Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dim Sum (點心)

Dim Sum Restaurant -- Hong Kong 1920s  

     My mother and father were ardent amateur photographers of food (especially during their frequent European travels) and weren't so bad at it, apart from the fact that many of their most appealing shots, taken at extravagant, elegant locations in France and Italy seemed to catch the stray corner of a pack of the US brand of low-nicotine/low-tar cigarettes they were smoking (as opposed to atmospheric Gauloise or Gitanes), or an incomplete askew ashtray, somewhat wrecking the intended effect of the shot.

     Their food photography, however, was far better than their human photography, whose composition  consisted of placing linear arrays of awkward, uncomfortable looking people (my brother and I being principal subjects) against uniformly flat, static backgrounds, like police detainees in a line-up. (To be absolutely fair, my mother's wildlife photography, which she pursued later in life with great zeal, could be intimate and effective.  Half the credit goes to the deer and wild turkeys she loved, of course. The photograph below is not one of hers, but might be something she could have conceivably shot in her meadow in foggy light.)

     I'm afraid I'm no better a photographer than my parents on their worst day, i.e., I can make any naturalistic subject look inert and unbalanced.

     Therefore, the several attractive pictures of Chinese dim sum below are not my own work.  Even though they're taken by more skilled eyes and better lenses, none of the photos do their subjects justice because dim sum is really more of a rich and complicated feeling than it is a type of cuisine.  For me, for a number of reasons, it is one of the deepest, most resonant feelings of happiness I enjoy.

Backstage: Assorted bamboo dim sum steamer baskets ready to go

     We first tried dim sum after reading a New York magazine article by Barbara Costykyan some time in the late 1970s.  At that time, we were sort of permanently stuck in Manhattan during all seasons and all weekends (apart from lacking the means for a second home, Caroline's job often involved Saturday and Sunday work), but we were still interested in exploring the wonders of the city. (N.b., I am no longer interested in exploring the wonders of Manhattan.  If anyone would like my place in the exploring wonders line, they are welcome to it.)   In her piece, which was in the nature of an ethnic restaurant "round-up", Costykyan highly recommended a dim sum restaurant at the corner of Mott and Mosco Streets in Chinatown called Sun Hop Shing, which we decided to try as soon as possible.

Sun Hop Shing, 21 Mott Street, New York, New York (exterior) 

     Anyone familiar with the wonder of the myriad small, fairly complicated dishes known as dim sum knows how extravagantly good, entertaining and distinctive the dim sum experience can be.  The first thing to note and remember is that dim sum is essentially breakfast food meant to be eaten on an empty stomach with the requisite morning feelings of hope and gratitude. (The person who recently wrote in Cleveland Magazine that "dim sum is the Chinese version of tapas" and also her editor should really have their heads examined. Dim sum and tapas are both terrific, but nothing alike.) Ideally, dim sum is accompanied by a selection of hot Chinese tea chosen by your restaurant as being the right one to pair with their cuisine (I prefer chrysanthemum), although if you are Chinese (and especially if you are an older person), you are permitted to drink whiskey, brandy or whatever you'd like, although I think wine would be a poor choice.

Egg custard tarts

     Although well-prepared dim sum is both exquisite and spans all the food groups and meal courses (i.e., from congee soup to egg custard tart dessert; however, the Chinese do not eat their formal meals in traditional Western order), it is really the physical and aural atmosphere of the dim sum experience that makes the deepest, most lasting impression, whether you are in a small dim sum house like Sun Hop Shing or a large one like Manhattan's Silver Palace.  The rush-rush, clatter-clatter of the express food service, combined with a sense of formality, dignity, decorum and order, seem to typify these restaurants and Chinese family life at table.  You see this continually on display because these are family-oriented restaurants, not show-off, business expense account establishments.

Large "palace-style" dim sum restaurant

      Caroline and I patronized Sun Hop Shing (and for a light sweet afterward, its adjacent shed bakery, the Hong Kong Egg Cake Company, which I'll write about at another time) for about 15 years and were always treated well, albeit with some apparent distance and reserve.  We usually visited on Sunday mornings, traveling there from  East 86th Street on the bus, reading one of the Sunday papers along the way and disposing of it when we reached Chatham Square.  Sometimes, I would go by myself during the week for a late breakfast after finishing up a morning court appearance in Foley Square or on Centre Street.

Hong Kong egg cakes 

     After we brought Jane home from China, and as soon as she was a relatively fit dining companion, we thought to take her to Sun Hop Shing because she liked and was familiar with some of the food served there (the Chinese feed their children fluffy white steamed bread -- the kind you see surrounding steamed pork buns -- dipped in a mixture of honey and butter), and because dim sum establishments are ideal restaurants for kids. (No waiting; rush-rush; clatter-clatter.)  To our great surprise, the arrival of our Chinese-born daughter changed our relationship with the restaurant staff almost immediately. For reasons a little too detailed, intimate and possibly too obvious to go into here, we were suddenly treated with incredible curiosity and great affection (especially Jane) -- like family members.  It was lovely and we felt we understood everything that was going on at Sun Hop Shing (where very little English was spoken) better.

