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Throughout the pandemic, my family, like so many others, have missed out on so many in-person experiences, but there is one that we missed the most: going to dim sum.
Dim sum translates to ‘touch the heart’ in Cantonese – and that’s exactly what it does.
It was actually one of the last things I did with my whole family before COVID-19 hit. We decided to surprise my parents for their 50th birthday at one of our favorite places, Seafood from the center, in Hartsdale, New York. We had five tables of our loved ones, filled with food, laughter and excitement for such a stage. We didn’t know at the time that this would be one of the last times we would all be together – or fully enjoy the dim sum experience – for a while.
This Cantonese tradition can be dating back to the 19th century, at the teahouses in the port city of Guangzhou, where the Silk Road merchants stopped for a meal. Starting in southern China and eventually reaching Hong Kong, dim sum was originally based on the idea of ââserving an assortment of local foods and has evolved to include more foods from other parts of the country. .
When my family gets dim sum, we place a huge order with everything from meat and veg to dumplings and beyond. My dad’s order includes the ribs and steamed clams in black bean sauce, and my mom will always get the Peking pork chops. My sister loves plaice, Chinese broccoli sautÃ©ed with garlic, jian dui (sesame ball) and lo mai gay (sticky rice wrapped in lotus). My husband is a big fan of mellow char siu bao (bun filled with barbecue pork) and Zhaliang (fried rice roll), but we especially like the hot shrimp dishes. Her favorite is shrimp cheung fun (rice noodle rolls) sprinkled with soy sauce, and mine are prawns Shumai (three plates of them, to be exact). And if it’s a special occasion, I will also order a whole Peking Duck for us all to share and inevitably fight for the last burst of crispy skin. We pass the food, wash it down with sips of hot oolong tea or jasmine tea, and end the meal on a sweet note with egg pies.
Sounds like a lot, but that’s really the beauty of the dim sum experience – the smells, sights, sounds, and anticipation for possible piles of empty dishes on the table. It’s a ritual that has returned slowly but surely, but people still yearn for the full experience.
âI think dim sum is an experience everyone should try at least once. I can’t remember many ordering food experiences where so many different dishes are brought to your table to be seen firsthand before you order them. Chris Ma, who grew up with and now manages his family’s restaurants, TS Ma, in Wyckoff and Montclair, New Jersey, told me. âThings like these can increase the popularity of traditional Chinese dim sum dishes, especially with social media now. Someone posting on a cute dumpling that looks like a pig might be the reason more people are trying. a certain dim sum restaurant. “
Many, like Chris’ wife Pam, miss the variety of choices on offer. With COVID-19 safety rules in place at restaurants, the process of ordering dim sum went from stacks of covered plates on wheeled carts to lists on paper.
âEven the switch from ladies to strollers to ordering from a paper menu – I loved the anticipation of seeing what’s inside that cart to come,â she said. declared. âSome chefs would get creative and innovate over the standard fare. If you see it offered in the basket, you might want to try it. If it’s hidden on a paper menu list, you risk it. ignore and miss it.
It’s also the social aspect that people seem to miss the most: just being in the room where everything is happening. Grace Young, cookbook author, curator of Cantonese cuisine and co-creator of the #SaveChineseRestaurants campaign, says she misses the group experience.
âI miss sitting at a big round table with family and friends in a crowded and noisy dim sum dining room,â she said. âIt was always a wonderful culinary experience together, and it made me happy to see all the families around me with the grandparents, parents and children enjoying a meal togetherâ¦ It’s so fun to watch the wonderful dim sum parade come out of the kitchen!
Portland, Oregon-based college librarian Ann Chiu isn’t going with her family Cafe HK. It was a tradition to do dim sum especially with the family of her husband, Alex. âIt’s a chance to see aunts and uncles outside of the holidays. I love to eat in a circle and get food in the center of the table. I miss having chicken feet with others in a crowded space!
Grace Lin, best-selling author and illustrator of the book, “Dim Sum for everyone“Stressed the importance of exposing children to dim sum from an early age.” Dim sum is especially magical for young children, “she said. “It gives them the ability to choose their own food. It may seem like an ordinary little thing, but put in the context of a small child. It’s a time of wonder and empowerment.”
In order to get their dim sum fix during the pandemic, many people got creative. Lin remembers reheating Trader Joe’s frozen dim sum products last year, while others tried to make some of their favorite dim sum dishes at home. But, of course, it was not the same.
Everyone has their own favorite spot and a place they know to take those new to the dim sum experience. For Lin, who lives outside of Boston, her favorite place is Hei La Moon, but she also brings friends Chinese pearl. For Chris Ma, it’s Asian jewelry in Flushing, Queens and Golden unicorn for friends less familiar with dim sum. Many people in the New York area have named the two Nom Wah Tea Room and Jing Fong in Chinatown as must-see restaurants. Jing Fong, a third-generation family-run restaurant, recently announced its reopening in May 2021 after an announcement it would definitely close earlier this year due to financial pressure from the pandemic.
But there was certainly more than COVID-19 threatening Chinese businesses this year. Speaking with Smithsonian Magazine Earlier this year, Young pointed out how Chinese restaurants across the country are affected not only by the pandemic, but also by racism. âOne in six restaurants closed or put on hiatus in December 2020 … False fears that the Chinese are responsible for the virus have created an atmosphere that has led people to flee Chinese restaurants,â she said. âIt started in January 2020 – before this country reported a single death – and these businesses continue to suffer.
Pam Ma has expressed her own concerns about the extinction of dim sum restaurants. âBefore COVID, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer places for dim sum. Now, with COVID, it has become virtually extinct, “she said.” If you think about how old people in the past used to go to lunch with a newspaper, tea and a few small dishes … With both my parents from Hong Kong, dim sum is a big part of Cantonese culture. . It’s just sad to see these things fade away.
Lin said that if he survives, she believes dim sum will continue to help Asian Americans like her connect with their culture and pass on stories. âFor me, I grew up ignoring my cultural heritage. When I grew up and started looking for my roots in the soul, I found them in the foods we had eaten, “she said.” Maybe, more than anything else , food connects our past to our present and keeps our traditions alive. If the dim sum experience were not to continue, a very vital Asian thread in Asian American culture would be lost. “
To be able to support the survival of dim sum, as things gradually progress, there is a common view at all levels that until one feels confident to return to a restaurant after the vaccination , they should come out.
âThe safety of my customers and staff is always on my mind, but the best way to help dim sum restaurants or any restaurant in general is to order take out or deliver,â said Chris Ma. However … many dim sum restaurants are; trying take out as the only option to stay afloat, but they probably never understood the difficulty of implementing take out into their business. , the main thing is to be more understanding as a customer. “
Young suggests stocking up on your favorite dim sum in your freezer, as many of them still offer meal kits and food packaging.
âA few restaurants offer frozen meatballs. It’s great to stock up so you can have multiple meals, “she said.” Also, offer to pick up dim sum for your friends or neighbors to give more business to restaurants. Please pay generously in cash and tip. If you pay by credit card, the restaurant has to pay a fee, which means they make less money. “
âLook for local organizations to help your neighboring Chinatown survive,â she said. “The mixture of anti-Asian hatred and pandemic has decimated Chinatown and it would be tragic for those regions with such a rich American-Asian history to disappear.”