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

Video: Regular Ordinary Swedish Meal Time

“Sometimes when you cook swedishly, the meal is destroyed. This is natural.”

Did you grow up watching the Swedish Chef on “The Muppet Show?” I loved that guy. Do you find everything about “foodies” and the Food Network obnoxious and tedious? Yeah, me too. Allow me then, to turn you on to a little Internet sensation called “Regular Ordinary Swedish Meal Time (ROSMT).”

The mad, brilliant brainchild of a group of Swedish university students, ROSMT started out as a hungover, 2011 New Year’s Day lark. It was filmed in the apartment of “chef” Niclas Lundberg, with the aid of his friend and ROSMT co-founder Isak Anklew.

The resulting “Spaghetti Explosion” was inspired by the spoofy, Canadian YouTube cooking show hit “Epic Meal Time.” Lundberg has taken culinary instruction to a new level, spicing things up with signature moves like hurling ingredients into walls, ripping off hunks of raw meat with his teeth, and using his fists as everything from potato mashers to mixing spoons.

“Spaghetti Explosion” was such a success, Lundberg and friends quickly produced “Meatball Massacre,” and “Sidepork Pandemonium.” The rest, as they say, is history. Today, the guys (five, in all) behind ROSMT are pop-culture icons in Sweden and abroad. Me? I can’t get enough of this stuff. It’s the Pepto-Bismol to pretentious food culture gastric reflux.

Below, I present to you the “Chop Chop Carnage Stew (Alternative Pyttipanna)” episode. Pyttipanna is a Swedish specialty consisting of potatoes, onion, and meat, with the likely additions of fried egg, chopped pickles and beetroot, and really, god knows what else. Enjoy.

Today’s lesson: “Chop Chop Carnage Stew (Alternative Pyttipanna)”


Barbecue and picnic tips for a safe, delicious (and seasonal) Fourth of July

fourth of july food safetyFor Americans, there’s no holiday more synonymous with eating outdoors than the Fourth of July. It’s the ultimate summer dining event, one that largely emphasizes regional foods and seasonal ingredients.

Tomatoes and corn are perhaps the two most iconic summer foods served on the Fourth (just because we live in an era where we can purchase certain ingredients yearound doesn’t mean they taste good). Other featured foods are more regional. Midwesterners are more likely to feature cherry pie and beef (happily, hamburgers are always in season). On the East Coast, clam bakes, lobster, and crab are more traditional than meat, but out West, it’s almost unthinkable to celebrate Independence without firing up the barbecue. In the South, pit barbecue is a permanent staple, as is fried chicken. But the Fourth of July also means sweet tea, pickles, chilled watermelon, peach cobbler. Potato salad, on the other hand, is a nationally ubiquitous dish, but the recipe often varies regionally.

All of the above are stereotypes, of course. Yet, looking back on the states I’ve lived in or visited for the Fourth, I can see the menus usually had a sense of place. I grew up in Southern California, so if we weren’t grilling beef tri-tip or at the beach, we’d hit up KFC for a pre-fireworks picnic in the park. I’ll be the first to admit that a bucket of fried chicken and “fixin’s” is about as devoid of terroir as you can get, but for millions of Americans, it’s emblematic Fourth fare (my mom is definitely not alone in her dislike of cooking). When I lived in Hawaii for a summer, I went to a co-worker’s luau, and in Colorado, we’d grill corn and lamb or beef.

Wherever you live, whatever you serve, al fresco dining can present food safety hazards–most of which are temperature and sanitation-related. Fortunately, a few simple steps can ensure your food stays safe, so you can have a foodborne illness-free holiday. Because E.coli should never be on the menu, regional, seasonal, or otherwise.

After the jump, food prep, storage, and transportation tips for healthy holiday dining:

Grilling Burgers, Hot Dogs and Steaks

  • fourth of july food safetyAs obvious as it sounds, wash your hands before preparing food, and after handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. If you’re assembling an outdoor meal, wash as often as necessary: pack antibacterial gel and hand wipes if you don’t have access to hot running water and soap. And remember: you need to scrub for at least twenty seconds to kill germs.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and knife for raw proteins such as the above. Alternatively, wash knives and cutting surfaces with hot water and soap or diluted bleach before using for other ingredients. The same practice goes for grilling: always use separate or clean utensils and plates for the transfer of raw and cooked proteins.
  • Bacteria breed more quickly in a hot climate, so plan menus accordingly. As a general rule of thumb, food can be safely kept at room temperature for about two hours (the USDA has more specific views on the subject: click here for details). You don’t need to be paranoid–our germophobic culture isn’t building stronger immune systems for future generations–but don’t be stupid, either. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
  • fourth of july food safety
  • Use a cooler filled with ice or ice packs to keep cold foods chilled until ready to cook or eat. Storing food in separate Tupperware (or other reusable) containers keeps ingredients fresh, dry, and free from cross-contamination, so you can assemble on-site.
  • If you’re planning an outdoor meal where you don’t have access to refrigeration, it’s best to skip ingredients such as mayonnaise or other egg-derived foods; fresh or soft cheeses or other fresh or fluid dairy products, and raw meat or seafood dishes (oyster shooters: not a good idea). Cured meats and hard or aged cheeses are safer bets.
  • Produce, as we’ve all learned from the media, can also harbor foodborne illness. The culprit is usually poor sanitation. Wash produce prior to use, and be sure to bring anti-bacterial hand gel and wipes so everyone can clean their hands before digging in.
  • Don’t allow leftovers to fester in the sun or attract insects. Wrap things up and get them back in the cooler or refrigerator.
  • Be sustainable. If it’s not feasible to use your usual silver- and dinnerware, look for reusable, recyclable, or compostable products made from bamboo, sugar cane, palm leaf, or recycled, unbleached paper. Instead of paper napkins, opt for cloth. Pack leftovers in reusable containers to cut down on plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Bring a container to take compostable scraps (excluding meat, dairy, and seafood) with you, if you have a facility that will accept them. If you can’t use your leftovers, donate them to a homeless shelter or other facility for those in need.

