If you’ve never had the singular culinary pleasure of dim sum, you are missing out on one of life’s great food experiences. Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal consisting of a wide variety of small dishes of food, kind of like tapas. The word dim sum actually means “to touch the heart” and was originally a Cantonese custom that grew out of the teahouse culture. Teahouses sprung up throughout Canton and farmers and Silk Road travelers would stop for tea, conversation and a light snack. Thus, dim sum was born.
Today, dim sum is known as Chinese brunch and enormous dim sum houses can accomodate hundreds of diners. Dim sum is mostly served on the weekends, although some restaurants have kept popular dim sum items on their weekday lunch menu as well. This dining experience is unlike anything you’ve had before. Don’t expect to order from a menu for dim sum. Carts of steamed dumplings, filled buns, roast pork and duck and fried specialties are rotated through the dining room and as the cart passes your table, you pick out the dishes you want to try. Some items, like fried noodles and turnip cakes, are cooked on the cart right at your table. Some items are served hot, some cold and some at room temperature. Some things might look familair, like shao mai, which is a steamed pork and shrimp dumpling that looks almost like a won ton. There are sweet items as well, like sesame balls filled with bean paste and custard tarts. Some things might look strange and exotic, like chicken feet. Don’t laugh, they are a delicacy.
I’ve attempted to try something different every time I go for dim sum. This doesn’t always work out well, such as the time we ordered jellyfish noodles. They looked like celophane noodles and we thought it was a rice noodle dough that might have a little jellyfish mixed in. Turned out it was sliced jellyfish, cut in such a way as to resemble noodles. After a couple of bites that were like chewing funky flavored rubber bands, we abandoned the dish. On another occassion, we ordered something that looked like some kind of seafood and cucumber salad. It was a salad alright, but the mystery seafood ingredient was sea slug, steamed, chopped up and mixed with cucumber slices and dicon raddish. The hard little knuckles of sea slug were almost inedible to me. I choked a couple of nuggets down, but my husband gave them what for and almost finished the dish. It was pretty gross, I have to say. My brother Alan has consumed some of the more exotic items. He called me once to tell me he’d eaten duck tongue. And I watched him eat the chicken feet, although I didn’t have the nerve to try one myself, especially after he spit several toenails out. No toenails for me, thank you very much.
We have eaten some wonderful dim sum in many cities. San Francisco has amazing dim sum houses. We’ve found an excellent place in Boston. Ft. Lee, New Jersey, close to where my brother used to live, has a great dim sum restaurant. But the pinacle of dim sum for me is our favorite place in Dallas…Maxims. Every weekend, my husband and I would meet my cousin Steven for dim sum at Maxims. On a recent trip home, we repeated this tradition and, as always, were not disappointed. Maxims is cavernous with at least 50 tables and the place is packed on the weekends for dim sum.
There are certain items we always have. The shao mai and steamed shrimp dumplings are a must, as is the baked pork buns and fried noodles. This time, we had the roast duck. The crispy skin, juicy breast and Chinese spices just makes me happy down to my very soul.
Dim sum is all about experimentation. If you’re a dim sum novice, go with an experienced diner for your first try so you can learn your way around this unique dining event. And be patient, dim sum requires you to wait for the dishes you want to come around. Don’t order too much too fast, take your time, sip tea, have an interesting conversation. Before you know it, you’ll feel right at home.