Full Complement

Ocean Harbor, Philadelphia: “A little bit of musicality, puh-lease.”

THIS is what I like about dim sum: I discover something new every time I indulge.  Invariably, I also go with different people (dim sum is nothing you hunt down alone), and so get to evaluate their meal choices.  I’ve come to understand that there are different dim sum styles: some people lean more heavily on the dumpling side, some more on the leafy green things side, some just like ordering food from carts,  some view it as a teaching experience and lord their knowledge of Chinese cuisine over everyone else at the table, and some just want to try anything and everything new (that would be me).  Which is why I try to go with people who have a theory of dim sum, and who can make it a delightful learning experience as much as a palate-satisfying one.

The other thing I like about dim sum is that I have yet to go to the same dim sum restaurant twice.  Every time is a whole new experience!  Every meal is a fresh introduction to dumplings, turnip cakes, shaomai etc.

Yuan, as it turns out, is an expert.  She comes to dim sum with a clear vision of what she wants, how much she wants, and what the last taste on her palate is going to be.  That this is a little obsessive is a fact that has not, I’m sure, escaped her; but neither does it deter her from planning.  I’m betting that she had the dim sum menu charted out in her head weeks before we even got our table.

What this means, then, is that she and Linda very quickly orchestrated their attack plan while Erik and I watched, owl-eyed and grumbly-bellied, chopsticks at the ready.  Communicating through a series of grunts, chin-thrusts and head-shakes, the two managed to get our table covered with small plates of dumplings, Chinese broccoli, buns, sticky rice, and a variety of assorted tasties that I can neither describe nor name.  “Linda, Linda, that cart,” was the most frequently-voiced phrase of the meal, punctuated by hand-flapping and frantic eye rolling.

Bewildered and bemused, Erik and I let the food rotate across the table.  Yuan, channeling her momma hen personality, forked out rice and broccoli with a ruthless efficiency that would have done Shirley Hastings proud.  Linda was mostly quiet, utterly consumed by her food, but would emerge to call out for a new set of dumplings or to pour tea.  Like with many meals where the food is good and deserves attention, conversation tended to lag, sacrificed for the greater needs of our bellies.

Yuan’s approach to dim sum is one I hadn’t encountered before.  Usually when I find myself perched on the edge of a chair, chopsticks in hand and chili sauce spooned into the rim of my plate, I’m assailed by a wide variety of dishes.  The friends I go with typically order at random, without forethought or plan, following their aesthetic sense for presentation and aroma.  Thus, we might end up with three of the same dishes; someone might recall what a favorite item from the last time “looked like” or what sort of dish it was served on; and chances are, we’ll all end up with something we don’t want to try twice.

But with Yuan, it was like watching a covert op go down.  The girl had specific goals and numbers in mind; she had a plan as to what order we should eat the morsels in; she knew exactly how many of each was needed and made sure to have the server check off the appropriate boxes on our tab.  And she waylaid passing servers to request specific dishes.  She turned the adventure into a smooth flowing meal, and was ruthless in her efficiency.  Give the woman her due; she makes the most of her precious hours off-campus.

To round off the meal, Yuan decided to challenge us: chicken feet.  While she sucked hers clean of meat, tendon, sinew, and whatever else is edible, I had a bit of a time.  Not with the foot itself, but with the chopsticks.  Dexterity is not my strong suit (though I read How My Parents Learned to Eat when I was a wee thing, and have been eating with chopsticks ever since), and slippery feet things pose something of a problem.  So my feet weren’t picked as clean as Yuan’s, but those feet–well, they were worth the awkwardness.  Who knew chicken feet could be so sweet and succulent?

Dim sum is an adventure.  You have to go prepared to eat whatever crosses your plate.  Picking and choosing is the game, but it’s not one I’m ready to chance on my own.  Besides, what’s the point?  Dishes come in groupings: three dumplings, four chicken feet, two leaf-wrapped rice packets.  To get the most out of the experience, you have to go with someone else.  Dim sum is something that should be shared by a group and navigated by a team of tasters: you sip, you laugh, you pass plates and bowls, you exclaim over flavors and pour each others’ tea.  That’s the way of it, and that’s the way I like it.

So who’s with me next time?



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