Celebrate Year of the Sheep with dim sum
Tiny white plates and bamboo steam baskets of food on double decker stainless steel trollies burst out of the kitchen’s double doors. Cantonese-speaking wait staff in gold brocade vests push their trollies around the banquet hall filled with 600 people. This is dim sum.
Various cultures have the tradition of small plates for a meal. Spain has tapas; the Middle East has meze, and the Chinese have dim sum.
Coincidentally, with the Chinese New Year, which officially began on Feb. 19, I had dim sum at the Hong Kong Islander in Sacramento with 12 friends from church, including the intrepid food adventurer Bob Fung and his wife Debbie, who introduced our family to dim sum in San Francisco’s Chinatown years ago, and then again in Sacramento through the New Canton Restaurant on Broadway, where one goes upstairs for dim sum. The Hong Kong Islander takes the experience to a new level.
Bob’s grandfather co-owned and managed a restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown called Sam Wo. When he was young, his family would stay at his grandparent’s house some weekends and walk down to eat dim sum in large, busy restaurants with carts being wheeled through the aisles. He says the Hong Kong Islander recreates those days for him.
Bob guided us through the meal, selecting stuffed tofu skins, passing on the chicken feet and pork innards (that’s liver, hearts, gizzards). These were advertised, he said, in Chinese characters around the room next to the televisions playing a Chinese station. He continued as the trollies rolled by with an order of shrimp noodle rolls and then some lotus sticky rice.
I asked him to explain how he chooses each dish. Bob, a minister’s son, said, “Dim sum is like hymn selection for church, you want some traditional, some traditional done in a new way, and some new.” The crispy shrimp, he explained, was new, but in a traditional format.
Other dishes we tried included pan-fried turnip cake, deep-fried sesame scallops, shrimp pasted lotus roots and fried taro root. Bob invited each of us to flag the trolley down on our own and select a dish. I chose dessert.
My favorite is the egg custard pies with a short crust, traditional in Hong Kong having been adapted there in the 1940s from a dessert introduced by its neighbor, Macau. We also had baked custard lava buns with a lemon filling and deep-fried sesame balls. Of the 86 items on the Dim Sum menu, 15 are dessert.
The joy of going with a large group is that you can try more of the dishes. Bob asked the waiters, in Cantonese, to cut dishes with four pieces in half. We arrived at 11:30 and the place was already full. We had a reservation.
Elaine Corn, a friend and food journalist as well as cookbook author in Sacramento, also knows her Chinese food very well. I asked her about dim sum and in typical Elaine Corn style, she nailed the experience.
“You stay in your seat,” she said, “the food comes to you, you point to what you want, and the food is set on the table. As a strategy for eating, there is nothing like it in the world.”
Corn said she loves the idea of dim sum because it forces variety. If you don’t know what something is, it’s inexpensive enough to try, even if you discover you don’t like it. She says the ambiance at Hong Kong Islander is close to the grandeur typical of Hong Kong’s most popular dim sum destinations.
As to the size of the restaurant, it’s huge; she’s discovered there’s really no such thing as a viable mom-and-pop dim sum restaurant.
“A store, maybe,” she said, “but for great dim sum that’s fresh and varied, the restaurant has got to be big. Dim sum needs lots of cooks, lots of hands folding and pleating dumplings, lots of servers and carts, lots of customers to eat the restaurant out of stock so each day starts fresh.”
As we left, we walked through the entrance hall filled with bright orange kumquat trees in small pots with red paper tags in celebration of the new lunar year. Kumquats, which are from Asia, are the size of a large olive, resemble an orange, are almost all peel, have many seeds and are tart.
This is kumquat season and both Georgeanne Brennan and I have kumquat trees. The Cantonese often candy them, as do we. The fruit is said to lift spirits. Mine were certainly lifted by dim sum with friends.
If you missed Chinese New Year, it’s not too late to celebrate. The Southwest Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown is Saturday evening, March 7, along Grant Street. This is one of the 10 best parades in the nation, and has the very long, colorful dragon as well as firecrackers and crowds. If you can’t get to the parade, consider dim sum in south Sacramento, or candy kumquats and serve them for your own celebration at home. Happy year of the green, wood sheep.
Candied Kumquats in Syrup
This recipe is from Georgeanne Brennan’s book, “Gather – Memorable Menus for Entertaining Throughout the Seasons,” (Sasquatch Books, 2009) in which she suggests it to accompany almond pound cake as the dessert for a celebration of Chinese New Year. I like it as a topping for a citrus fruit salad with grapefruit, orange, banana and pineapple mixed with freshly squeezed lime juice. The candied kumquats in their syrup balance the tart of this refreshing fruit dessert.
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
¾ pound fresh kumquats, cut into slices, seeds removed
In a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the water and sugar to a boil. Continue to boil, stirring, until a light syrup forms, about five minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and add all but 2 tablespoons of the kumquats. Simmer until the skins are translucent, about 5 more minutes.
Let the fruit cook in the syrup. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use, then bring it back to room temperature before serving.
Ann M. Evans writes and draws in Davis, and watches over her beehives, chickens and garden. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes and oversees her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic – an on-line store with kitchen and garden products in the French style. www.lavierustic.com
Together they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) Or reach them at email@example.com.