Tag Archives: dim sum

Five on Friday: Dim Sum in the Dark

Steamed vegan dumplings, Taipei, Taiwan | Canon 5D, 60mm, 1/25 f4, ISO 640

Before heading out to the Dreamdate/Touch-Me-Nots/Elvis Christ show at the Knockout last night, I was stricken by a sudden craving for stuffed dough from Jasmine Tea House, located just a few doors up from the venue. (Had it not been for this urgent hunger, I may very well not have left the house.) We called in my order while on the Bay Bridge to San Francisco and arrived at the restaurant a few minutes after they closed. Once we picked up the meatless chicken dumplings and vegetarian potstickers, we headed into the Knockout.

It wasn’t until I settled down on a stool and dug into the dumplings that I realized I couldn’t really enjoy what I was shoveling into my mouth. Sure, they were moist and savory and had chunks of what I thought was faux chicken, but, beyond that, I couldn’t tell if they were good or not. The dim disco ball lighting, blaring glam rock, and precarious seating situation were pulling my attention in too many directions. Apparently, taste was the least important sense at this juncture.

Have you heard of the restaurant Opaque? This mini chain is all about dining in absolute darkness–no candlelight, no accidental incandescence from passing car traffic. It’s an intriguing concept and one I wouldn’t mind trying, but, at $99 a person, I’d first have to derail disappointment the best I can. Like, eradicate the niggling worries I have when I can’t see what I’m eating (namely, whether or not I’m going to chomp down on a bug/hair/habanero). Once I’ve achieved this zen-like state, I’ll be ready (hopefully) to fully embrace the experience without paranoia.

The only time I nosh in the dark is when watching a movie, either at home or at a theater. Even then, it’s popcorn, potato chips, and other simple, one-note finger foods illuminated intermittently by the glow of the screen. I’ve also eaten at theaters that serve you real food (pizza, pasta, sandwiches) during the film, but remember neither the films nor the food (unless recalling that I dropped part of my sandwich in my lap counts for something). Although I can rub my head and pat my belly at the same time, my brain seems to have a hard time processing multiple streams of information at once, and either prioritizes one over another or fails completely at both. I can’t imagine how I’d respond to molecular gastronomy. The concoctions would probably blow my feeble little mind.

Disco ball, Dirty Water Club, London | Canon 5D, 82mm, 1/20 f4, ISO 1600

Speaking of dim sum and expensive, C and I ate at Yank Sing in San Francisco recently. Yank Sing has a reputation for pricey but refined morsels and a primarily non-Chinese clientele. I hadn’t been there for a while and didn’t remember just how costly it was until we sat down and I glanced at the menu. The menu, unfortunately, arrived after we accepted a small hunk of honey-baked sea bass with teriyaki sauce from an insistent server. The price? $17.50.

After I recovered my breath, I realized that this situation required strategic ordering and a tiger mom’s resolve if we were going to leave with more than a few pennies in our bank accounts. I stamped on C’s enthusiasm for everything that trundled by on the shiny carts and wrestled with some of the more aggressive servers to keep unwanted food off our tiny table. C couldn’t seem to comprehend that each plate/steamer basket was at least $5, unlike the $2 to $3 pricetags typical in a harried Chinatown eatery. Staples like siu mai, shrimp dumplings, and pork buns, for instance, ran about $6 per order.

With me anxiously keeping track of our tab, we ended up with Phoenix Tail Prawns (3 average-sized prawns battered with green onions and deep-fried; $10.50), Honey-Glazed Walnut Salad ($9.60), Steamed Rice Noodle Roll (with peashoots; $7.30), and an assortment of dumplings (Savory Vegetable, Snowpea, and Mushroom; $4.80 an order). C loved everything we got, but something about expensive food makes me hypercritical and I found myself comparing these “premium” plates to their counterparts in budget-priced establishments. The sauce on the sea bass had partly congealed and the fish was on the cold side; it was no match for the similarly priced sea bass dinner I often get at Sushi Solano. The steamed items looked no better than the heat-lamp fare at take-away dim sum bakeries; however, they were considerably less greasy and possibly more flavorful. The prawns were yummy, but not $10.50’s worth of yummy. The salad was a refreshing taste sensation of red cabbage and jicama tossed with a sweet, tangy dressing and crunchy walnuts; I’d definitely get it again if it were both bigger and cheaper.

Our total with tax was $70 for seven items. We were far from full, but at least it didn’t matter that we had left our pants with elastic waistbands at home that day. On our way out, we passed several receptacles brimming with dirty dishes and tea cupsβ€”and a bamboo steamer containing one untouched dumpling. Seriously?

