The second upon entering a dim sum restaurant, you are baptized by a diffusion of savory aromas. The smell of soy sauce, pork, shrimp, and fry oil infuses each droplet of steam rising up in clouds from rolling metal carts. From one white linen clothed dining table to the next, the carts whoosh this way and that, like compact steam engines pushed about by stern, on-a-mission conductors. If you make eye contact with one of these apron-wearing Chinese aunties quickly enough, she will stop at your table and swiftly lift the lids of the steamer baskets, revealing their inner contents to you. With your quick nod of approval, she will swiftly plunk your chosen steamer baskets of dim sum on your table’s lazy susan, rubber stamp your meal ticket, and roll on by.
The meal will be family style in all regards. You will be inundated by a cacophony of conversations spoken in loud, clattering Cantonese by aunties, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, and friends all talking at once, all trying to speak louder than each other—not rudely so, but somewhat like a jazz improv band riffing off each other and blending notes. So many mouths talking and laughing, so many mouths eating little, or not-so-little bites of siu mai (steamed pork and shrimp dumpling), zongzi (steamed sticky rice wrapped in lotus or banana leaves), and char siu bao (barbeque pork filled buns) and sipping cups of hot cha (tea).
Even if you parked at a barely Chinatown-esque strip mall in the middle of an American suburb, when you walk through those doors, you take on a Hong Kong state of mind. The food may not be as good as it is in Hong Kong, but the zippy, loud, chaotic Hong Kong vibe of a dim sum restaurant is truly distinct from your typical Chinese-American lounge-style restaurant. And, if you grew up literally cutting your teeth on dim sum, as in your mother chewed up your food before feeding you the bolus aboard the pointed tip of her chopsticks, you are abruptly reminded of your heritage. Even if the food is so-so or the dining room is packed to the gills, you know this place, you have been here before, even if it is actually your first time visiting that particular dim sum restaurant. You will know your experience there is especially authentic if the wait staff is harried and uncouth, all the surfaces have a thin oil slick, and the restroom smells like a wet mop, but ironically does not look like it has seen a mop in months. It is all part of the charm.
Do Dim Sum at Home
While I was one of those babies fed pre-masticated dim sum on chopsticks by my mother, but thankfully refined the ability to wield my own chopsticks and chew up my own lo bak go (turnip cake) and har gow (pork and shrimp dumpling), outside those restaurant doors, I lived in southern Florida, devoid virtually of any Chinese community or culture. Looking back on my childhood, dim sum restaurants most certainly were oasis-like for my parents and relatives, who came to the U.S. to work hard, but found themselves isolated from American society. At the dim sum restaurants to which we would drive two hours and from which we would drive two hours to get back home, I saw my parents, aunts, and uncles unwind and spin up all at once. They could be their truest selves and show a range of emotions and vocal expressions I hardly ever saw or heard from them, on a day-to-day basis. In fact, now that I think of it, they must have all felt more at home at our appointed dim sum reunions with each other than at their idyllic, three-bedroom, ranch homes, where they essentially lived in social seclusion.
At the dim sum table, my relatives would nestle up to each other, elbow to elbow; drink chrysanthemum, oolong, or jasmine cha (tea), poured from metal pots into each other’s white ceramic tea cups; and leap into boisterous conversation, while popping bite after bite of fung zao (chicken feet), ngau paak yip (steamed tripe), and chee cheong (pig intestine), along with pickled vegetables and oh so much more food. Mountains of food would arrive at our table, sometimes to the point of embarrassment for us kids. My parents’ plan was to order a lot of food to take home half of it. None of the above ever happened at Red Lobster or Olive Garden, where my parents, my brother, and I would normally sit quietly, listening only to the sound of elevator music playing overhead or to one of us translate my father’s order of gumbo or minestrone soup to a perfectly polite waiter.
Dim sum translates to “To touch the heart, gently; refresh the heart” and that it does. Whether you are Chinese or American, or Chinese-American as I am, you are home or, at least, at a home, where you will yum cha (drink tea); eat until you are stuffed; gab or, at least, listen to the gab; and fight over the check with your relatives or friends or, at least, watch said dramedy ensue. Then, if your family is anything like mine growing up, you will immediately find the nearest oriental grocery store to stock up on tofu, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), and loose leaf cha (tea) along with a box of Pocky sticks (chocolate coated bread sticks) for the kids; pick up sponge cake and daan taat (egg tarts) at an Asian bakery; and stop by a Chinese restaurant that specializes in barbeque pork and Peking duck and order a few boxes of those meats to go, because you may be so full now, but you will want to eat dinner once you get back home. That, or my family is just plain crazy in the best, food-obsessed way.
This was dim sum day for me growing up. A culinary odyssey imprinted on my heart. A journey back home.
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