The Chinese smorgasbord of small-plate dishes known as dim sum is one of life's unreproducible pleasures, writes T. Susan Chang. What if you live far from the bustle of Chinatown? Never fear, she shares three simple recipes to sate your craving.
Three-Dish Cure for the Dim Sum Blues
T. Susan Chang for NPR
I've always thought of dim sum as one of life's unreproducible pleasures. Dish after little dish of sweet and savory steaming treats, dim sum (which literally means "to touch the heart") is served piping hot from carts, washed down with hot tea and as cheap as it is delicious. And behind that is an army of cooks folding, pinching, stuffing, steaming, frying and shouting — most likely in Cantonese — at a pace that would confound even most seasoned restaurant cooks.
But dim sum is so much more than Chinese food on carts. It's cavernous, deafening parlors in competing restaurants in a big-city Chinatown. It's a quick-witted wait staff speeding by on wheels. It's getting over your uncertainty quickly and boldly flagging down the cart pushers before the last radish cake is gone.
I thought of these things when the craving first hit, weeks after I'd foolishly moved to the sticks in New England without doing a full dim sum cost-benefit analysis. We've got spring peepers — the young frogs that emit the first sounds of spring in the region — but no black bean ribs or sticky rice packets. The nights are clear and deep and filled with the scent of fresh maple syrup, but completely free of crystal pork and leek dumplings. Wait staff and line cooks? Ha! Count 'em: One, and she lives at my house.
In short, what we have here is a perfect storm of dim sum-lessness.
I finally came to realize that the choice is stark: Find a way to make dim sum at home — small and modest, perhaps, but dim sum all the same — or drive three hours with two small kids on your day off (in our case that essentially means life without dim sum). The prospect of life without dim sum doesn't bear contemplating. And this is how I arrived at Three-Dish Dim Sum.
Here are the rules: No having to fry two things at the same time. The cook gets to sit and eat with everybody else, because that's the whole point. Only one of the three dishes has to be served piping hot. And — sorry, folks — no dumplings. If you're making dumplings, you really won't be able to do much else. You can have an all-dumpling dinner sometime to make up for it. But that's another story.
So this is what I came up with: Pickled Cucumbers and Red Peppers, Sweet and Sour Glazed Spare Ribs, and Scallion Pancakes. One cold, one room temperature and one hot. One ridiculously easy, one easy and one really not all that hard.
I'm a realist. I know there are hardcore fans who will insist that it's not dim sum if there is no tripe or chicken feet. And there is really no substitute for the glistening pale pink, transparently wrapped har gao (shrimp and water chestnut dumpling). But since I don't see the inside of Jing Fong or Triple 8 Palace or Hunan Empire or any of the other great New York City Chinatown dowagers of dim sum more than once a year ... well, you do what you can.
Three-Dish Dim Sum is about making peace with what you can do on your own. It's about making the best of life's choices, even when they take you 150 miles away from Dim Sum Central. And, apart from being an object lesson in humility, Three-Dish Dim Sum is rockin' delicious.
So, if the pancakes are slightly less than circular, or you end up with glaze on your pants, or you have only an hour to make the cucumbers, it's OK. It'll still taste great, and you'll hit that special dim-sum button in your soul that cries out for hot, sweet, sour, crisp, salty, sticky, finger-licking religion at 11 on a Sunday morning. Failing that, load up the car and start the long trek to Chinatown — and don't forget to bring some back for me.