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WRITTEN BY CATHERINE M. ALLCHIN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
|Touching the Heart's Delight
Fun and filling, Chinese dim sum is a tradition worth adopting
The Chinese custom of gathering with friends and family for a never-ending parade of dumplings and tea is called dim sum literally meaning "to touch your heart." Centuries ago, Cantonese tea houses began popping up to nourish weary travelers and farmers. The tradition of yum cha, or "drinking tea," eventually came to include eating snacks, and dim sum was born. Today dim sum is served throughout China and all over the world.
If you like sharing food and tasting as much as possible at one sitting, dim sum is right up your alley. If you like sharing food and tasting as much as possible at one sitting and you happen to love Chinese food, it's nirvana.
You don't have to be steeped in the tradition to enjoy it, either. "Non-Asians are really interested in dim sum now because it's fast and fun, and you can pick what you like and try a lot of different things," says Assunta Ng, publisher of the Northwest Asian Weekly and Seattle Chinese Post. And perhaps its ultimate plus: "Dim sum brings people together."
Usually, the fare consists of bite-sized dumplings, noodles and balls of various meats or fish. It's heavy on shrimp and pork, but you'll find some chicken, beef and vegetarian items, too. Spareribs are a standard. Dishes are steamed, fried or baked, so you can get a variety of textures. There's a great blend of savory and sweet flavors, too, but none of it is particularly spicy. Hot sauce is always available on the side for those who like an extra kick. Finish it all off with some mango pudding or crispy sesame balls.
Some of the food may be unfamiliar, but don't let it or the whizzing trays and boisterous groups intimidate you. Ng offers some other advice: Go with Chinese friends for your first dim sum experience. Take a big group so you can taste more. Be open-minded and experiment. Live a little.
Luckily, Rich's mother, May, sat next to me to explain the different dishes and customs. Originally from Shanghai, May and her husband, Ken, now reserve dim sum for special occasions, but they used to be able to eat it every day in China, or even have it delivered.
May offered us some fragrant jasmine tea as we joined the two grandparents, two parents and three young children already at the table. The most important thing about this table, I quickly determined, was the enormous lazy Susan sprawling in the middle. That's where all the food went. One portion usually equals three small pieces, which, when cut, allow several people to share without getting too full. And so the lazy Susan whirled back and forth all meal long as we chose our next bites hardly lazy at all!
Carts approached in an endless stream, and May chatted quickly in Cantonese with the servers about the various offerings. She was the expert intermediary between us and the carts. Menus are not typically used for dim sum. Servers keep a running tally on your bill as you choose more food. "Try this," May said, spinning two of the most popular dishes, shau mai (open-top pork dumplings) and har gao (steamed shrimp dumplings) in front of me. The kids devoured soft, chewy baos with a pork center while coveting a plate of sweet custard tarts. My 2½-year-old-son surprised me by heartily eating these new delights. His favorite, and mine, was cheunfun, tasty shrimp inside a slippery rice-noodle roll.
As I lifted up a crunchy bean-curd roll, Rich eyed my reach and cheerfully instructed me about the Chinese practice of turning one's chopsticks around when selecting food from serving dishes to avoid spreading germs. I tried in vain to flip my chopsticks over in one hand and did a decent job of embarrassing myself in front of our friends. Meanwhile, my husband, who has the skilled digits of a guitar player, showed off by turning his long sticks over and over single-handedly.
Although dim sum usually is a long, multi-hour eating and tea-drinking extravaganza with lively conversation, Rich says that with kids, "We're optimized for speed." Food was chosen and delivered right when we sat down, which kids and parents alike appreciate. A group of adults, on the other hand, may choose to have dim sum in courses, with the lighter steamed dishes first, followed by more exotic items such as chicken's feet, then deep-fried dishes and, finally, dessert.
When the children were playing under the table, we knew it was time to go. Suddenly May jumped up and grabbed the check. My husband protested, only to be immediately dismissed. Rich and Connie explained that arguing over who pays the bill is part of the dim sum experience: The more you protest, the more courteous it is. I realized that my husband's offer probably wasn't courteous enough, so when May returned with the receipt to sign, I snatched the check out of her hands. Surprised, she grabbed it back from me. Everyone laughed and Rich said: "The expert is surprised by the rookie good job!" Pleased to score some points after embarrassing myself earlier, I walked my full belly out of Noble Court and back into suburban Bellevue.
In tropical South Asia, where coconut is an essential ingredient, cooks often hold the shell over a bowl and smack it at the equator with the back of a cleaver. When the coconut splits, the transparent, slightly cloudy liquid inside flows into the bowl. This coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk) is drunk as a refreshing beverage with healthful properties. The opened coconut now reveals gleaming, white meat about half an inch thick. Coconut milk is made from this meat. (I once read that missionaries translating the Bible in a Pacific island found in the coconut meat's pristine color the perfect equivalent for the color of snow, which the islanders had never seen. "Though your sins may be as red as scarlet," went the new translation, "they shall be made as white as the meat of the coconut.")
To produce coconut milk, the meat is grated into flakes by using either a hand- or machine-operated gadget. The rest is easy. Cover the flakes with warm water and soak; then squeeze them by handfuls over a strainer that filters the opaque white milk into a container. This is usually done twice to obtain two types of milk: a thicker, creamier first milk (sometimes called coconut cream) and a thinner, more dilute second milk.
In addition to thickening curries and soups, coconut milk is used much like dairy cream and milk is used in the West. For instance, in Thailand, coconut milk, eggs and palm sugar are made into a custard that is steamed inside the scooped cavity of a kabocha squash.
Considering the trouble it takes to extract coconut milk, you can understand why many are grateful for the convenience of buying it in a can. Not all canned milk is equal, though, and inferior brands or batches can be oily or watery. But several brands now better approximate the texture and taste of fresh coconut milk. After tasting most of the brands on the Seattle market, I decided that Savoy had the best taste, followed by Mae Ploy, then Mr. Coco, which contains no preservative.
In the process, I also discovered canned coconut sugar (Mae Ploy brand) at some supermarkets in the International District. Akin to maple sugar, coconut sugar has a delicate taste that integrates beautifully with coconut milk in Asian desserts. The canned coconut sugar retains its natural moisture and has a more refined taste than the more commonly available palm sugar, which is usually sold dried in packets.
Coconut oil, a third important derivative of coconut, is a mainstay in the kitchens of some tropical nations. In the United States, it is more commonly used in making toiletries and cosmetics. Colorless, odorless and inexpensive, it is unusual among vegetable oils for being a saturated fat. Coconut oil is commercially extracted from copra, the meat of more mature, drier coconuts.
Beyond milk, sugar and oil, the coconut and the tree provide a multitude of products so many they've given rise to a saying in the South Seas: "He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a habitation for himself and a heritage for his children." But that is another story.
Catherine M. Allchin is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Barry Wong is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.
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