Do you hear the buoyant warbles of the songbird? Or spy fat pillows of rice noodles, bundled around tiny but pungent dried shrimp and pooled in a sweet soy sauce; the glaze-lacquered, chewy chicken feet; and wrinkled men, bleary-eyed and bearing their brilliantly hued pets? Then you're in the right place for traditional dim sum.
"In Hong Kong, older Chinese have a habit of raising songbirds and taking them out for dim sum," Ed Schoenfeld, the encyclopedic restaurateur behind RedFarm in New York City, tells us. "They go early in the day for breakfast, but the most classical place for going to dim sum is with your family, the way an Italian family gets together at 3 p.m. on a Sunday."
Originating from the Canton region, dim sum popped up as teahouses did along the Silk Road for weary travelers, which explains why the phrase dim sum is more or less used interchangeably with yum cha, or drinking tea. "I don't mean like, 'I'll have a cup of a tea;" I mean a gallon of tea," Abe Conlon, the chef and co-owner of Fat Rice in Chicago, explains.
Thought to help with digestion, the addition of dim sum not only transformed the tea service into a dining one—but into a culinary art. There's apparently more than 2,000 types of dim sum, most requiring a skill set that's not easy to master—like kneading and rolling out crystal dumpling dough with a cleaver—or necessarily being passed along by seasoned dim sum chefs, for that matter.
"It's hard to make this stuff in volume and be able to charge for it to make it successful," Wilson Tang, the owner of New York City's oldest dim sum joint, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, says. "The guys that we have are stubborn and don't want to teach. It's an art form that is dying."
And there's also simple restaurant economics.
"If someone says, 'I'm going to open a dumpling restaurant,' I'm like, 'You're an idiot,'" Conlon retorts. "If you don't have that knowledge or an army, it's not going to happen."
But then you try the lovely chewy nubs of radish cake, speckled with Chinese sausage (see the recipe); sweet-salty spareribs (see the recipe); and untouchably classic shumai (see the recipe)—and the mai tai on tap—at Brooklyn's Kings County Imperial; or the wobbly Portuguese-style dan tat, or egg custards, at Conlon's place, and it makes you wonder.
"There are a lot of people getting into this," Tang says. "Is it the next wave of dim sum? Maybe it's the hot thing, but it's part of the culinary world that has been within itself and hasn't really branched out, minus Joe Ng."
He's referring to Schoenfeld's chef at RedFarm, revered among fellow chefs for his craftsmanship and deep knowledge of dim sum. ("We produce 15 dumpling shapes, which means there are about 985 he isn't making," Schoenfeld boasts. "I might be making a hyperbole, but he has an ability that not many people have.")
Ng is one of the first to enmesh himself in the logistical mess of making dim sum, and many are following in his footsteps: Mission Chinese Food in New York City recently debuted metal carts filled with dumplings and mapo tofu, and Fat Rice did six weeks of test runs before offering dim sum a couple years ago. New School Kitchen in L.A. has made a name for itself with playful takes on classics like har gow, or shrimp dumplings, and up north in San Francisco, Brandon Jew muses that he'll dive into dim sum at Mister Jiu's giant banquet hall.
"The Brandon Jews of the world—hopefully, they're going to raise the bar a little bit or advance this stuff," Schoenfeld says.
And they're instructing themselves by traveling all over and hunkering down in front a computer. ("I'm a YouTube fiend," Conlon says.) Or in Josh Grinker and Tracy Jane Young's case at that hip little dim sum parlor in Brooklyn, Kings County Imperial, by just eating a lot of dim sum.
"Over the past months, we've asked each other what do we love about dim sum," Grinker says. "Wherever we are, we always seek out the best dim sum place."
That's led them all over the world, a natural progression after first meeting during culinary school at A Single Pebble in Vermont under Steve Bogart, "our American Chinese chef guru" as Grinker lovingly refers to him.
"It's such a fun way to eat," Young says. "There're carts passing by. Tables laden with 20 dishes. It's very interactive."
"One dish can be one-dimensional, but one dish up against another dish can be dynamic, so dim sum is the apotheosis," Grinker adds. "Some food is bland, but it's a vehicle for a great sauce; others are flavorful but meant to be dipped in mustard. There is such a variety, and everything is meant to be eaten against each other."
So you may not have the songbirds or old Cantonese friends, but this is your cue to get some dim sum.
Find RedFarm here, or in our DINE app.
Find Fat Rice here, or in our DINE app.
Find Nom Wah Tea Parlor here, or in our DINE app.
Find Mission Chinese Food here, or in our DINE app.
Find Mister Jiu's here, or in our DINE app.
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