Dim Sum , as we all know , is Cantonese food in small portions served tableside by servers from little carts or trolleys. As the servers wend their way between the tables , diners can see what is on offer and make their choices. At least that’s the way it usually is . Last Saturday , we had a different sort of experience when we went for a dim sum lunch at the Wonder Seafood Restaurant in Edison , NJ.
Instead of being served from dim sum laden carts , we were given a menu listing all the different varieties available and asked to tick off the ones that we wanted. We did and the dim sum were brought directly to our table from the kitchen . It was more like a regular a la carte lunch. We knew everything that was available and could make more informed choices.
Today , we took our daughter to lunch at the Royal Seafood Restaurant in Avenel , N.J . It was a more a traditional dim sum place : patrons chose from carts pushed around by servers . Dim sum à la cart , so to say. It was a totally different experience. As usual , some of the carts, the ones with the most promising looking eats, seemed to bypass us . When they did deign to come to our table , they all came in quick succession. Having chosen three or four dim sum almost all at once , we signalled ” Later” to the other servers who unfortunately never came back to us. And then there were the usual language problems.
By now , we are familiar with most of the dishes but there are one or two that still mystify us . When we asked what they were , we were met with apologetic shrugs and murmurings of ” No English”. My daughter wanted Turnip cake so I asked one of the waiters for it , speaking slowly and distinctly . ” Ah , yes” , he beamed and rushed off , returning with extra paper napkins. I made the same request to another waiter who appeared to be more proficient in English but he came back with a cloth napkin. ( Must be that the Cantonese word for “napkin” sounds like ” turnip cake”).
After these two experiences , you would think that we would prefer the first restaurant where we were able to order exactly what we wanted.
You would be wrong .
Despite all the missteps with cart service and non- English-speaking waiters , I preferred the second.
What makes the dim sum experience different is the novelty of choosing from carts tableside, even if one is sometimes not entirely certain about what one is selecting. There is pleasure in seeing the little stainless steel containers and bamboo steamers neatly stacked atop each other , the ritualistic inspection as the server opens them for one’s perusal , the deftness with which he cuts items in two with a large scissors. Without all this , one might as well go to a regular restaurant and order à la carte .
BTW , we don’t often go to dim sum restaurants. Dim sum ( ” touch the heart”) are simple dishes meant as snacks , much like tapas in Spain . According to some sources, rural farmers, exhausted after working hard in the fields, would go to teahouses for a relaxing afternoon of tea. At first, it was considered inappropriate to combine tea with food, because people believed it would lead to excessive weight gain. However , when it was discovered that tea can aid in digestion, teahouse owners began adding various snacks or dim sum to be eaten with the tea.
Dim sum are usually steamed dishes , many of them dumplings with various shapes and fillings . For more complex tastes , one should choose from the regular menu. Of the two places we went to , Royal Seafood had the better dim sum but, next time, I will go there for their regular dishes which are truly outstanding and authentic.
P.S, Each dim sum dish has three pieces ( four is considered unlucky by the Chinese). So it is a good idea go in groups or multiples of three for easy sharing .