Dim Sum 101

Asian women in dark blue baseball caps and light blue shirts wheel shiny stainless-steel dim sum carts around the enormous upstairs dining room of Ocean Palace in the Hong Kong City Mall. Halfway down the far left aisle, a Chinese woman with a name tag that reads "Dorothy Huang" is talking to a group of students seated at two adjacent tables.

"We are going to start with the two most popular dim sum items: this round pork-and-shrimp dumpling is called xiu mai, and this steamed white dumpling with a whole shrimp inside is called ha cao," Huang tells the class. For the next hour, Huang talks while her students stuff their faces.

She starts with a crash course in chopsticks, describes the contents of each condiment dispenser, and then shows how to invert the teapot lid to order more tea. The practical demonstrations are followed by a cascade of dim sum dishes. Huang orders in Cantonese, and she has the cart drivers jumping. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the class is the contrast between Huang's orderly and well-organized presentation and the complete chaos in which it takes place.


Ocean Palace

11215 Bellaire Boulevard

281-988-8898. Dim sum hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Xiu mai: $1.95
Ha cao: $2.70
Steamed cake: $1.95
Sesame sweet balls: $1.95
Crispy fried shrimp: $4.75
Broccoli with oyster sauce: $4.75

There are some 90 circular tables in the upstairs ballroom of Ocean Palace restaurant, each of them seats ten or more, and all of them are occupied. There are well over 800 people sitting here, and judging by the noise level, they all have a lot to talk about. In fact, there are also people out in the lobby -- there's usually a wait of ten or 15 minutes at Ocean Palace during dim sum prime time, early Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

That's nothing, laughs Huang. "In Hong Kong, I once went to a five-story dim sum restaurant where every floor had a dining room just as big as this one. And we couldn't find a single free table!"

A big crowd is a good sign when you're eating dim sum. It means the food will turn over fast, so everything stays hot and fresh. To increase your odds of getting the hottest dumplings, Dorothy Huang recommends a strategy that turns the usual table selection process on its head: You don't want an intimate little table off by itself, she warns. I learned this lesson in a San Francisco dim sum restaurant where I went hungry because I selected a lovely table by the window. At a dim sum restaurant, you want a table as close to the kitchen door as possible, Huang advises. That way you get to check out the carts as soon as they roll into the dining room.

I've been eating dim sum for a long time. But Chinese cooking instructor Dorothy Huang has a thing or two to teach me. The filling in the sesame balls isn't sweetened bean paste, she corrects me, it's sweetened lotus seed. And the Chinese don't regard sweet dim sum items as dessert, as I always assumed. They mix up sweet and savory dishes over the course of a dim sum brunch with a palate-cleansing cup of tea in between. Oh, and by the way, Chinese people don't peel the shrimp, either. They're fried crisp with lots of garlic so you can eat them shells and all. It's a good source of calcium.

Huang goes on to offer a philosophical overview of Chinese cooking. Fuel is scarce and expensive in China, and ovens are not a common kitchen appliance, she says, as she passes me a slice of bright yellow cake. This cake is light and airy because it's steamed instead of baked. "What you bake, we steam," she says. Steaming is the most fuel-efficient method of cooking, since the steamer baskets can be stacked on top of one another.

Dorothy Huang's class is worthwhile even for dim sum know-it-alls. And as an introduction to the experience, it can't be beat. But the best part of the class comes after brunch. When the bill is settled, Huang takes the class on a tour of the mall and the enormous Hong Kong Food Market.

I have led a few tours of this enormous Asian food market myself for visiting out-of-towners. But on my tour, I simply point out that there are ten kinds of choy for sale. Huang has been teaching Chinese cooking classes in Houston for 20 years and is the author of a cookbook called Dorothy Huang's Chinese Cooking. She doesn't just point to the produce, she shows you what to look for in Chinese broccoli or snow pea shoots. And then she describes Asian cooking methods -- vegetable by vegetable.

You don't cook the outside of those big purple banana blossoms, you open up the outer leaves and cook the succulent yellow flowers inside -- they taste great in soups. Forget about canned bamboo shoots, try the fresh ones. Use water spinach the way you use regular spinach; since it grows in the water there isn't any sand to wash out. The walking tour continues for some two hours, and one by one, the mysteries of Far Eastern food are revealed. Huang gives the class once a month. Call 281-493-0885 for details.

When Dorothy Huang is ordering for you in Cantonese, things go pretty smoothly at Ocean Palace. But even then, the dim sum really isn't the best in town. Too many of the items came to the table cold. And the selection is relatively minimal. Kim Son's Stafford location (12750 Southwest Freeway) offers far superior dim sum on Saturdays and Sundays. There are more elaborate and exotic items there, like brown mushroom-topped meatballs, clams in black bean sauce, and tapioca-skin-covered almond paste. The dining room is smaller, and things seem to arrive at the table hotter, too. I know other dim sum aficionados who swear by Golden Palace (8520 Bellaire Boulevard).

But the weekend dim sum brunch at Ocean Palace has several things going for it. First of all, there's the sheer spectacle of it all. The Ocean Palace upstairs dining room doubles as a concert venue on weekend nights, hence the stage curtains across the back wall. There are giant golden dragons on the front walls with glowing red Christmas-light eyes, and there's a huge blue-tinted skylight in the middle of the room that makes everybody underneath it look like they're sitting inside a huge aquarium. The place resembles the giant restaurant in Taipei where they filmed the restaurant scenes from Eat Drink Man Woman.

Then there's Ocean Palace's Hong Kong City Mall location. If the Hong Kong Food Market isn't the best Asian food store in the United States, I'm willing to bet it's in the top three. But even if you aren't interested in doing any grocery shopping, it's fun to walk through the mall on Saturday or Sunday just to check out the scene. The sights often include Vietnamese teenagers in international fashions, toddlers in toy motor vehicles that look like spaceships and old Chinese guys who seem to have just arrived by junk. Then there are the novelty stores where you can find such perfect birthday gifts as the Hello Kitty Wizard of Oz set or an electric Jesus candle.

And while there may be other places to go for a better dim sum brunch on weekends, Ocean Palace serves it every day of the week. So you can do the whole Hong Kong City Mall tour on a weekday afternoon if you want, complete with xiu mai and ha cao. And the downstairs dining room where Ocean Palace serves dim sum on weekdays is much more attractive than the banquet hall upstairs. The downstairs space features a room-length aquarium and enormous stuffed fish hanging from the ceiling.

But be forewarned, the cold dumpling problem is even worse on weekdays. And if you see only ten or 15 patrons scattered around the dining room on a Tuesday afternoon, odds are there isn't going to be much of a selection then, either. Fridays from 12:30 p.m. on are a good bet, though. I wonder if this is because dim sum fanatics like to get in a few warm-up dumplings on Friday before the serious weekend eating begins.

I'll have to ask Dorothy Huang.

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