On a recent Sunday around noon there was a long line of mostly Chinese people — a very good sign — waiting to get into West Bloomfield’s Shangri-La for dim sum. The lines found every weekend at Shangri-La and at Windsor’s Wah Court are testimonials to the high quality of food found at these dim sum parlors.
Dim sum translates as “a delight of the heart.” It refers to the succulent dumplings and small plates of food — noodles, ribs, vegetables, soups, appetizer-portions of entrées — that servers pass around on rolling carts or trays; you pick what you want and the servers keep track of how many plates you’ve snagged, usually charging $3 a plate. Often the rolling trays contain several selections, and each portion is typically small, featuring perhaps two or three of each item.
Like the tapas of Spain and antipasti of Italy, dim sum offers extensive variety. On a given day there may be as many as 80 choices offered in a lengthy procession. On my recent visit to Shangri-La, tiny eggplants are stuffed with pork. The dumplings —delicate dough rolled thin and filled with beef, pork, seafood or vegetables — are carefully folded and artistically pleated, rendering them as attractive as they are tasty. They come steamed, fried or baked.
Potstickers, filled with pork, shrimp and cabbage, seasoned with garlic and ginger and bits of shitake mushrooms, are pan-fried for a minute or two and then steamed. They are slightly crunchy and tender at the same time. Bell pepper pieces are stuffed with seafood and pan-fried, then sauced and braised. Chicken feet seem to be a favorite among the diners, but they admittedly are not on my plate. Fried taro root cakes — comfort food at its best — consist of taro mashed to creaminess then deep-fried till crisp on the outside.
Soft, doughy buns filled with barbecued pork are served hot in the steamers that cook them. Broad, flat, tender rice noodles are filled with shrimp or pork.
At most dim sums, you can make special orders. Every time I go I order pork ribs because I love the flavor of the sauce. The dish comes as morsels of ribs, usually the tips, with more bone and cartilage than meat, steamed in a sweet black bean and garlic sauce. I am told that they are popular with Chinese diners who enjoy chewing on the cartilage and bones.
Beef short ribs, with considerably more meat than their pork counterparts, are thinly sliced and steamed. These are available at East Lake Chinese Restaurant in Troy.
One of my favorite dim sum dishes is called garlic chive pancake. It reminds me of a small cushion of soft dough that is filled with bright green garlic chives and pan-fried, tender on the inside, with a slight crunch on the outside. I had them once mixed with shrimp. Wow! Great stuff!
Try the baby octopus or cuttlefish in a curry sauce, and be sure to try the sticky or glutinous rice that’s mixed with tidbits of pork or chicken and Chinese sausage and wrapped in fragrant lotus leaves. The dish is so good you’ll almost want to eat the rice alone, without using it to sop up sauces from other dishes — almost, but not quite.
And don’t forget the sweets, though I am no authority, as I rarely have the appetite left to try them.
Dim sum is said to have originated in the tea houses of China where travelers and laborers gathered to drink soothing herbal teas and unwind from the toils of the day. At one time, it was thought that drinking tea while eating food would lead to excessive weight gain, but, as the digestive powers of tea became known, people began to eat during the tea sessions. Now, it is believed that drinking tea leads to weight loss, so don’t forget to drink some of the green stuff while you gorge.
Best shared by a large group, allowing everyone the opportunity to try many dishes, dim sum is a festive and inexpensive meal. It’s a great change from bacon and eggs or bagels and lox, and an adventure in culinary discovery.
Here is a recipe for a traditional dim sum dish that I have been making for years.
Seafood stuffed peppers
1/4 pound of cod
8-10 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 green onions
1 egg white
2 teaspoons of cornstarch, divided
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 bell peppers — preferably different colors for presentation
1 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1-2 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
In a food processor, mix cod, shrimp and green onion until the mixture resembles a fine paste. Add the egg white and one teaspoon of cornstarch and the salt. Pulse to blend.
Cut the peppers into eighths. Stuff each with about a teaspoon of the seafood mixture and sprinkle with the paprika.
To make the sauce: In a saucepan, stir together 1/2 cup of the chicken broth, the remaining teaspoon of cornstarch, the soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar.
Boil and cook, stirring for a minute or so until the mixture is clear.
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Brown the peppers, stuffing side down, for about two minutes. Turn them over, being careful not to separate the stuffing from the peppers, and add the remaining broth and the sauce.
Cook covered over medium heat for two or three minutes.
We bid a sad farewell to Julia Child whose love for food inspired us to cook more and to eat better.
East Lake Chinese Restaurantis located at 5087 Rochester Road in Troy. Call 248-740-9522. Shangri-La is located at 6407 Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield. Call 248-626-8585. Wah Court Restaurant is located at 2037 Wyandotte St. W. in Windsor, Ont. Call 519-254-1388.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org