Shrimp noodle

     Briefly, I like most, but not all dim sum.  That's always the way it is when you go all the way into another culture's cuisine.  I recently mentioned Calvin Schwabbe's book Unmentionable Cuisine (University of Virginia Press) in a blog entry, and you can definitely find some unusual dishes that Schwabbe describes and discusses available for sampling in your average dim sum restaurant.  However, because many dim sum establishments offer a range of selections that seems to be as expansive as the ocean, and because in a good restaurant these are all invariably so fresh and so well prepared, I would say that anyone with the slightest liking for Chinese cuisine would be able to assemble an immensely interesting, light, satisfying and inexpensive meal without having to do more than point their finger emphatically (but precisely) at the desired items as they pass by on the whizzing, traversing trolleys.

Taro kor

     My favorite (Caroline's too) dim sum item is taro kor.  There is absolutely nothing like it and like so many good things, its subtle contrasts (prickly, crisp fried outside/silky smooth inside; mildly sweet taro/mildly salty pork) are a sensory dialectic in perpetual motion.  It is actually an enlightening dish and I would guess very tricky to execute.  The fact that it is prepared daily in military-size quantities always astonishes me.

Watercress dumpling

     Everything else can remain just pictures here.  What's nice is that although most dim sum items basically taste like what they look like and the listed ingredients give some clue as to ultimate flavor, that isn't always the case.  The flavors and textures of Chinese food are multivalent and can be a little slippery, shifting and unpredictable.

 Lettuce and crab-filled dumpling 

     One day, about a year after the mysterious Mrs. Cecilia Tam closed her Hong Kong Egg Cake company, Sun Hop Shing was gone also.  It's my impression that it was a family-owned and run business and the proprietors exhausted the number of interested, motivated children willing to continue the enterprise. The restaurant kept long hours seven days a week and I imagine fatigue and a desire for different prospects must have settled in among the US born and/or raised (not to mention New Yorkers) children and grandchildren of Chinese immigrant parents.   We have since found another nice place, Grand Harmony, a little further uptown on Mott Street on the other side of Canal (it's one of those enormous dim sum palaces), but we will always miss Sun Hop Shing.

     When we moved to Philadelphia, we were very lucky to quickly establish a dim sum allegiance with Ocean City on 9th Street.  Now it is gone also (although it looks like it may be coming back* ).  We tried a couple of alternate places in Philly's Chinatown that were not good at all, but yesterday, finally, we discovered by chance H.K. Golden Phoenix, which is excellent.  Climbing the stairs to the unprepossessing, but bustling second floor, I remembered immediately that this was the place we were taken for lunch by Jane's godparents, Jo and Al, following Jane's baptism at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Episcopal Church in 1999.  That was a very good memory and it appears as though absolutely nothing has changed about the place.

An assortment of dim sum bamboo steamer baskets with shrimp har gow

     As for me, I still feel the same way about dim sum as I always did and about most of the other important things in life also.   But there has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1999. 

Exterior of dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong 


Hot sauce to accompany dim sum 

* Ocean City has been back in action for several years now.  Whew!  That was close.


  1. This was so good that I made Judy read it over again with me. The description of Jane's reception at Sun Hop Shing was very moving. Can we have dim sum with you soon? I will take advantage of my age and have small brandy on the side.

  2. Thank you so much and please excuse my inattentiveness to comments (which I really appreciate). Sometimes I forget to look and I don't receive automatic prompts. When do you want to meet? We hope to spent a fair amount of time in New York during the holidays. I think I'll try whiskey this time. The ancients seem to prefer Johnny Walker Black, which sounds good to me.

  3. Your article takes me back to my first experience in Chinatown, Sydney, Australia, where dim sum is served only on weekends for brunch.
    Servers with heavily laden carts of wicker baskets filled with dim sum delights wove their way through the noisy dining room. Patrons were allowed to look inside the wicker baskets and choose their items from the cart pushers. The ritual of service was as entertaining as the food.

  4. Hi Helen. I'd love to visit Australia. The only dim sum we had in Asia was in Hong Kong and that was fabulous. Even fancy hotel dim sum dishes served on the roof terrace of the Peninsula overlooking the bay (without all the clatter, clatter) was magical. When we were in the People's Republic, we had some good food, but with a new baby everything was kind of a blur. Thinking about this makes me hungry but it was good to visit the blog again. After a while Blogger seems to push the pictures together and it was nice to space them out again. Curtis