travelog 54

Dim Sum

For a long time we wanted to tell you about one of our favorite cuisines: Chinese. Boring, you might think because by now you can eat Chinese at every street corner and there are even Chinese fast food chains. But we're talking about another variation of the Chinese cuisine: Dim Sum.

In Cantonese Dim Sum means "a little bit of heart". And that's exactly what you'll get on a little plate.

The best places for Dim Sum are naturally cities with big Chinese colonies. Vancouver with its Chinese immigrants or Victoria on Vancouver Island are ideal places on the west coast of Canada. Portland, Oregon, has a small colony but the Dim Sum is not very famous. The very best place is certainly Chinatown in San Francisco where you imagine to be in China by walking through the streets, of course apart from the many camera-armed tourists. You can purchase San Francisco souvenirs, back scratcher, yin & yang massage balls, Chinese kitchenware, postcard for a special price, wonderful kitsch, but also live chicken, frogs, and turtles, vegetables flown in directly from China, herbs and teas, and of course every sort of dried animals on the populated streets. Chinese, apart from "Touristian", is the language here. You have a large selection of restaurants serving Dim Sum for lunch. But we want to tell you our Dim Sum adventures in Phoenix (Arizona).

We gain a small insight into the Chinese scene because of our friend Neil. First he published a Chinese newspaper (without being able to read the Chinese alphabet, please note!). Not long ago he started to work as a manager in a Chinese restaurant in the outskirts of Phoenix. He doesn't speak any Chinese but he's well-known in the scene and always welcome. Not a matter of course to have the possibility as a white person to be accepted or even included into such a closed community as the Chinese (or the Japanese too). Together with Neil we visit the first Dim Sum place in Phoenix. The restaurants here are normally poorly visited, that's why you'll best reserve a weekend for a real Dim Sum restaurant visit. The restaurants are huge and only on the weekend are all tables occupied. Chinese is the language to speak here. There's normally no menu. The employees usually don't know more than "chicken" in English. That's also the favourite answer when you ask for the ingredient of a dish. A waiter who's only responsible for the beverages and special orders, serves you hot tea or beer, the standard beverage with Dim Sum. He also brings a little card where the dishes you chose are stamped into special fields.

Now comes the fun part. Waiters pass by your table with delicious looking bites on small handcarts. There's only tiny little bite-size finger foods on the plates and so it's not the end of the world if you've chosen something you don't like. Since the employees simply don't speak English you're chosing trusting to luck. And so you can have great surprises. At least entrails look pretty much the same all over the world and you can recognize chicken feet from a distance. But these "treats" are often not offered to tourists like us. Part of the selection is for example roasted pork with a wonderful sweet crackling, but you'd better forget all the warnings about cholesterol. Or deep-fried dough-dumplings with different stuffings; steamed meat balls or prawns and scallops wrapped in a very thin dough; or sesame balls with sweet dough and a salted meat stuffing. Of course there's also green vegetables, roasted duck, spring rolls, or sticky rice with pieces of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in lotus leaves. But you should at all costs spare some room for the sweets! Small cakes with custard or coconut filling or warm pastry with a sweet filling let your mouth water. The wily Dim Sum eater picks these delicacies as soon as they are passed by the table. You can never be quite sure that there's still some of the sweet treats left when you want to move on to the dessert.

It's always helpful to adopt some of the Dim Sum vocabulary if you're around this scene. You can quickly do magic with a grumpy Chinese pushing her cart between the tables. She'll smile in seconds if you for instance ask her for "Shu Mai".

After you've eaten your way through all the delicacies, a visit behind the scenes is appropriate for enthusiastic cooks like us. You can buy frozen Dim Sum in big Asian supermarkets, but this is of course worlds apart from the real stuff. Serious Dim Sum cooks are hard to find and have to be paid a good salary, we learn from our friend. Since he has connections to the scene, he manages to give us access into a Dim Sum kitchen. The owner is out and so the cooks have nothing against us peaking over their shoulders. We can even take pictures. It makes not much sense to ask for recipes though. The information about ingredients and quantity is very vague, the English vocabulary limited, improvisation seems to be the motto. Or you have the craft in your blood! Our cooks are part of a family. The father forms hundreds of little sweets conscientiously and full of love for his work. The mother stands in the front line at the stove and prepares the incoming orders. For example white, quite bland noodles with different stuffings. For this she pours a white mixture of flour and water onto a cloth that lies above a steaming bain-marie. Then she sprinkles dried shrimp, prawns, or seasoned pork meat over it. When everything is thouroughly steamed through she takes the cloth and puts the noodles on an oiled surface. The noodles are rolled up, cut in pieces and served with soy sauce. The son takes care of all the rest and for instance supervises the little aluminum or bamboo baskets in which meat dumplings and dough balls are steamed. Employess come in and ask for more supplies. Of course everything goes off in Chinese and we don't understand one word.

There's a Mexican from Oaxaca standing in one corner of the kitchen cutting meat or washing dirty pots and pans. He has nothing at all to do with the Chinese cuisine, he confesses. His wife still cooks real Mexican food at home, he tells us laughing. A look into the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, but also Japanese or other speciality restaurants in this part of the world, brings often only Mexican cooks and workers to light. Mexicans are willing, they're labor is cheap, and they even work without insurance and papers. These people have of course no idea whatsoever of the Chinese cuisine. And so it's not surprising that the result is often nothing to write home about.

Our cooks, however, come directly from China and are proud of their profession. If we ever plan to open a Dim Sum restaurant in Switzerland, they'd love to follow us as pioneers of their guard to prepare their delicacies in our future restaurant too! It's obviously a gap in the market in Central Europe that we rather leave to other adventurers.

If you're interested in Martin's favorite recipe you can click on the following link and you will directly come to the recipe page:

Chinese Egg Tarts

PS: We especially want to thank our friend Neil in Phoenix who welcomed us with open arms, who instantly gave us the keys to his house, and who treated us with Chinese specialties from his restaurant when we spent long hours in front of the computer. He offered us unasked what makes the heart of fulltime campers beat faster: a hot shower, a washing machine, and a fast Internet connection! It's nice to have the possibility to find new friends all over the world.

November 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen