Dim Sum Guide: Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns

 Posted by on March 16, 2012 at 6:51 am  Food & Cooking  1 Response »
Mar 162012
 
Steamed barbecue pork buns
Steamed barbecue pork buns

Steamed barbecue pork buns

Steamed barbecue pork buns (char siu bao) really need no introduction since it may well be “the classic” dim sum item. Small pieces of tender, sweet Chinese barbecue pork are stuffed inside a soft steamed wheat bun. The bun itself should have a dry surface, a hint of sweetness, and a delicate, fluffy and somewhat chewy texture. The baked version of barbecue pork buns is quite different but equally delicious.

Steamed barbeque pork bun closeup

Steamed barbeque pork bun closeup

I use this dish as one of standards for comparing the quality of dim sum restaurants.

Warning! These placid-looking buns can be lethal: I’ve seen dim sum virgins get addicted to dim sum after eating these buns. It’s usually a good idea to order enough dishes so that everyone in your party can have a whole bun. These buns will quickly dry out when kept in the refrigerator so it’s best to eat them fresh.

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Dim Sum Guide: Chinese Sticky Rice

 Posted by on March 15, 2012 at 7:58 am  Food & Cooking  2 Responses »
Mar 152012
 
Chinese sticky rice
Chinese sticky rice

Chinese sticky rice

Chinese sticky rice (nor mi fan) is made from glutinous rice mixed with bits of Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, scrambled egg, mushrooms, and scallions. Typically this rice dish is stuffed in a glass bowl which is then turned over onto a plate before serving.  The dish looks like a mound or pie made of rice; it’s even firm enough to slice with a knife and serve like pie. The contrasting flavors and textures of the rice, shrimp, sausages, eggs, and mushroom make this dish one of my favorites.

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Dim Sum Guide: Steamed Shrimp Dumplings

 Posted by on March 14, 2012 at 7:05 am  Food & Cooking  No Responses »
Mar 142012
 

Steamed shrimp dumplings

Steamed shrimp dumplings


A staple of many Sunday mornings, steamed shrimp dumplings (har gow) are a classic dim sum dish consisting of a mixture of shrimp, bamboo shoots, and pork stuffed inside a shiny, dimpled tapioca wrapper. The shrimp flavor fuses well with the crunchy bamboo shoots. The wrapper should be smooth and firm enough to hold the filling without breaking until the dumpling reaches your mouth. When made correctly, the wrapper is thin and translucent allowing a peek at the shrimp inside. Because it takes considerable skill to prepare and cook this dish, many dim sum aficionados will judge a restaurant based on this dish.

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Mar 132012
 
Dim sum restaurant
Dim sum restaurant

Dim sum restaurant

Here in the Northwest, there is tremendous Asian influence when it comes to food and cuisine. In many neighborhoods in Seattle, you’ll likely encounter a Chinese restaurant that serves dim sum.

In my forty-plus years of eating dim sum across the US, Canada, and China, I’ve encountered a big range in the quality of dim sum. From personal experience, about 10% of dim sum restaurants will be excellent, most will be mediocre, and the rest will be unpalatable.

Initially found in a few restaurants in big city Chinatowns, you can now find good dim sum in the suburbs and even in small towns. In fact, I’ve found that some suburban restaurants do as good or a better job than many restaurants in Chinatowns.

Short of consulting reviews in places like Yelp (which I’ve found to be off the mark on many occasions), how can you tell which restaurants are likely to have good dim sum and which ones you should avoid? Based on my decades of eating dim sum, I’ve boiled down my observations into these five simple questions:

1) Are there a lot of Asians eating?
It’s a widely known and reliable measure of how authentic the food is. If most of the patrons are Asian-looking, the food is more likely to be authentic. That’s because most Chinese people stick with a good thing when they find it. In many restaurants, you’ll often see a bunch of “regulars” meeting for dim sum on the same day and time each week. People coming back to the same place every week is a good sign.

Dim sum served from carts

Dim sum served from carts

2) Is the dim sum served from carts?
You want to stick with restaurants that serve their food from carts–that’s part of the experience. My encounters with dim sum ordered from menus has not been positive. Who knows how old the food is when it’s kept in the kitchen? Places that serve dim sum from menus do not get the volume that restaurants with carts do. Thus, menu places tend to have less variety of dishes and the food is not as fresh. You want to see the hot steam rising from the carts. You want to see a high turnover of items. You want to see your dish before you select it. Otherwise, you just don’t know how fresh the dim sum is.

3) Is there a big wait on Sunday mornings?
Many Chinese families go to dim sum on Sunday mornings for brunch. At the best places, you will see a long line of people waiting for a table even before noontime. If there is no wait at the peak time, there’s probably a reason. I don’t like to wait more than a few minutes for a table so I usually go for dim sum before 11am or Saturday to avoid the crowds. Typically, the best dim sum and longest lines are at the bigger restaurants.

