It was Sunday afternoon and my husband and I were hungry for some dim sum, so we headed to Capitol Seafood in Irvine and joined the throng of people outside waiting for a table.
We were finally seated and sat back to enjoy the cacophony and sip our tea while waiting for the food-laden heated carts to pass by. After a delicious meal, we were inspired to write about dim sum's origins and rituals as well as offer some explanation of its various dishes.
Dim sum originated in the teahouses of Guangzhou, in Southern China along the Silk Road. At first, only tea was served, but eventually snacks were added, and the combination became a tradition called dim sum/yum cha. (Dim sum means "a little bit of heart.")
Later, neighborhood restaurants started serving breakfast as early as 4 a.m. The customers were mainly merchants from nearby vegetable and auction markets who began their workdays before dawn.
Breakfast was a quick affair consisting of two steamed dumplings and a pot of tea. Eventually, in Hong Kong, chefs transformed the hearty dumplings into small snacks and created many varieties, including chicken feet, rice cakes, sweet pastries and steamed bao. Traditionally, they are paired with a tea tasting.
Barbara Tropp, the acclaimed chef of the China Moon Cafe in San Francisco, has said about dim sum: "In terms of kitchen labor, it is the culinary equivalent of making an 11-course meal of dainty petit fours, each a studied contrast in color, texture and flavor."
The numerous choices on the moving carts can be bewildering. Don't be shy about stopping your server and interrogating her about the makeup of each dish. (Traditionally, the person will be female.) Here are some of the most frequently found offerings:
Har gow: Shrimp dumplings in a pleated, translucent rice flower wrap, bite-sized and filled with mashed, chopped or whole shrimp. The color is pale pink.
Shao mai: Steamed pork dumplings in an egg noodle wrap shaped like a small teacup. They are yellow and have a hole at the top through which you can see the filling.
Cha siu sou: A thick dumpling wrapped in glutinous rice paper or pastry and filled with peanuts, garlic, chives, pork and dried shrimp.
Pot stickers: Dumpling dough usually stuffed with meat and cabbage and then steamed and fried.
Char siu baau: Fluffy white steamed buns filled with Cantonese barbecued pork. They can also have other fillings like duck or red beans and be baked in dough brushed with sugar for a brown crust.
Chicken feet: These can be deep-fried or boiled. Red-cooked chicken feet are steamed in soy and chili sauce until very tender. Don't expect much meat, but they are prized for their gelatinous texture.
Chong fun: These are steamed rice noodle rolls that look like white enchiladas. The wrapping is a broad, flat noodle and it's filled with beef, shrimp or barbecued pork. A light soy sauce is poured on top before serving. They can also be grilled.
Turnip cake: Shredded daikon radish is mixed with rice flour and flavored with shrimp, ham or vegetables, then pressed and deep-fried.
Other more familiar offerings include barbecued spare ribs in black bean sauce, fried octopus and egg rolls. For the more adventurous, beef tripe, intestines and pig's blood are popular.
For dessert, not the most interesting of categories on a Chinese menu, the custard tart with mango or almond pudding is quite good.
An interesting tidbit: The reason that teacups in Chinese restaurants have no handles is that if the cup is too hot to pick up, then the tea is too hot to drink. Also, a word about etiquette: It is considered perfectly OK to get up and go over to a cart and request something if it has passed you by or you have changed your mind.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.