Ode to Dim Sum

One of my many little obsessions is dim sum. When I'm trying to explain it, I say that it's like the Chinese version of Spanish tapas or Greek meze, though of course each is totally different with its own cultural significance and traditions. Basically, it's a lunch-hour meal composed of many small dishes, usually served in metal or bamboo steamers, that can take hours to eat and is totally delicious and satisfying. I'm writing about it today because I'm pleased to say that I've found a restaurant that serves dim sum within an hour's drive of my house. That's half as far as I thought I had to go, so I'm VERY excited. (Generally dim sum is only served in very big cities, which can easily handle the demand. They tend to have good tapas and meze, too...)

Cooking dim sum is one of my favourite hobbies, although it takes me a year or two to work myself up for another bout. It takes at least 8 hours for me to cook a dim sum meal, so I really need to be prepared and carve out a day for doing it. Usually December 26 is an excellent date for such a project. The book I have is by Ellen Leong Blonder, called Dim Sum: The Art of the Chinese Tea Lunch (Clarkson Potter 2002). I like it because the author describes different types of tea and how to brew it, supplies needed and where to find them, and gives a variety of sauce and dough recipes besides the main info about dim sum. She also includes cute instructional drawings of how to set up steamers and how to pleat dough, etc.

Here's a list of the recipes I've attempted so far, with a few notes:
  • pork & shrimp siu mai--one of the easier ones, and really tasty
  • boiled beef dumplings
  • potstickers--really really yummy, also fairly easy
  • steamed char siu bao--these are the fluffy white buns with roasted pork inside. They are insanely complicated (for me) and time consuming, but surprisingly authentic once attempted
  • rice in lotus leaf packets--I love this, but other family members find the lotus leaf taste/scent overwhelming
  • greens with oyster sauce & oil--not everything is a dumpling!
  • stuffed bell peppers
  • steamed sweet bao--with adzuki bean filling
  • sweet red bean-filled pancakes--another use for adzuki bean filling
I'm really only scratching the surface of the recipes in this book. I haven't made anything with rice flour, and I haven't deep-fried anything. Also, I'm sure there are other great books out there to discover! Please add a comment if you have a favourite book.

So how does a small-town Northeasterner like me get such a taste for dim sum? I have my parents to thank. We used to go to Toronto a lot when I was a kid, and they often took me to a great place on Dundas St, near Eaton's Center, called the Pink Pearl. It had the carts and everything (and a small flight of stairs between the kitchen level and the street-level dining room, so 2 people would have to man-handle the cart up and down the stairs every trip). We'd mass up piles of dishes on our table, then go pay the cashier at the front who mysteriously knew just how much to charge. It took several visits before I figured out how our bill was totaled--they counted the number and sizes of the plates and steamers left on our table. (The Pink Pearl still exists--it has since moved uptown to Avenue Road.) Then came my college years, spent in the same multicultural city of Toronto. I found that dim sum restaurants come in 2 stripes--there are the big ones with the carts that really count on dim sum as a big part of their day-time business. These probably have the best selection and the freshest and most well-made dishes. (Most don't count plates. Instead you get a stamp for each type of dim sum you choose, and the stamps are added up at the end.) There are also the small Chinese restaurants who just don't have enough seating to maintain a constant parade of carts. Instead, they give each table a list of available dim sum and you check off what you want. Then, they bring dishes out to you as they're ready. Of the big kind of restaurant, I liked the New Pacific on Dundas. I think it's closed now. And there's the Bright Pearl on Spadina that I only discovered a couple years ago. It is fabulous. Of the small kind, I liked a little place on Baldwin St. and another little one in Kensington Market. When I lived in Boston we also frequented the gigantic Chau Chow City--it has the same "industrial dim sum" atmosphere that I love. Busy restaurant, plastic tablecloths, big line out front, multiple floors, and carts and carts of amazing selections passing by. Bean curd wraps, fried taro rolls, stuffed eggplant, rice flour rolls and any kind of spring rolls are among my other faves. My absolute favorite dim sum in the whole world is shrimp ha gow. I am not sure I could ever have enough of these.

OK, moving on to the breaking news, I found a restaurant in Florence, Massachusetts, that serves dim sum every Saturday afternoon from 11-3. It's called the Great Wall and I think it's best described as "sweet." They have 1 dim sum cart. Here's a photo after about 6 tables had their way with it--lotus leaf packet in bottom right corner, spare ribs in bottom left.


Also on the cart were 2 kinds of siu mai (pork, chicken & shrimp), 2 kinds of bao (chicken & char siu) and shrimp ha gow (hooray!). There was also a table in the middle of the room that had other offerings, but the waiters (there were 2 and both seemed under 15) said we had to ask them to get items from there, but we didn't know what to ask for so didn't get anything. On the way out I took a peek and saw there were potstickers, sesame balls, tofu in sauce, scallion pancakes (I think), lo mein, and salt & pepper whole shrimp. I have no problem with missing that stuff because it just means we'll have to go back for more. We cleaned up our choices from the cart pretty fast. The chili sauce, in the middle right of this pic, was really really good.


I will definitely be going back to the Great Wall because they have something I madly crave. Will probably be dragging other family and friends there too on dim sum pilgrimages. This discovery has pretty much made my month. I wouldn't say their dim sum is the best I've ever had. But it's got something on all the other dim sum in the world: proximity. A parting shot from a satisfied customer:



valleywriter said...

So glad you found this place and it worked out so well. Sounds like it's something we need to check out! Scallion pancakes, pot stickers, chili sauce - yum!!

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Dumplings are such a labor intensive process that you can make a bunch and freeze them for later. Dim sum is never complete for me unless I have chicken feet. :)

"Prof. Kitty" said...

Yes, check it out--you're pretty close! You have to ask for the chili sauce, btw.

I agree that freezing dumplings really helps spread out the fruits of your labor. I've frozen potstickers with pretty good results. Haven't tried chicken feet, but they're def a sign of a primo dim sum restaurant!