you. They are far too busy eating!
The waiter comes over to ask you for your tea order. I usually go for a tea mixture called “gook po”. This is a combination of a black tea and a flower tea. It is a beautiful blend of potent richness and light sweetness. And when your teapot should run dry, you lift the lid and place it to the side. This signals the waiter to refill your pot. The experience is also known as “yum cha”. This means “drink tea” as the tea is just as important as the food that it washes down.
Next, you will be surrounded by smells. Ladies roll carts through the narrow aisles of the crowded tables. Weaving in very small spaces. This carts usually have two rows of goodies. They are generally batched with like items. They bark out the names of the dishes as they pass you. You wave them down and point or order and they place the dish on your plate. Generally there are either three or four of the items. Then she will stamp your tab with a symbol.
One cart may be steamed dumplings of shrimp, or pork, or vegetable or any combination of the three.
Another may be fried delicacies such as fried pork dumpling, fried shrimp balls, spring rolls (but these are not the spring rolls you get from your local take out).
Another may be assorted items such as sticky glutinous rice with chicken wrapped in banana leaves, or stick rice with Chinese bacon and scallions served in an upside down bowl, spareribs in black bean sauce, marinated chicken feet (which has a more delightful Chinese name that translates as the Phoenix’s claws), Chinese barbecue of roast pork, duck and chicken.
There are small plates of rice noodles in a variety of shrimp, beef, pork, stuffed with fried dough (that kinda tastes like a zeppole), and still another that is covered in scallions and dried shrimp.
There is also a cart of baos. Baos are rolls that either baked or steamed. They are stuffed with a variety of goodies. Roast pork, chicken, vegetables and any combination of those items.
And there are Chinese sweets. Such tiny egg custard tarts, bowls of coconut custard with fruit, sweet baos (both baked and steamed buns) filled with custard or bean paste or covered with sweet flakiness.
These days, Chinese restaurants also have a food station that patrons can go up to and get freshly cooked items such as green peppers stuffed with shrimp, eggplant stuffed with shrimp, fried turnip cake with scallions and Chinese bacon, tripe with Chinese turnip, rice porridge both plain and with pork and preserved duck egg. (Trust me, it is tasty).
Your taste buds will be amazed by the variety of flavors. Dim sum is highly labor intensive so only the largest restaurants will serve this and those with high dim sum traffic. Although, new small cafes have sprung up that serve dim sum all day. Not unlike the concept of the diner serving breakfast all day.
And when you are all done, the waiter comes over and looks at all the stamps on your tab and adds it up. Each symbol is a different price. I am always impressed with how quickly these waiters get to the total.
Generally dim sum is served between 11 AM and ends by 3 PM.
I have terrible command of Cantonese but there are some words I say quite well. Most of those words have to do with food!
1. Dim sum
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