[Photo credits: burgers, Flickr user Markusram; hands, Flickr user wiccked; cooler, Flickr user Rubbermaid Products;

Hold the dog, please. China’s proposed ban on sale of dog and cat meat

Most people will agree that dog is man’s best friend. In parts of Asia, however, it’s also what’s for dinner. The consumption of dog and cat meat by humans is practiced in parts of China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. Cat is eaten in parts of China and South America. The times they are a-changin’, however, because the Chinese government is considering legislation that would make eating dogs and cats illegal there, in part because of how the practice negatively impacts overseas tourism.

The Chinese government has signaled a willingness to take the meat off the market. To avoid upsetting international visitors during the Beijing Olympics, officials ordered dog meat off the menus at local markets. Officials in Guangzhou have warned vendors to stop selling it ahead of the Asian Games, which will be held there later this year.

Professor Chang Jiwen of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences is one of the law’s top campaigners. “Cats and dogs are loyal friends to humans,” he said. “A ban on eating them would show China has reached a new level of civilization.” Anyone else finding irony in that statement, considering 2007’s massive pet food recall — the result of melamine-tainted exports produced in China?

While inconceivable to most North Americans and Europeans, these animals have been used as food for thousands of years, usually for purported medicinal purposes, although poverty also plays a role in some countries or regions.

While owning dogs and cats for house pets isn’t the norm throughout Asia, it’s certainly common in China. But the roles of ingredient and animal companion never cross: special meat markets exist that cater exclusively to the sale of dogs and cats for the meat trade. Chang cautions, however that there is always a chance they’re someone’s lost or stolen pet.

Regardless of how you feel about dining on dog, the most critical issue regarding this “specialty meat” trade is animal welfare. The animals can be kept in horrifying conditions until they’re sold at market, and subjected to cruel, inhumane treatment. And before you condemn certain cultures as barbaric, take a second to think about the conditions in puppy mills and factory farms in the United States. Livestock sold at auction for the commercial meat market, and live meat animals and poultry at slaughterhouses may also be subjected to inhumane treatment. The U.S. government is cracking down on these abuses, but factory farms don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

The ban on eating dog and cat meat is part of a larger proposal to toughen laws on animal welfare. Individual violators could face up to 15 days in prison and a small fine. Businesses found guilty of selling the meat risk fines up to 500,000 yuan ($73,500.)

The legislation is gaining support from China’s growing number of pet owners. With living standards rising and disposable income growing, more Guangzhou residents are investing in house pets.

Meat vendors and specialty restaurants, however, see their livelihoods at stake.”The dogs you raise at home, you shouldn’t eat,” says Pan, a butcher who also declined to give his first name. “The kind raised for eating, we can eat those.”

According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the law prohibiting cat and dog meat could take as long as a decade to pass.

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How to host a multi-cultural Labor Day barbecue

Labor Day is a quintessential American holiday. It’s a day to honor the workers, spend time with friends and family, and traditionally, to enjoy one last blow-out backyard barbecue before the cold weather sets in. Burgers, beers, and the all-American apple pie may be the staples, but since America is such a melting pot, why not honor that with a more international array of food and drink? Whether your ancestors arrived in America hundreds of years ago, or just within the last decade, showcase your heritage and the cultures of your closest friends by serving up some traditional cuisines from around the world. It doesn’t have to be a big hassle, you can make it as simple or complex as you like. Here are a few ideas for an international-themed Labor Day barbecue.

Host an International Happy Hour
Spicing up your drink offerings is the easiest way to add more international variety to your party. Nearly every country brews its own beer and, aside from the obvious Dos Equis from Mexico and Heineken from The Netherlands, it’s easy to find Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic), Quilmes (Argentina) and even Tsingtao (China) beer at most local stores. Wine is an easy option too. We all know the major players like Italy and France, but Hungary, Chile, South Africa, Croatia, and many other countries also produce wine. If you plan on serving liquor, set up a signature drinks station. Allow guests to mix their own Brazilian Caipirinhas, Peruvian Pisco Sours, or Italian Spritzs.

Dress Up Your Burgers and Hot Dogs
If you wouldn’t dare not serve burgers at your barbecue, you can still fancy them up with some toppings that reflect international cuisines. Add guacamole or cotija cheese to Mexican burgers, Brie cheese and fried shallots for French flair, or Feta cheese and spinach on Greek lamb burgers. You can also swap hot dogs for meats from various regions – go with spicy Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst with sauerkraut or Turkish doner in pita with yogurt sauce. Kebabs also work well. Try pork glazed with Chinese hoisin, or chicken in an Indian tikka masala sauce, skewered with appropriate veggies. Apply the same rules to your side dishes. Share the workload with friends by asking them to bring dishes that represent their heritage to serve on the side.

Don’t Forget Dessert
Dessert is another area where it’s easy to get creative while still offering a delicious end to the meal. It’s also okay to “cheat” a bit here, and buy some of the ingredients pre-made from the grocery store. Bake (or buy) some Greek baklava, serve French crepes topped with ice cream, Italian tiramisu, or Mexican tres leches cake.

Obviously, these are just a few of the options available. Check websites like All Recipes, consult with family or friends, or make your favorite handed-down-through-generations recipe. And if you have a great recipe you’re willing to share, please post it in the comments.