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Warming Up To Dim Sum

July 13, 2009

Everyone has to try something for the first time.  Sometimes these events happen in early childhood and are forgotten.  Other times they happen in high school and sear themselves into your memory forever.

The later was the case for me with dim sum.

Raf took me to my first dim sum experience when we were in high school.  You should note that this was in Miami, which was not widely known for its Chinese food – beyond the sizzling steak and honey chicken at Canton.  All the same, Raf being the fussy food guy he was even back then, took me to the best, most authentic place in Miami.  I think it was called Tropical Chinese Restaurant.

There are a few dishes I still remember explicitly.  The steamed BBQ pork buns and the sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf really stand out, mostly because they epitomized the entire experience.  I felt, on the whole, that we were being fed yesterday’s leftovers, repackaged in several types of gummy starches.

After that experience I had little interest in trying dim sum ever again.
Jump forward to my first day of a real job in San Francisco.  It was a senior executive’s birthday and the whole office was headed out to lunch.  You guessed it, dim sum.  Although little to my knowledge, we were in one of the best cities for Chinese food in the world, and we were headed out to Yank Sing.

Yank Sing was a completely different experience from eating dim sum in Miami.  This was a fancy restaurant.  And nothing that we ate tasted like leftovers.  All the meat was tender and non-gristly.  The steamed buns were light and airy, not gummy at all.  All the flavors were bright and clean.  Dumplings that are supposed to glisten with fat did so, but nothing was overly greasy or heavy.

In one meal my mind was changed.

And what was remarkable was that now, having had this delicious top-of-the-line dim sum experience, I gained a broad appreciation for the cuisine.  By this, I mean that even if I went to a cheaper lesser-quality dim sum parlor, the food would still bring back the memories of the same dishes from Yank Sing.  And I would enjoy them.

Much like one cannot live in Miami without absorbing some of the Cuban food culture, it is difficult to work in San Francisco without absorbing some of the Chinese food culture.  Especially if you get the opportunity to work near Chinatown.

I started to get adventurous.

And I wandered into dim sum parlors on my lunch breaks that were off the beaten path.  There were no tourists.  And often I was the only interloper.  There were really two places I came to favor.  I called them the dirty one, and the really dirty one.

And I loved the really dirty one.  This is where I saw people spitting onto the floor, and where the pink plastic tablecloths were marbled with dark stains from being washed down with over-steeped pots of black tea.  It was also where I was seated at a deuce across from an elderly toothless man.

Huh?

So this dim sum parlor was perpetually busy.  And if you are a lone diner, and you want to be seated quickly, they will find a spot for you at someone else’s table.  Once I was seated with some younger men, and they called me a gui-lo to my face, which roughly translates as “foreign devil.”  But for the most part it worked out well.  Especially when I was seated across from this friendly old toothless fellow.

That day I learned something extraordinary.  That native Chinese speakers also have great difficulty communicating with the ladies who push around the dim sum carts.

This man was amused by me.  By this time I had moved well beyond the “white boy food” of steamed pork buns and potstickers.  And when he saw the dim sum ladies coming around with a cart of deep fried dumplings, he gesticulated in my general direction as if to mean, “you must eat these, you’d be crazy to let them pass you by.”  And then he waved down the dim sum lady who dropped off two plates of the treat.  One for me and one for him.

The thing was he didn’t want one.  And he tried in vain to explain this to the dim sum lady.  She ultimately left his plate of fried dumplings at the table and stamped his card.  It was sad, because given his dental situation, he had great difficulty eating the crispy fried treats.  But he was right.  They were absolutely delicious.

One Comment leave one →
  1. phairhead permalink
    July 13, 2009 9:09 pm

    MMMMMMMMM! We don’t a dim sum place ’round these parts per se. But the best steamed dumplings can be found at Emperor’s on Wolf Rd.

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