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How to Eat Like an Asian

Dim Sum

By Mark Y. Liao

Every once in a while a craze comes along that takes us by storm: Furbies, The Gin Blossoms, dead baby jokes. Each is by now long gone. Along with the Joey Lawrence “Woah” and the waist-tied flannel, the early ’90s is also marked by Boston’s fling with the tapas bar.

For those of you who don’t know, a meal at a tapas bar is an entire Spanish meal made up of many small dishes. Think of an entire meal made up of appetizers. Now, just change the country. Meet the Chinese cousin of tapas: dim sum.

Dim sum refers to a type of Chinese meal that serves mostly bite-sized portions pushed around in tin carts by aggressive Chinese ladies who shove food on your table as if you were their long lost sister’s neighbor’s second nephew.

My mom says that back in the day, the emperor wanted everything, and the imperial cooks would search far and wide for the most exotic dishes. But like most men of power, the emperor got greedy, so he wanted a conflagration of many flavors in his mouth with every meal. So each dish had to be small, so he couldn’t get full on a single flavor.

Today’s dim sum is the regular joe’s version of an imperial dining experience. Below, I have listed your most basic of dishes. If the dim sum restaurant doesn’t do the following dishes right, spit on the waiter, make fun of his mother, and march out of the room singing “I’m Too Sexy.” You’ll never be able to return, but who would want to?

The rough English names are listed, followed parenthetically by an inaccurate but nevertheless affective pseudo-ping ying pronunciation in first Cantonese (because dim sum is from mainland China), then Mandarin (because that’s what I speak).

Har Gao (Ha Gao/Ha Gao) -- my favorite of all dim sum dishes. Unless you dislike shrimp (which makes you dumb) this is for you. Encased in a dumpling-like skin should be two shrimp with tiny pieces of bamboo. This dish is steamed, so the shrimp should be fairly plump (have you ever wondered how to explain the Taiwanese word “kew kew” to a white person?) and can be eaten with soy sauce or, my personal favorite, black vinegar.

Shu Mai (Shiu-Mai/Sau-Mai) -- another standard dumpling-like dish. It is a pork dumpling with an egg/wonton skin. If the restaurant knows what they’re doing, they’ll also garnish each with a slice of sweet pork sausage or maybe hide a piece of shrimp inside. Again, the use of a little soy sauce or black vinegar would not result in stare-downs from the natives.

Pork Spare Ribs (Pai Gwat/Pai Gu) -- tiny little pieces of pork ribs with black bean sauce. This dish is very tame, and also difficult to do wrong (ergo, vis-À-vis, concordantly). If they screw this one up, revisit above for instructions.

Shrimp in Rice Noodles (Cheng Fun/Tsang Fun) -- if you’ve ever had beef chow-fun, it’s that same rice noodle wrapped around pieces of shrimp. The dish also comes with sauce and comes in other varieties, including beef and pork. Hence, the cho fun shouldn’t be super squishy or slimy. Again shrimp should be plump, people. Plump.

Lotus Wrapped Sticky Rice (Gnow Mai Gai/Gnow Mi Gee) -- the name is pretty self-explanatory. Take some sticky rice, wrap it in a lotus leaf, steam, and serve. Inside the sticky rice could be some dried mushrooms, a piece of Chinese sweet sausage, a tiny quail egg, or some pieces of pork.

Sesame Balls (Jin Doie/Tsi Ma Cho) -- dessert. Personally I’m not a big fan, but I can picture myself having pieces of bamboo shoved under my fingernails if I left this out. These sweet sesame shells are filled with either red or green bean paste. The shell should be crunchy on the outside, slightly chewy in the middle, and have the consistency of refried beans on the inside. Americans simply need to learn about the glory that is bean paste.

Egg tarts (Dan Ta/Dan Ta) -- dessert number two. As a little kid I used to take a spoon and only eat out the custard filling. However now I am a firm believer that the flaky crust is just as important. You may want to consider not ordering from the dim sum place and going to a bakery across the street for this one. But if you’re desperate, by all means surrender to the pushy cart-lady. General guideline: they should be the size of a coaster, not a large mushroom. Also, the filling should taste almost like flan.

Steamed BBQ Pork Buns (Cha Siu Bao/Tsa Sau Bau) -- So you know the red colored BBQ pork that’s always served at a Cantonese style restaurant? The white puffy skin should be soft and fluffy, not soggy. If they’re soggy, they’ve been left in the cart too long. Also, be careful to take off the tiny piece of wax paper on the bottom. Some people do forget and end up hating dim sum for some “mysterious reason.”

Remember, these were very basic and tame dishes. Next week, we dive into the realm of more hardcore dim sum. Until then, as Phoebe’s psychiatrist boyfriend “Rodge” once said, “easy on those cookies, OK? Remember they’re just food, they’re not love.”