Food isn’t just about edible stuff on a plate – it’s about ritual. Take-out greasy Chinese food and a bad straight-to-television movie on a Sunday night, with someone you love. A reassuringly warm cup of chamomile tea, on a grey rainy day. Champagne with a celebration, wine on a first date, a Thanksgiving turkey with the entire family gathered around the table –
or, as in my and Devon’s case, Dim Sum on a Sunday morning.
This was our ritual, and one that we stuck to religiously, every Sunday in Montreal, rain or shine. I guess you could say it was our Thing. Of course, the line up at Kam Fung Restaurant (our chosen place of worship) was always as long and winding as the Yangtze river, but we didn’t mind. Well, we minded, but there wasn’t much we could do about it, except wait patiently, as the bearer shrieked maniacally in Cantonese, calling out the waitlist numbers over a loud speaker (not doing much for our headaches from the Saturday night before). But, no matter how tired we were, or how long the line, or how loud the psycho bearer shrieked, we knew that what awaited us on the other side, was well worth it all. Sweet, succulent Dim Sum.
Now here in Toronto, we scour Chinatown, on the search for a dim sum spot that can rival the fine establishment that is Kam Fung Restaurant. And from the depths of the ocean of Chinese restaurants, along the crowded streets of Chinatown, emerged one restaurant that shone brighter than the rest – The Bright Pearl.
On the corner of Spadina and St Andrews, the Bright Pearl stands tall, proud, and…well, bright. Bright yellow to be precise. A hot spot for many the dim sum savvy Torontonian, the Bright Pearl typifies the downtown dim sum dining experience.
Of course, Devon and I have always felt we’d get the VIP treatment at dim sum restaurants, if only we were fluent in Cantonese. But, as native English speakers, it’s the back of the [very long] line, of fellow Dim Sum fanatics. Soon, though, we hear a sound as sweet as a freshly baked egg tart – “Fifty two, numba fifty two!” That’s us! That’s our number! We enter the colourful, crowded, noisy realm of dim sum carts, plastic dragons, and elaborate Chinese wall hangings, and prepare ourselves for a feast like no other.
The term Dim Sum literally means “to touch the heart”, and consists of a variety of little dumplings and dishes, both sweet and savoury, steamed and fried, similar to the French hor d’oeuvre, or Spanish tapas. Dim Sum is inextricably linked with the Chinese practice of Yum Cha, (Cantonese for “drink tea”), a ritual which is what it sounds like – the practice of drinking tea.
Over the years and over the course of our many Dim Sum outings, Devon and I have picked up a few tricks of the trade, a few Dim Sum Do’s and Don’ts. For your benefit, and to avoid appearing dim witted on your next dim sum day, I advise you read on, internalize, and practice these ‘commandments’ with sincerity and respect.
DIM SUM DO
DO PACE YOURSELF
Don’t get greedy – as irresistible as those endless wheelie carts overflowing with tiny pockets of delight look, just remember – it’s like a relationship, you have to take it slow. It’s all about the game, the chase, respect yourself enough, to hold off, for the right dim sum. Play hard to get – when the pork sui mai lady approaches you, asking if you want some of what she has to offer, wave your hand dismissively, say “no, I’m just not ready”. Watching her walk away will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your entire life, but you’ll thank yourself later, when the right dim sum comes along.
DIM SUM DON’T
DON’T LET ON THAT YOU’RE A NEWBIE
The worst insult at a dim sum restaurant – when the waiter brings you a fork and spoon, instead of chopsticks. It’s a metaphorical slap in the face, a symbolic “you don’t belong here, foreigner, just finish your food with your spoon and get out”. To avoid this, avoid showing any visible signs that you’re a newbie – don’t eye other people’s plates, asking them what that delicious looking dish is; don’t request a picture menu in English; just sit down, sip your tea, and be quiet.
DIM SUM DO
DO TAP YOUR FINGERS ON THE TABLE WHEN SOMEONE REFILLS YOUR TEA
After someone refills your tea cup, tapping three fingers on the table (your index and middle fingers), is a way to say “thank you”, and is considered the equivalent of bowing. This is an interesting Chinese custom, with an equally interesting story behind it – an Emperor of the Qing Dynasty was out at Yum Cha one day with his friends, but often went out in disguise, not wanting to attract attention to himself as an Emperor. While out, he refilled the tea cup of his fellow companion, and the companion, not wanting to give away the Emperor’s identity, but still wanting to thank him for this great honour, simply tapped his fingers on the table, indicating a bow.
So tap away! Plus, doing it, will make you look like a total DSP (dim sum pro).
DIM SUM DON’T
DON’T HESITATE, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING
Service at dim sum spots is not particularly…”friendly”. So, a moment’s hesitation on your part, can cost you your dish. To avoid this, be decisive and pretend to know what you’re doing when you order from a cart, otherwise the bearer will look at you, sigh impatiently, and wheel her little cart off to the hungry customer at the next table. You’ll be left alone, dim sum-less, and depressed. Even if you don’t know what you’re ordering, eating steamed chicken feet [ew] is better than losing face. Right? RIGHT?
DIM SUM DO
DO SAVE THE GREASY TARO WRAPS FOR LAST
A common Dim Sum Dilemma that Devon and I often find ourselves in – the Taro Wrap Paradox. We see the taro wrap, and it looks so inviting, so tempting, so oily-ly delicious, so dangerously divine, with its tender flaky greasy shell, its warm meaty insides … it’s just impossible to resist it. We end up ordering it first, savagely stuffing it down our throats, and then are left feeling ill from all the grease and meat, and can’t eat anything else. To avoid this, just remember – “Save the Taro for Last”.
We start with one of my personal favourites – har gau, the steamed shrimp dumpling, which I pop in whole, pursing my lips in delight as it explodes with juicy exuberance in my mouth.
The Chinese broccoli is crunchy and refreshing, and a good way to offset the fattier, greasier dim sum items.
But we are craving something more.
We scour the room in vain, flailing every limb in an attempt to get the attention of the bearers with the good stuff. Devon rises heroically to the challenge, and decisively flags down one of the more mysteriously elusive dishes, the Mona Lisa of dim sum carts, the dim sum that is hiding something, masking what is within, with its seemingly unappetizing-looking exterior – the Steamed Rice Roll.
The steamed rice roll is simply not what it seems. It looks like a globby slimy mess, but, as you will soon learn, appearances can be deceiving with dim sum. It also goes by the name chee cheong fun, or ‘pig intestine noodle’, because of its resemblance to a pig’s small intestine. I know, I’m not doing much for the ‘steamed rice roll is delicious’ cause. But this is in fact a delightful little dim sum, light, and a pleasant blend of textures, firm juicy prawns, hidden coyly within goopy cocoon of Shahe fen (rice noodles), then bathed in sweet soy sauce. It can also be stuffed with chicken, pork, and other ingredients.
As usual, Devon and I end up OD-ing on Dim Sum, and then, stuffed and sedated, we sit back in our chairs, sipping upon endless cups of Chinese tea, before we are finally asked to leave and free up the table.