Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chinese Food 2: Dim Sum..."to touch your heart"

 I have no recollection of anyone eating Dim Sum when I was growing up.  Do you?

It seems to me that this lunchtime ritual began in Toronto sometime in the 70's or 80's, but since I'm not a food historian, I'll have to leave that sort of research to the pot sticklers among you.  The important thing is that it did begin and only improved in the early 90's when the Hong Kong emigrés, to whom I referred in my previous entry, shipped their children and their chefs to our town for safekeeping.
For a while, Toronto was Dim Sum heaven!

Eventually, a lot of those chefs returned to Hong Kong, but the popularity of Dim Sum grew.  How to keep up with the demand?  I personally believe there are hundreds of indentured drones quietly and competently pleating rice dough around assorted fillings in sweatshops all around the city to supply the numerous  restaurants now offering this 'patchkaray'.

In fact, a friend discovered such a place just around the corner from my very own house.  In a nameless storefront, in a nondescript strip mall, a covey of ancient women of Asian persuasion, huddle around a long table churning out dumplings by hand, all day.  There is nothing else in the room except a couple of huge white freezer chests filled with bags of frozen nuggets which you can purchase, in volume, for a pittance.  You never know what you're going to get, since there are no signs or labels on anything and no one speaks any English.  This leads me to believe that the stock is mainly 'to the trade'.  No one is ever seen going in or out....but I bet a big truck backs up late at night and loads up and makes its deliveries by morning.

But I digress, as usual.

In the 70's, a friend of ours had a father who invested in a Chinese establishment and we were all introduced to this lovely way to spend an mid-day hour or two steeped in Jasmine tea and constant anxiety, wondering when the next little cart would wobble by our table already, and whether or not it would be laden with delectable dumplings or dreaded, rubbery duck feet.  Since those days, we've tried it all and have determined our favourites, both dishes and restaurants, that specialize in Dim Sum.

Our regular go-to place is in suburban Scarborough.  Are you surprised?  As is typical in this part of Toronto, politically incorrectly referred to as 'Asiancourt', due to the preponderance of Chinese residents, the restaurant is one of the anchor businesses in a large Asian-themed shopping mall.

On weekdays, we are pretty much able to get a table immediately, but have come to realize that some specialties are only available after noon or on crowded weekends.  If we arrive too early, we die of hunger waiting for the carts to come rolling out of the kitchen, so we've wised up and place orders for specific dishes with one of the employees in the black jackets.  Not the pink jackets....those are worn by the lovely hostesses who efficiently wrangle the crowds and keep everything moving.  These two young women have been working there forever and never, ever, seem to get a day off.  The older women who push the carts around the huge banquet hall have gotten to know us and make sure we get our favorites.  The also make grimaces and shake their heads knowingly when they have something they know we won't like, like gelatinous extremities, and glide right past us.  Knowing they are looking out for us helps reduce the stress and worry that we might miss something should we relax our vigilant surveillance over the exit doors from the kitchen.

On weekends, we hustle out of the house by 11 am. at the latest, to avoid the long lineups that are inevitable by noon.  The extended Chinese families who fill the dining room require huge tables to accommodate the many generations that share the meal together.  Babies are toted to the tables in carriers and grandparents are shuttled in on assorted walkers or leaning on canes.  Men sit at tables casually reading newspapers while women chat with each other and children play on their Gameboys till the food rolls by.  As in most cultures, teenagers are conspicuously absent.

The adventurous among us might try something exotic-looking while the 'play-it-safer's stick to our Har Gow and Shu Mai, served in bamboo steamer baskets.  Items come in multiples of three or four so it's important that you dine with co-operative companions who are willing to share the leftover portions with the proper deference to age and appetite!

My personal favorites are the delicate seafood and watercress dumplings freshly made at the steam table by a team of skilled 'poachers'.  These are 'special order', as are many other goodies, but no one will tell you about have to figure it out for yourself and fill out the little paper lying on your table and flag down the correct staffer among the countless busboys, waiters, supervisors, managers and troubleshooters.

My husband, although stuffed to his gills, cannot be persuaded to call for the bill until his beloved Char Siu Bao makes an appearance.   It never comes.  We wait and wait....he mopes.  He finally makes a special order.  Just when it arrives, the cart bearing stacks of steaming baskets rolls by.
"Char Siu" sings the cart lady.  He is in Dim Sum heaven.

Our friend, Larry, the host at that infamous New Year's banquet, introduced us to these delicate and delicious noodles which are only served on the weekends at "our" place.  He calls them 'Ah Chit Chow Mein', or something to that effect.  No one ever understands what he means but he persists,  attempting to describe these simple, thin lightly fried egg noodles tossed in soy sauce, garnished with bean sprouts and shaved scallions and a dusting of sesame seeds.  I think I detect a sliver of fried egg, too.  Often, he has to explain this to several people before someone realizes what he's requesting.  "Oh!  Ah Chit Chow Mein!"  and the language barrier disappears with mutual relief.  It's well worth the effort.

Interesting thing about Dim Sum:
Although you may be tempted to over-order so you can take some home for later, they don't warm up well at all.  Fried goodies get rubbery and the dumplings just don't recapture their freshness when reheated.  Even so.....

Sign in bathroom stall in Ladies' Room of the adjacent mall.

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