Dim Sum For Christmas: Creating A Holiday Tradition At Home

dim sumWith very few exceptions, I’ve spent the last 17-plus Christmases going out for dim sum. No matter where I’m living at the time, once December rolls around, I start researching the best places to indulge my har gow habit. Why? Because I’ve worked in the service industry for over two decades.

I’ve either waited tables or worked retail (usually in the food industry) since I was in my 20s. In layman’s terms, it means that the holidays ceased to exist for me starting in 1995, when I started culinary school.

I’d always loved Christmas as a kid and in college. Yet, I willingly sacrificed the holidays, because it meant I’d finally embarked upon the career path I’d long dreamt of: becoming a cooking teacher and food (and eventually, travel) writer. I naively failed to realize that decades of restaurant work, flogging farmers market produce, and slinging cheese and meat would be required to supplement my occupational pursuits.

I’ve been able to travel overseas a couple of times over the holidays, and the Christmases spent in Thailand and New Zealand were memorable from both a cultural and universal perspective. If I had the financial means, I’d always travel during the holidays. In general, however, being in the food industry means you stay at home this time of year, even if home is somewhere most people would kill to visit (I’ve been fortunate to work the holidays in Vail and Telluride).christmasUnable to take Christmases off to see my family (they always get Thanksgiving, which is extremely important to my parents), I started going out for dim sum as a way to pass the time, stave off loneliness and get a good meal.

Dim sum parlors and Cantonese restaurants are always packed Christmas Day, with Chinese-Americans as well as diners of varying ethnic and religious persuasions. I’ve learned over the years that many people have a Christmas dim sum tradition, usually because they don’t celebrate for whatever reason (not having kids is a big one).

In my case, I’m single and childless, but that’s not why I do dim sum. Ethnically, my relatives on both sides of the family were immigrant Russian Jews, but my agnostic parents celebrated Christmas when my brother and I were growing up. To them, it was a way to unite family and allow us kids … to be kids. As a child, I never imagined Christmas and I would part ways.

As an adult, I shun Christmas not because I have to work, but for the same reasons many people do: it’s a stressful, bank account-depleting, heavily commercialized guilt-fest. I don’t miss it, although I do my best for my teenaged niece (who received a rescue kitten from me this year) and nephew.

The truth is, if I’m unable to travel, I relish having one day a year where I can have 24 hours off and not feel bad about it. I eat delicious dumplings, maybe go for a hike or see a movie. Call family and friends. It’s unabashed me-time, and until or unless I meet someone I want to create a more traditional holiday with … please pass the bao.

[Photo credit: dim sum, Flickr user Jason Hutchens; tree, Flickr user Ian.Kobylanski]

Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

dim sumI realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]dim sumStandard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.
dim sum
The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Chopsticks Using Tips

Foods of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong-style

Chinese New YearThe Chinese are the butt of a lot of jokes for their propensity to eat “anything.” While a wee bit of an exaggeration, it’s true that the national diet is more diverse than that of the Western world. The combination of thousands of years of poverty, numerous wars, the rather imperial tastes of various ruling dynasties, thousands of miles of coastline, and a diverse geographical and climatic landscape make for a highly regionalized and complex cuisine.

Food, then, is an intrinsic and incontrovertible part of Chinese culture, perhaps no more so than during the weeklong celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which begins February third. And if there’s one place that knows how to throw down, it’s Hong Kong. The city is hosting it’s annual Chinese Lunar New Year (CNY) festival February 3-17th, and in honor of the Year of the Rabbit, I thought I’d give a little breakdown on the culinary side of things.

Quick history lesson: As this isn’t a political dissertation, let us just say that many residents of Hong Kong don’t wish to be called Chinese, which doesn’t change the fact that this article is on CNY. As you likely know, HK is considered a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the mainland, after this former British colony was returned to China in 1997. The term “Hong Konger” generally (but not legally) refers to someone originally from HK, but Wikipedia informs me that the more generalized “Hongkongese” is catching on amongst the Western press. I didn’t see any mention of this being considered offensive, so I’m sticking with it. Please feel free to comment and provide a correction if I’m mistaken).

[Photo credit: Flickr user jinny.wong]Chinese New YearI had the good fortune (fortune being a theme that repeats itself endlessly during Chinese New Year) to be in Hong Kong for the festivities a few years ago, and it proved a fascinating crash course in Chinese culinary culture. I actually went to eat my body weight in dim sum, but found myself pleasantly sidetracked by an orgy of New Year’s foods. I also learned it’s hard to dislike a place where the standard (translated) greeting is “Have you eaten yet?” My inner eight-year-old was also delighted to discover that, while “Gung Hay Fat Choy” may mean “happy new year,” “fuk” means “prosperity,” and “yu” means “abundance,” or “surplus.” Fuk yu! Hee.

New Year’s is a time of elaborate banquets, rituals, and symbolic foods and dishes, some of which may only be offered during this time. Oranges have long been associated with good fortune in China, because the word orange sounds similar to “ji,” which means good luck. Colors are also emblematic. Red apples or oranges adorned with red ribbons are ubiquitous, because the color is equated with happiness, while vegetables such as celery, spinach, and lettuce with the roots attached symbolize vitality. Homes and businesses offer a “tray of togetherness,” filled with candied lotus seeds and roots, water chestnuts, winter melon, and coconut, as well as paper lucky money pouches containing chocolate coins.

In addition to various activities that correspond with the spiritual aspects of CNY, the Hong Kongese go all out when it comes to holiday meals. At the beginning of the week, the Yau Ma Tei fruit market in Kowloon (one of HK’s best dining districts) is packed with shoppers, primarily wives and grandmothers, who come to purchase ingredients for “family reunion dinner.” Celebratory foods include sweet dumplings filled with lotus paste or crushed nuts and coconut; lin gou, a sticky rice cake; barbecued (cha siu) pork meant for offerings at Buddhist temples; pig’s trotters or tongue; black land moss (a fungus representing wealth), and carp (profitable year ahead).
Chinese New Year
The first day of the new year is vegetarian, as the plants are believed to store good fortune in their roots. Each subsequent day has a different theme, and corresponding foods that must be offered. The second day, for example, is the Day of Commencement, in which lavish meals featuring seafood and poultry are served, in order to encourage a productive start to the new year of employment. Speaking of seafood, try taking a ferry to nearby Lamma Island for a beachfront feast, where you choose your own seafood from dazzling displays.

Yau Ma Tei during this time is a special treat. Tofu vendors hawk great blocks of bean curd, live poultry and seafood are chosen and dispatched to order, butchers pushing wheelbarrows loaded with whole pig carcasses weave through the crowd, and dumpling vendors pinch off pieces of dough and deftly fold them into savory bundles.

There is also a collection of food stalls adjacent to the market, where you can feast on roasted meats, cheung fun (rice noodle sheets) stuffed with prawns, or congee for less than the price of a Happy Meal. For more cheap eats, don’t miss out on a bowl of HK’s famous wonton noodles; Mak’s Noodle Ltd. in the Central district (77 Wellington St., 2854 3810; there are also outlets in other districts) is the bomb and will set you back just a few bucks.

The best way to experience traditional new year’s foods, however, is to wrangle an invite to someone’s home, or gather a group for a banquet at one of Hong Kong’s better Cantonese restaurants, such as Tai Woo (locations in Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui–which has a concentration of fine-dining restaurants–and Shau Kei Wan), or Super Star Seafood (Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui). I love them both, and they’re 2010 winners in HK’s Best of the Best culinary awards. Both restaurants also have good dim sum although they aren’t traditional dim sum houses.
Chinese New Year
Hong Kong draws visitors from around the world for what is dubbed the International Chinese New Year. There are temples to visit, an over-the-top parade (best described as the bastard child of the Disneyland Main St. Electrical Parade, Superbowl Halftime, and an Asian game show), but it’s the fireworks display over Victoria Harbour that is truly one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever beheld.

That stunning harbor, combined with the seemingly endless array of places to eat, drink, and shop; bustling streets pulsating with neon, and abundance of five-dollar foot rubs make HK a great place to spend a couple of hedonistic days, no matter what time of year it is. You can always start your new year’s resolutions when you get home.

For more information on Hong Kong and ICNY events, click here.

[Photo credit: Laurel Miller]