Roast ducks "hanging around"

Roast ducks "hanging around"

4) Are there roast ducks “hanging around” and fish swimming inside?
Authentic Chinese restaurants tend to have the obligatory roast ducks and barbecue pork literally hanging around on hooks over a butcher block. Invariably, a tired-looking, middle-age guy will man this station wielding a big cleaver ready to dispatch a roast duck into a few dozen bite-size pieces. The most authentic places will have fish and shellfish such as lobsters and crabs swimming in a live tank. That’s because Chinese people are fanatical about eating their seafood fresh. Restaurants with roast duck and live fish tanks are a good sign of fresh dim sum. BTW, those roast ducks are great with hot wonton noodle soup, but that’s another blog.

Recently, in the Seattle and other major metro areas, I’ve been seeing the “gentrification” of dim sum with new fusion-type restaurants “translating” traditional dim sum to a more upscale and Western eating experience. Their interpretation comes along with much higher prices and artsy decor. I tend to avoid these places; they are just not worth what they charge and you’ll get a less authentic experience.

5) Is the restaurant decor slightly “grungy”?
Yes, grunge music started in Seattle but I’m talking about grungy restaurants. At one of my favorite dim sum restaurants in Seattle’s International District, I once saw a large mouse scurry across the floor in broad daylight while I was enjoying some great roast pork buns. When I alerted the manager, he merely chuckled and thought it was quite funny! Despite that somewhat traumatic rodent sighting, I (and probably that mouse too) keep on patronizing that restaurant because it has the best dim sum in Seattle.

Dirty carpets in Chinese restaurant

Dirty carpets in Chinese restaurant

Chinese restaurants, especially those in older Chinatowns, are not known to be especially clean and you may even see some minor food handling issues. But as long as you are eating steaming hot foods, it’s unlikely you’ll be a victim of bacterial food poisoning. Some dim sum addicts I know view the grungy nature of some Chinese restaurants as an essential part of the overall experience. To be clear, “slightly” grungy is good but “grossly” grungy or dirty is not. If the carpets smell and haven’t been changed since the place opened its doors, that’s not a good sign. And if you see serious food handling violations, don’t go there no matter how “authentic” the food is.

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Six Rules for Proper Dim Sum Etiquette

 Posted by on March 12, 2012 at 9:01 am  Food & Cooking  No Responses »
Mar 122012
 
Dim sum etiquette
Dim sum etiquette

Dim sum etiquette

Just like Christmas shopping at the mall, dim sum brings out the best in people and the worst in people. Dim sum is a social affair so learning proper dim sum etiquette and manners is important. Here are six rules for staying on the good side of your dim sum mates so you will be invited to eat with them again.

1) Dim sum is for sharing. If there are three items in a dish and there are five of you, don’t take a whole item. Cut them in halves so each person can have a bite. Dishes should be placed in the middle of the table within everyone’s reach. Don’t load up your plate like you’re eating at an endless buffet after you’ve run a marathon. Eat one piece at a time before proceeding to the next dish. If you “hoard” dim sum on your plate like a squirrel before a hard winter, you may not be invited again.

2) Use chopsticks. You can’t properly eat dim sum unless you use chopsticks so learn to use them. Some dishes, such as shrimp noodles, are very slippery and challenge even the most dexterous native chopstick user. In this case, a little assistance with a fork is fine. It’s perfectly acceptable to eat buns with your fingers.

3) Keep the teacups full. You will be asked what type of tea you would like when you are seated. As a dim sum pro, your job is to make sure everyone’s teacup is filled up when it’s near empty. And when the teapot is empty, just open the lid to signal to the waiter to bring a fresh pot. Be careful to place the teapot far away from kids’ reach since metal teapots are super hot and can quickly burn someone.

4) Wait for your turn. Occasionally you will see customers run over to a distant cart like they are trying to sack a quarterback. These dim sum “rushers” are trying to take their favorite dish before it runs out. Don’t do this, it’s rude. The “dim sum ladies” pushing the carts do not like customers swarming around them and they certainly do not like people touching the dishes. Serving dim sum is strictly their territory. Besides you don’t want to get burned by the steamy dishes and hot cart. Imagine the total chaos if everyone crowded around the carts like hungry sharks! Leave your pass rushing skills on the field.

5) Fight to pay the bill. In Chinese culture, it’s considered an honor to pay the bill. When Chinese people eat with family and close friends, it’s customary to fight over who gets to pay the bill. I’ve seen people make wrestling moves that would impress Olympic judges in their attempt to snatch the bill away from a relative. If you lose some battles over the bill, just make sure you win some as well. More stealthy and cunning tactics for grabbing the check are employed as well. If you are eating with Western friends or coworkers, splitting the bill evenly is fine.

6) Leave a tip. Like any other restaurant, staff at Chinese restaurants depend on tips for a good portion of their pay. Tips get divided among the various servers. Anywhere from 10-20% is acceptable depending on the food and service.

