Dim Sum... Little Chinese dumplings and
snacks, dim sum are made to be eaten with cups of tea and are part of
the great Chinese tea-drinking culture. Every region of China enjoys
snacks, but the innovative chefs of the South took their dim sum one
step further, creating hundreds of different types. So popular have they
become, that what was once a little delicacy to accompany tea in a tea
house can now be eaten as a whole meal.
Today's tea houses tend to be more like
spit-and-sawdust working men's clubs than calm temples in which to eat
and sip tea. They are places where a pot of black pu'er (good for
hangovers) and one or two basic dim sum accompany intense reading of the
racing form. Any restaurant wanting to offer a serious selection of dim
sum needs an army of specialist chefs, the economics of this creating
huge establishments nicknamed 'dim sum palaces'. Dim sum kitchens
usually play to a full house, and throughout the week these multi-level
dining rooms fill up amazingly quickly with office workers who consider
a hot lunch an essential part of the working day. At the weekends,
families send grandparents off early to reserve a table, queues forming
before midday to sample the week's best selection of dim sum.
Part of the appeal of dim sum is that it is
played out to certain rituals. A cheongsam-clad hostess ushers the diner
to a table as a waiter hastily clears away the previous diners' dishes.
A choice of tea is offered, usually pu'er, jasmine or chrysanthemum. The
waiter's other role is to refill teapots but only when the lid of the
teapot has been lifted to one side. Dim sum etiquette dictates that
diners mustn't pour their own tea before attending to everyone else.
When a diner tops up another's teacup, the polite way to say thank you
is to tap the table with two fingers. While more upmarket restaurants
may offer a pencil to tick off orders from an order sheet, in most
places the meat is very much self-service. Servers push trolleys stacked
high with bamboo baskets of freshly made translucent prawn har gau
and pork-stuffed siu mai, little dishes of spareribs and chicken
feet. When flagged down and a dish chosen, the server marks the table's
card with a stamp, or chop. At the end of the meal, the bill is
calculated by tallying up the number of chops.
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