You Win Some, You Dim Sum: A First-Timer's Guide to Eating Dim Sum
Photo by Sapna Patel
What's not to like about simmering hot tea, savory, steamed gow gee and marinated chicken feet? Dining without adventure is no fun. If you're looking for an authentic Chinese culinary experience -- or even a fat-filled, fried hangover brunch -- the wild east of dim sum has you covered.
For the inexperienced, dim sum can prove daunting, leave you hungry and confused. Without further ado, here's a step-by-step guide to perfecting the flavorful art of this ancient Chinese tradition.
Photo by Sapna Patel
10. Timing Is Everything: Who knew? Apparently, dim sum, that age-old tradition started in the tea houses that dotted China's famous Silk Road, inconveniently is available at different times depending upon your location of choice. Some stop the cart at 3 p.m., and some stop as late as 8 p.m. Before heading out, check to make sure the light is on. The most popular time for dim sum seems to be the American Sunday, when sons, daughters, parents, toddlers, grannies and friends crowd into lobbies and seats like it's Easter. But, the upside is that the cray-cray ambiance provides a boisterous, lively, loud, happy family-style dining experience that fills your heart and belly.
9. Take an Experienced Guide: You don't know how to order, you don't now what to order, the cart driver can't hear you and doesn't even understand you when he does. Dim sum is way easier if you go with someone who knows the difference between pork siu mai and pork fun gwar, knows not to look into the tea pot to find mysterious, brown, floaty bits and who, preferably...speaks Cantonese. Take an experienced guide or you will be confused and starving when you exit.
Photo by Salil Datt
8. The Group of Four: A dim sum menu has about one gazillion possible dishes to choose from, and there's often at least 12 different carts boasting various delicacies and dessert. For some reason, when one stops, you lose your damn mind and believe to your core that you want one of every thing you see. There's something about food being delivered and presented to you, that makes you feel you must devour it or suffer FOMO (fear of missing out). Let's be honest. You cannot eat two dried shrimp dumplings, one bean curd roll, four stuffed crab claws, steamed beef tripe, cheung fun rice doodle...and Rainbow Jello. Bringing a larger group ensures you can try many dishes, yet surreptitiously ignore the taro root pudding cake you excitedly demanded and no longer desire. Dim sum remains family-style, with shared plates, so someone else will inevitably eat it.
Photo by Kayuri Patel
7. Tea at Your Service: Back in the day, dim sum was served in tea houses, where sipping this hot beverage served as the main attraction -- known as the tradition of yum cha, or tea tasting. Today, infinite pots of steaming brown tea are still part of the experience, and you'd be remiss not to indulge in a cup or two. Flavors such as chrysanthemum, green or Black Dragon will relax your senses and spirit as you embark on the sometimes harrowing experience that is dim sum. Again, just don't look inside the pot, as your stomach may churn at the bits circling inside.
6. The Special Sauce: It's red, it's brown, it's crusty and spicy. Soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil. Mixed together, it looks like the ooze of a car accident, but its delectable juice soaking through your shrimp rice noodle or staining your barbecue pork bun is like a warm, firecracker of flavor in your mouth. Salty, tangy, greasy and hot, this magic sauce is to be made and created by you yourself in those teeny little appetizer plates. If etiquette is not your thing and you blasphemously refuse the tea, that white ceramic tea cup sans handle can serve as your mixing bowl of sauce. And no, skinny bitches, the waiter will not provide you low-sodium soy sauce. But he will serve you a brusque "no" and a nice, big eye roll.
5. Yes Means No, No Means Yes, and...Sometimes You Might Have to Go Get Your Own Damn Calamari: In keeping with the whole rich, authentic experience, what you say will be lost in translation, even when, sometimes, all you want is a coke. If you don't recognize what's on the tray, there is no dictionary, no phone-a-friend. You might order something you're allergic to, and don't even ask what does NOT have meat in it. Egos and hesitation aside, you will occasionally have to get up out of your seat and hunt down the fresh fried squid when, after four requests and the receipt of the bill, you still have not received your favorite dish. But, hell, it's part of the fun, and anyway, you need to work off the pint of saturated fat already consumed.
4. A Turnip Is Actually Good: First of all, what the hell is a turnip? Second of all, why is it this damn good? A Chinese turnip, aka daikon radish, is a root vegetable that looks like a fat, white carrot. It's so yummy because the dim sum turnip cakes are mashed up, mixed with shrimp and pork sausage, steamed and then pan-fried, creating a nice, crispy layer all around. And its best friend is soy sauce. Throw in a little Chinese broccoli and you might get a little nutrition in your diet. But veggies beware, dim sum turns up its nose to non-carnivores -- beef, pork and prawn reign. You might get chicken, but duck is preferred.
3. Tiny Plates, Big Bill: So, you think the plates are oh-so-small. You feel like you're eating 10 little appetizers and can't even imagine how it makes a meal. You order like the Sultan of Bahrain. Well. Wait till your chemistry periodic table of a bill arrives and suddenly your total is more than $150. Now you know: $4 plates add up to a whole lot of money. Slow your roll, big spender, and pace yourself.
2. Shortcut to the Menu: If you were not paying attention, here's your menu: pork siu mai, pork spareribs, fried calamari, barbecued pork buns, Chinese turnip cakes, broccoli and rice noodle rolls. If you are wild and out, then do it: steamed chicken feet, sesame balls, bean curd and a little taro pudding. It's your party, you can fry if you want to.
1. It's Your First Time, Do It Somewhere Special: You've waited for this. You were worried you couldn't perform and it wouldn't deliver. But alas, you enter the Golden Palace, with its big red doors, satin seat covers, round tables, and spinning susans. Thirty years wise and newly renovated, The Golden Palace Restaurant warmly welcomes you, takes your hand and thrusts you energetically into the exciting world of Houston's dim sum. Whatever you fancy, and whether or not you toss these tips in the garbage, it will be the best brunch of your life.
Golden Palace Restaurant
Photo by Sapna Patel
Golden Palace Restaurant 8520 Bellaire Blvd. www.goldenpalacehouston.com
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.