Natalie Tan

Simmer Down, Issue #6 05.25.2020

🖤 touch my heart 🖤

(but do it from at least 2 metres away)

It’s Sunday morning, 9AM, 2005. I’m 15 years old, sleeping on the twin-size bed situated amongst the clutter of my Vancouver bedroom; mounds of black garments litter the floor. Atop my headboard rests a pair of black-framed glasses, a 90s-era purple and yellow chunky digital clock and a VTech cordless phone–red and semi-translucent, bedazzled with the word “hello” in silver rhinestones. The door flies open. It’s my Dad telling me to get up and get ready, and once he does he walks away and of course he leaves the door open. I probably say something like, “UUUUGH,” before hauling myself out of bed to brush my teeth. I return to my room, lights on, and hit play on my CD player which starts spinning My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. I’m emo. I put on a black hoodie and a pair of baggy bondage pants that jingle with the sway of my legs and I pack up my iPod Classic to take to the car. Where the hell are we going at 9:20AM on a Sunday morning?

Dim sum.

The timeline of my life includes a long history of weekend family dim sum, which always takes place exclusively before 11AM. Enroute, the atmosphere in the car is usually bleary-eyed and quiet, until the last few minutes before an instinct developed over decades kicks in that swiftly decides who jumps out of the car at the doorway of the restaurant, who shuffles through the masses of people to claim the reservation, and who sits down in a free seat and who stands. The waiting area of a restaurant during dim sum hours is chaotic and competitive, its borders often defined by a steadfast host, armed with a walkie-talkie (and at times a microphone) who triages guests and calls out numbers. Once we are granted the table, before any of our asses even graze the seats, the server asks what kind of tea we want (tieguanyin, always tieguanyin) and slaps down a menu and a pencil for the table. There are several standard menu items we must check off, while leaving room for spontaneity if we’re at a place like Sun Sui Wah in Vancouver that still has the dim sum cart service on the weekends.

Before we discuss any of the food, I want to briefly talk about Q.

“Q” is a Taiwanese term used to describe the satisfying bouncy and chewy texture of certain foods, when the words “bouncy” and “chewy” just aren’t enough. Prime examples are tapioca pearls, fish balls, rice cakes, and perfectly cooked noodles. Q describes food that simultaneously yields and resists to your bite, springy and firm yet velvety while you chew. Taiwanese bubble tea chain Gong Cha has “QQ Passion Fruit Green Tea” and “QQ Grapefruit Green Tea” on the menu, drinks that include several types of jelly along with regular boba, displaying the capacity of this textural descriptor to double up for increased enthusiasm and emphasis. There is a similar term in Cantonese, 彈牙 (daan nga), which basically means “to bounce against your teeth.”  

When it comes to what’s QQ in dim sum, shrimp reigns supreme. In Cantonese cooking, achieving the desired level of QQ–concurrently snappy, bouncy, and juicy–involves coating the shrimp with salt and sugar, then washing it in cold water until the meat is still translucent, but has also transitioned into slightly blush tones. It is then turned into different pastes, adhered to soft eggplant and fried, or stuffed inside slender spring rolls, and tender har gow. Biting into a shrimp dumpling and taking glory in that QQ spring mixed with the smooth and delicate dumpling skin, is a true testament to the high level of skill that dim sum chefs have worked years to achieve.

Dim sum’s varietous nature ensures that everyone at your table’s taste and texture desires can be met. Silky, slurpable rice noodle sheets (cheong fun) can be rolled around several different fillings such as whole QQ shrimp, beef, bbq pork, or mushroom before being anointed with a sweet soy-based sauce. My favourite variation is with deep fried yau tiu, which is then also doused in sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds and sliced scallions, hitting every note that makes dim sum so great–steamed, fried, saucy and fragrant. Dumpling-wise, other than the classic har gow and siu mai, there is also the Teochew dumpling, the crumbly, crunchy combo of minced pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, bamboo shoots and peanuts of which is barely contained in its glassy skin; the weight of it all sagging in the grip of one’s chopsticks. Rice is necessary, which can take the form of sticky rice steamed with chicken and Chinese sausage inside earthy-scented lotus leaf, or saucy bbq pork and fresh leafy greens nestled on top of a bowl of rice. For those looking for meat steamed until tender, there’s the pork ribs in black bean sauce, or slightly spicy gelatinous chicken feet, which obviously as an immature youth I would eat all the outer digits, leaving the third one standing for the final rude reveal. For richer textures, fried taro root dumplings offer a flaky exterior and a smooth pork and taro interior, and dense pan fried turnip cakes are soft with pops of unctuous Chinese sausage and dried shrimp. 

Then there are the bbq pork buns. The BUNS!!! I have witnessed crying babies silenced by the arrival of a steamer full of riotously steamy bbq pork buns. Look, all buns are good, but bbq pork buns at dim sum are especially good–they are fluffy and sweet-scented, with the smooth pale bun ascending towards an erupted apex, with a molten honeyed centre of perfectly sauced diced bbq pork peeking through. OH my GOD. My standard technique for eating these buns is:

  1. Take one from the steamer with my chopsticks and deposit it into one hand, burning said hand but not backing down
  2. Rip it in half to allow some steam to escape
  3. Fruitlessly blow on both halves twice
  4. Attempt to bite into one while it’s lava-esque in temperature and burn myself but revel in the sweet pain

Dessert ordering must happen towards the end of the meal. Have you ever ordered your dessert at the same time as your savoury dishes, only for it to arrive first, fated to sit at the table for the entirety of the meal, getting cold? Or alternatively, your cold dessert is relegated to the corner of the table to become lukewarm? We must spare ourselves from such preventable disappointments. The sweets section of a dim sum menu is usually succinct, a selection of under 10 items, whichever one you choose made to perfectly fill the pocket of your stomach you’ve kept vacant for that final sweet touch. Ever since I was a kid, steamed custard buns have been my absolute favourite, with ma lai go (sponge cake) being second. Flaky egg tarts are a standard go-to, but personally I prefer egg tarts with cookie crust (don’t @ me), and generally only eat them at dim sum if they’re super hot. Osmanthus jelly provides a clean finish to an otherwise probably heavy meal, same with coconut jelly. On the weekends at Sun Sui Wah, they have fresh tofu pudding which is so absolutely refreshing and special, any other dessert is not required.

While I always look forward to leaving the restaurant absolutely stuffed, that’s not the point of dim sum. While the name itself alludes to small plates and portions, the more figurative translation of 點心 (dim sum) is “to touch the heart.” This is a meal rarely eaten solo; dim sum is an understated celebration of gatherings of all sizes, of leisurely mid-mornings spent together, of reunions and catch ups, of family. Dim sum shines brightest when the groups gathering grow from an undemanding two, to four, to 10, stacks of steamers and doilied white plates crowding the table, fueling bellies for hours-long conversations. I think I’m starting to forget what it’s like to be around other people without being afraid, but when my world is finally allowed to reset, I’ll make sure to do it over dim sum.