he ancient philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said, “Handle a large country with as gentle a touch as you would cook a small fish.” The Chinese, with one of the oldest culinary traditions in the world, dating back over 2,000 years, respect this connection between food and civilization. It is too often taken for granted in our culture but it’s an integral part of life in China. The royal courts always structured ceremonies around food and these were accepted by the people as spiritual examples of ideal living. Chinese society traditionally regards the enjoyment of good food as a sign of high culture.
Dim sum, which literally means “little heart,” comes from Canton in the southeast of China. However, in China, you’d have more luck finding these tasty morsels by asking for yum cha, or “going to tea”–tea being the focal point of this very social dining tradition. It’s a tradition that presents patrons with a very non-Western approach to eating. Instead of ordering from a menu, diners choose items from carts laden with a variety of delicacies that are periodically wheeled around the restaurant. All you have to do is point to a dish you would like to try, the waiter adds it to your tab and it’s yours to savor. The idea is to encourage diners to sample many of the bite-size dishes in order to experience a variety of flavors, aromas and textures, some more appealing than others. Dim sum is also a very sociable meal. The food arrives in a leisurely fashion, allowing for more conversation during the meal, including discussion about what to try next.
Thousands of dishes have been recorded throughout the history of dim sum, and many of those are now standards. Among the vast array of surprises to be found in dim sum restaurants, the predominant items are savory pastries and dumplings, steamed or fried, and filled with often intensely flavored meat and vegetables. Pork and shrimp dumplings are some of the more popular varieties, while items like chicken feet and beef tripe present more exotic choices. In addition to these savory dishes, sweet dishes, such as egg tarts and coconut pudding, are interspersed throughout the meal, since Chinese tradition does not require saving sweets until the end.
On a recent trip to Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant in Durham, perhaps the only restaurant in the Triangle that serves dim sum the traditional way, I found myself more excited than usual about my lunch options. I attributed this excitement to the anticipation of sampling multiple dishes while there, but more importantly, to the prospect of trying items that I’d never had a chance to taste before. The dining room was full and buzzing with activity, as I’m told is generally the case on Saturday and Sunday. The noise of conversation, the clanging of plates and the Cantonese dialogue of the staff were all music to my ears. A busy restaurant is usually the sign of good food–exactly what I was looking for.
After being seated and receiving a steaming cup of Chinese tea, I began to look around for those carts I had heard so much about. The first one was headed my way, stacked with its shiny, silver steamer trays. I knew I had to pace myself so I started out slowly, with the popular shrimp dumplings–incredibly spicy and wrapped in a nearly translucent dough made from rice starch. I also tried the equally popular, but much milder, pork dumplings, wrapped in a sticky wheat dough.
With my appetite curbed momentarily, I waited patiently for the next cart, vowing to be more adventurous this round. When it arrived, I immediately ordered the least recognizable item on the cart, what I later found out was a turnip cake, a more bitter version of the common potato cake. My eyes lit up, though, when I saw the steaming plate of chicken feet on the far side of the cart. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I was a little intimidated at first, but I closed my eyes and began gnawing. I was pleasantly surprised at the flavor and succulence of the meat, which is fried, steamed and fried again. I probably would not have this for lunch everyday, but it was a culinary rite of passage that I was determined to face head-on.
hinese cuisine, much like Mexican, Italian and Indian cuisine, is as diverse as the country itself. Different climates and terrain affect the ingredients available in a particular region, and in turn affect the cooking techniques employed. For instance, the prevalence of wheat in northern China makes noodle dishes more common there than the rice dishes that are found in the central regions of the country. These distinctions should be recognized not only in understanding culinary, but cultural traditions.
China is a country that reserves some of its highest social esteem for chefs who demonstrate exemplary culinary prowess. When emperors were introduced to the idea of sampling tidbits of a chef’s talent while enjoying fine tea, a great gastronomic connection was made. Competition to impress the emperor with new and exciting dishes propelled the evolution of dim sum. Of course, not all chefs could hope to be in the service of the emperor, so the public became the audience for whose praise chefs would compete. Yum cha, and the accompanying plates of dim sum, became a way for people to socialize, conduct business and explore the culinary talent in their community.
Of course, as certain dishes gained “classic” status, so too did the methods of preparation. Bruce Mak, a Hong Kong native with a wiry frame and an intense look in his eyes, is the dim sum chef at Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant. Mak has been at the restaurant for 11 years and apprenticed under another dim sum chef from Hong Kong before taking over. An unrelenting traditionalist, Mak prepares everything from scratch, including all of the different pastries and wrappers used for dim sum, adhering to the methods taught to him by his teacher. “Some others use machines,” he says. “We must do everything by hand.” By following this path of tradition, Bruce allows us a glimpse of his homeland’s culture. Food transcends its nourishing qualities and becomes a medium through which we can experience another part of the world, if only for a short time.
This had been the experience I was seeking: the chance to sample a variety of courses and to gain a better understanding of the culture from which they came. When it was all over, my bill was much less than I had expected, and I was actually able to get up from the table without any help. I thanked the staff, said my goodbyes and stepped out into what seemed, for an instant, like a bustling Hong Kong street. When the euphoria had faded, I found myself driving down N.C. 70 with my hunger satisfied, but my desire to seek out authentic ethnic flavors newly charged.