Vegetarian dumplings, Yank Sing, San Francisco | Canon 5D, 88mm, 1/60 f4, ISO 1250

Rejected, Yank Sing, San Francisco | Canon 5D, 65mm, 1/80 f4, ISO 1000

And in case you’re getting tired of my food posts (dim sum again?), you might agree that they’re better than the alternative: ringworm (in this case, tinea corporis). I contracted it for the first time recently (amazing, actually, considering all the mat time I’ve clocked over the years) and I think about it constantly. Before I got this nightmare, an itch was an itch, not a fungal bomb ready to detonate across my skin. However, I have to admit it’s far more pleasant than the time I was an all-you-can-drink buffet for a bedbug colony in a London B&B.

Ok, should we go back to the food now?

Pioppini mushrooms, Ferry Building Marketplace, San Francisco | Canon 5D, 105mm, 1/80 f4, ISO 1000

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Five on Friday: Meat-Free Hong Kong Dim Sum

Steamed vegetarian buns, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

Whenever I think of Hong Kong, I immediately start salivating like a Labrador that has spotted a clumsy toddler clutching a handful of Goldfish crackers. C & I only spent three days there in February 2009, but we managed to stuff ourselves with an exquisite selection of vegetarian dim sum, which is a rarity everywhere but in NYC and–oddly–Sydney, Australia.

It’s astounding to me that the Bay Area, with its healthy and demanding population of vegetarians and vegans, doesn’t have a single restaurant dedicated to meat-free dim sum. Certainly, places like Yank Sing (SF), Big Lantern (SF), and May Flower (2156 University Avenue, Berkeley–sticky rice with veggie chicken wrapped in lotus leaf!) have a good number of vegetarian items on their dim sum menu, but you either have to hunt for them among traditional dishes like chicken’s feet and beef tripe, double-check that they aren’t peppered with pork or dried shrimp “for flavor,” or hope that they retained their delicate texture after a stint in the freezer. Hey, if the Bay Area can support vegetarian restaurants specializing in Filipino cuisine, Southern comfort food, and sushi (Cha-Ya: 1686 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley; 762 Valencia Street, SF), there’s no reason it can’t have just one vegetarian dim sum parlor. Any enterprising restaurateurs or dim sum masters out there willing to take on this no-brainer?

Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (7th floor, 1 Peking Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon) was our first introduction to what Hong Kong has to offer. Located on the seventh floor of a building overlooking Victoria Harbour and its famous (albeit fog-enveloped) skyline, it featured several dozen freshly made dishes, among them pan-fried spinach and porcini mushroom buns; rice rolls filled with your choice of golden mushrooms and pumpkin or vegetarian abalone and shredded chicken; BBQ “pork” buns; eight treasure sweet rice pudding. Dishes made with egg white were obviously marked. We ordered eight dishes and hoovered up every last crumb, yet were able to waddle out of there with clear heads and invigorated bodies–look, ma! No dim sum hangover and no need to sprawl out under the table for a nap! Since we couldn’t bear the thought of not trying everything on the menu, we came back on our last day. It was a wonderful (but sad) end to our first Hong Kong visit.

Vegetable wontons in supreme soup, Kung Tak Lam Shanghai Vegetarian Cuisine (Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon)

I can’t tell you much about dim sum culture, but I do know that the Cantonese term dim sum (or dian xin in Mandarin) literally means “little hearts,” referring to the bite-sized morsels served at dim sum. I’ve also heard the term yum cha (Cantonese for “eat tea”) bandied about in conjunction with dim sum. So we headed to Lock Cha Tea House in surreal Hong Kong Park (think Sea World sans dolphins, penguins, and orcas) to “eat tea.” The tea house doubles as a tea shop, or vice versa, and you select tea from a boggling menu. The tea is then prepared at your table with a multistep ceremony featuring several tea pots, cups, and bowls and a dextrous server. C got organic black tea; I got yellow tea. I wish I could tell you more, but the notes I took at the time were embarrassingly spare, no doubt because I’m not a tea connoisseur.

Tea ceremony, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

I can tell you that we ordered an array of dim sum that was tasty but less-refined than that of Kung Tak Lam, perhaps because they were mostly on the heavy, fried side. By the end of the meal, we were barely able to finish everything, but we soldiered on and did. The highlight was glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste in a heady jasmine tea broth. I loved them so much I tried recreating them at home on multiple occasions–but failed each time. This just means I’ll have to go back. I suppose there are worse things in life to do.

Vegan dim sum, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

Glutinous rice ball filled with black sesame paste in jasmine tea broth, Lock Cha Tea House (Admiralty, Hong Kong)

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