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Eating Dim Sum Like a Native

August 25, 2009

The vacations are done.  I’m traveled out for the summer.  And now I’m back in Albany ready to hunker down and get back to regular blogging.

To thank you for your patience, I will spare you yet another coffee story that takes place on my way back from New Hampshire this past weekend.  It turns out that even if you bring your computer to the country, it does little good without a reliable Internet connection.

But I will dip back into my recent San Francisco trip, to pull out an example of me behaving badly.  Although to be fair, this post had its genesis well before I headed west.  There just was no time to sneak it in.

So I don’t want to hear any guff from Mr. Sunshine.

Last month (where does the time go?) I wrote about my introduction to dim sum, but there was one key thing missing.

Much like tapas, dim sum is an eating style as much as it is a style of food.

This I learned from my ethnographies around the tables of SF dim sum parlors.  And here is how the meal unfolds:
1)    Show up early.
2)    Bring something to read.
3)    Wait for tea.
4)    Clean your plate, chopsticks and teacup with hot tea.
5)    Read while the tea steeps.
6)    Pour tea.
7)    Drink tea.
8)    Contemplate food.
9)    Find a cart that looks appealing.
10)  Identify the specific plate on the cart, and make sure you get the right one.
11)  Eat some of the food.
12)  Read some more and drink more tea.
13)  Finish the food.
14)  Read some more.
15)  Repeat steps 7-13 as desired.
16)  Fight for the check.

I found that this method stood in stark contrast to my meal when I brought some friends from the office.  In those situations we would usually do the following:
1) Get there late.
2) Pick our first plate of food before tea arrives.
3) Order soda and glasses of water, and have a cup of tea in the meanwhile.
4) When carts come by, order one of everything that is recognizably food.
5) Keep ordering until there is more food on the table than we can hope to eat.
6) Drink tea while waiting for the check.
7) Split the bill evenly.

As much as possible I try to act like a guest in someone’s home when I am clearly the interloper in an ethnic restaurant.  You see how your hosts do things, and try as much as possible to follow the house rules.

And once you clue into the style of eating dim sum, it’s really a lovely experience, and a great way to while away the late morning while catching up on the news and hanging out with friends.  On the other hand, it also becomes really obvious how loud and ostentatious most American tourists are in their consumption.

But as keenly aware of this as I am, on my recent trip I behaved badly.  And the truth is that it’s difficult to take the time to enjoy a leisurely dim sum experience when your friends are on their limited lunch break.  Just like when you are not in Spain, it is not really feasible to walk from one tapas bar to another, and then maybe another one still, to try all of their delectable treats.

In Albany one does not really need to worry about any of this.  While there are a couple of Chinese restaurants that will prepare dim sum to order, they do not really create the dim sum experience.  Plus they generally tend to cater to an ethnically American customer base, so there is no need to attempt to be respectful of foreign customs.

But still, this is important to know.  And I hope you can find an opportunity to give it a whirl.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    August 25, 2009 12:16 pm

    TaiPan used to have nice dim sum with quite a few actual Chinese customers. It’s been several years so I don’t know if that’s still the case. Dinner has turned into pan-Asian awfulness.

  2. August 25, 2009 1:28 pm

    Yangtse River in Boston has the best dim sum i’ve ever had. as you say, it really is an experience.
    Before i was in a committed relationship, i used to say “Me & _____ are going to have dim sum & then some ; )”

  3. Joanna permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:57 pm

    Shining Rainbow on Central Ave. The husband and I will not eat anywhere else.

  4. August 25, 2009 7:10 pm

    Oh, I don’t think you behaved badly at all – waiting for the tea for an extended period of time (ie, over a minute) is something I’ve never heard of. It should be there really quickly, and then you start harassing all of the cart ladies to see what they’ve got :D

    And if you think you can’t finish all of the food you got, just drink some more tea and then tell/make fun of the youngest people at the table until they eat it all. IE: “Oh, Come ON. Just a few more bites!”

  5. August 27, 2009 9:58 pm

    I have seen busboys use the tea to clean up the table after diners, but cleaning up before eating as a patron is new to me. What do you do with the resultant liquid? Use your napkin? Then what happens to the napkin?

    Also, at busy places in San Francisco Chinese families often arrive well past noon. And still have to wait. I always thought the early-arrival thing was as much to avoid the crowds as anything else.

    And, dim sum carts are nice but not all good places have them. The presence of large trays is not automatically a sign of inauthenticity.

    But I’m with you on the check. You can pick up the next one.

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