 

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A Beginner’s Guide to Dim Sum

 Posted by on March 11, 2012 at 8:18 am  Food & Cooking  No Responses »
Mar 112012
 
Dim sum check
Fried shrimp dumplings

Fried shrimp dumplings

Dim sum is one of my favorite foods of all time. Spanning several decades since childhood, I’ve probably eaten dim sum more than a thousand times in dozens of cities around the world. Yet, I am still learning about this cuisine and tradition. If you didn’t grow up eating dim sum or don’t speak Chinese, the learning curve for becoming a dim sum pro can be steep. Hopefully this dim sum guide will be helpful as you explore this delicious custom.

Introduction to Dim Sum

Dim sum is a type of Chinese food consisting of small portions of food (similar to appetizers) that are traditionally served in steamer baskets or on small plates. There are dozens of varieties of dim sum dishes. Traditional dim sum makes ample use of meat and seafood and is usually prepared by steaming or frying.

Dim sum in Chinese characters

Dim sum in Chinese characters

The Chinese characters for dim sum literally mean “to touch the heart.” It originated in Southern China many centuries ago when it was first served at tea houses frequented by travelers and farmers. The concept has evolved through the years into a festive social meal that strengthens bonds among family members and friends. Simply put, dim sum is comfort food for the Cantonese.

Dim sum is an extremely popular tradition among Cantonese families as they “drink tea” (yum cha) particularly on Sundays. I did this almost every week of my childhood growing up in New York City. Dim sum is usually a noisy and festive meal so don’t expect a quiet ambiance. Although some restaurants are starting to serve dim sum in the evenings, it is typically served from morning through mid-afternoon.

In most restaurants, dim sum is served in individual containers or dishes. Servers push carts from table to table loaded with fresh dishes from the kitchen. Diners wait patiently for their turn to select their food, hoping that their favorites are still available.

By design, dim sum is a social eating experience so aim for a total of four to eight people. That is a sufficient number of people to allow the group to try a large variety of dishes but not so large that sharing food and ordering becomes unwieldy. Another consideration is that many dim sum dishes, such as buns and dumplings, often come three pieces to a plate. So a multiple of three is good for making sure each person can have a taste (or share half a piece).

How Dim Sum Is Served

When you are seated at a table, the waiter will ask you what type of tea you would like. If you don’t drink tea, you’ll need to ask for water or something else to drink. They usually don’t serve water at dim sum unless you request it.

Almost always, dim sum is served from carts brimming with stacks of bamboo or metal steamers and dishes. In most restaurants, there will be at least one cart devoted to steamed dishes, one with fried and baked dishes, one for congee and similar foods, and one with desert and sweet items.

“Dim sum ladies” push the carts and will stop by each table in turn. Frequent customers will ask for what they want. Others will point to what they want which is perfectly acceptable. Many servers will be able to explain what each item is if you don’t recognize it. Be aware however that most servers are not native English speakers and you may have a hard time understanding them. If you missed something or want more of an item from a cart that passed by, don’t worry, the carts recirculate after they get restocked with fresh dim sum.

Dim sum check

Dim sum check

When you get your dish, the server will stamp or initial your table check indicating the size of the dish. Typically, the categories are “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “extra large.” The price of each category is marked on the bill. Occasionally, servers will try to sell you a special dish that is not from the carts. I usually avoid these since they tend to be very expensive.

When you have eaten your fill, ask the waiter to add up your damages and bring you some containers for any leftovers. Be aware that dim sum is best eaten fresh and many dishes lose their texture when stored and reheated.

Red chili paste with soy sauce

Red chili paste with soy sauce

Dim sum restaurants will typically have three types of servers. First and foremost, the “dim sum ladies” push the carts and give you your food. The waiters, usually men, give you your tea, take special orders, and add up your check. If you want to order a special item not in the carts, such as fried noodles, ask your waiter, not the ladies pushing the carts. The busboys fill up your water glass and bus your table.

I recommend that you always eat a new dim sum dish without any additional sauces or spices. However, with many dishes such as steamed meatballs and shrimp dumplings, I enjoy adding a little more spiciness. To do this, I usually mix up a small amount of red chili sauce and soy sauce into a slurry and dip my dim sum in this mixture before eating.

Dim Sum is Not Health Food

Deep fried bread sticks

Deep fried bread sticks

A word of warning to those with cardiovascular health issues. Dim sum, although often steamed, is not health food. More often than not, dim sum will contain moderate to high amounts of fat and salt. So, if you are overweight or have heart disease or hypertension, you’ll need to watch how much dim sum you eat. And if you are a vegetarian, be advised that very few dim sum dishes are vegetarian-friendly. That’s because Cantonese people love meat and seafood. Unfortunately, if you have food allergies, especially to shellfish, it’s best not to eat dim sum because of cross contamination concerns. Be aware that Chinese restaurant staff are seldom reliable sources for food allergy information. And it’s very hard to avoid gluten when eating dim sum.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will provide more information about how to select a restaurant, proper dim sum etiquette, and describe common varieties of dim sum.

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