Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Textures of Dim Sum

Can you hear the sleigh bells ring? All I can hear are the dishes clanging at Dim Sum.

It's December and the holiday spirit fills the air. Here at Dim Sum on a Wednesday afternoon, a huge crowd swarms the place making us forget that we are still in a recession. With a crowd this excited, you would almost think they are giving the food away. At $2.09 a plate, it may as well be.

(Steamed Pork Ribs in Black Bean Sauce)

Top Island Seafood Restaurant serves most of the traditionally popular Dim Sum items. Truth be told, this is not my favorite Dim Sum restaurant. A lot of it really has to do with one dish, the vermicelli shrimp wraps. Vermicelli wraps are very difficult to get right. Ideally the texture should be smooth and silky. It should go down nice and smooth almost like vodka. But I can see how some people, as a friend I have once brought to Dim Sum, would think this texture disgusting. In some ways it may even feel like eating a slurp of slimy gunk. This reminds me of the episode of Futurama when Fry couldn't stop drinking Slurm, even though he found out it came out of the back end of a giant queen slug. Alright, I'm not doing my vermicelli wraps justice, but I do love this dish; just not at Top Island. New Capital Seafood Restaurant does it much better a few blocks away.

(Vermicelli Shrimp Wraps)

Dim Sum is full of textures, and another one that a lot of even my Chinese friends can't handle is the infamous Phoenix Claws, which is just a fancy name for chicken feet. It's all in the branding right? Give it a nice name and you may actually give it a try. Top Island serves Phoenix Claws three different ways. There's the steamed version that's marinated in a black bean sauce. This is the softest version of Phoenix Claws where the skin and cartilage comes right off the bones. Then there's the White Cloud version dipped in a vinegar sauce. This is the chewiest version and there's no way around not feeling like you are chewing on claws. If you've ever chewed on your own fingers out of nervousness, it taste even more rubbery than that. Then there's a version where it's served in a soup. It's in-between the two in terms of chewiness. The soup has a lot of condiments flavoring it. The chicken feet themselves really doesn't have a whole lot of flavor. It's just skin, cartilage and bones. So in the end, it's a matter of texture as you are just chewing on bones. It's definitely an acquired taste; well fine, an acquired texture. Scared? Chew at your own peril.

(Steamed Phoenix Claws)

Before I completely scare you off from Dim Sum, most of the items that are pushed around by middle aged female servers in metal carts are pretty normal stuff. I'm not being sexist or being ageist here. I have never seen a young female cart pusher nor have I seen any male cart pusher at any Dim Sum restaurants I've ever been to around the world. Occasionally I see men walking around the room with dishes of food on a serving platter, just never behind a cart. I have no idea why this is so, but it just is and no one has ever complained: I'm not complaining.

Today we also had Lor Mai Gai - Lotus leaf wrapped sweet rice and chicken. The Chinese name has the word chicken in it, but it doesn't actually always have chicken inside. I suppose we are used to buying things that doesn't really have anything to do with its name. Blackberry doesn't actually have black berries inside: Apple computer has nothing to do with apples. Even an iPhone is hardly a phone, and I can't live without mine. Top Island's version doesn't have chicken, instead it has minced pork, mushroom and salted egg yolk inside. I prefer them without chicken anyways, they tend to be too dry. I think Top Island does a good job with this and I wouldn't mind having one occasionally. Just don't eat them everyday, they are extremely fattening and pretty bad for diabetics. I don't let my mother have any of the sweet rice.

(Lotus Leaf Wrapped Sweet Rice and Chicken)

Another favorite of mine at Dim Sum are the stuffed tofus. But as with all things Dim Sum, every restaurant does it differently. Top Island stuffs, well more like tops, their tofu with a giant fish ball. I almost rather eat just the tofu as the fish balls were just too big. Bigger may look better. It looks like we are getting a better deal cause we are getting more, but it's no longer stuffed tofu. I basically have to eat the tofu and the fish ball separately. So no, bigger isn't always better.

(Steamed Stuffed Tofu)

I don't eat a lot of fried foods, and I generally avoid donuts. I don't even remember the last time I actually went to a donut shop to buy a donut, though I had one a couple days ago because my parents visited a friend who worked at a donut shop. The irony is that my family co-owns a donut shop in Thailand. But I do like the Chinese salted donut, which are basically deep fried dough stuffed with pork. It's really hard to go wrong with this dish. You just can't go wrong with deep fried anything. The only real thing one can do wrong with this dish is either over stuff or under stuff them. Top Island is pretty consistent with a fair amount of tasty stuffing. The dough is also a very good consistency; a little crunchy on the outside and a little mushy on the inside.

(Salted Water Corner - a.k.a. Chinese Deep Fried Salty Donuts)

Generally speaking, I don't order anything off the menu at Dim Sum. But I went with my family today, and my mother couldn't pass up on their deal on squabs. The king squabs were $3.99 each and the smaller squabs were $6.99 each. If you go to the supermarket to buy the small squabs raw, they would cost $10 each. We have absolutely no idea how they can serve them at such a low price. It's so cheap it's almost scary. I mean are these squabs legit? Did they go out to some town square and took down a ton of pigeons and passed it off as squabs. Alright I'm letting my imagination run wild, but I do wonder.

Cheap as it may be, the quality of the squabs were actually good. the problem though was the marinate. It needed to be marinated longer. The flavor just never penetrated enough through the skin and into the meat, so the meat was a bit bland, though it was tender. I understand the fact that every other table in the restaurant is ordering squabs, so they simply don't have the luxury to marinate them for a prolonged period of time. It's the classic increase in demand yielding a decrease in quality. Well it does give my mother her squab fix, but as for me I much prefer my Dad's recipe. If only raw squabs cost less.

(Deep Fried Squabs)

Dim Sum is loud. The food is loud and the atmosphere is even louder. The best and most popular Dim Sum places is like a symphony of sounds and tastes with people crossing non-stop in front of your eyes. The dishes banging together as waiters clean the tables: the people talking over the noise in the room: the sound being trapped in a non-dampened room; the waiters and waitresses zig-zagging across the room unendingly to keep up with the demands of the customers. All these adds together to bring the whole place to life, which really is a great way to feel alive in a time when the rest of the world can seem like all gloom and doom.

So this holiday season instead of hearing sleigh bells, maybe it's time to hear some dishes clang.


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