Old Chinese Quarter, Shanghai.
2nd November 2004.
In the heart of old Shanghai shortly after noon, a team of chefs prepare a variety of dishes for sale as takeaway lunches for nearby workers and students.
Dim sum (“point of the heart”) is a Cantonese tradition which involves bite-sized dishes such as char siu bao (barbecue pork buns) and siu mai (pork and prawn dumplings), typically served in a steamer basket or on a small plate. Originally meant as a snack but now often taken as a meal, restaurants traditionally serve dim sum from the early morning until mid-afternoon. Dishes are frequently brought out on trolleys which circulate the dining room, allowing customers to view and select whatever they would like.
As a UK-born son of Malaysian-Chinese parents, dim sum has been a staple part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of stopping off at my parents’ favourite restaurant in Bayswater, West London after Saturday afternoons spent shopping in the West End to pick up a box of char siu bao to be consumed at home. Where other kids of my generation grew up with McDonald’s or KFC, I was brought up in a world where ordering food off trolleys or scribbling in tick-boxes on order slips was the norm. I was taught how to use chopsticks at an early age, develop a taste for the salty, slimy taste of sea cucumber and to not flinch at the sight of chicken’s feet.
I have also been lucky enough to regularly sample dim sum whenever we have been back to Malaysia to visit family, and on trips to Hong Kong and Singapore. But it was not until 2004, when we booked ourselves onto an escorted ten-day tour of Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin and Shanghai, that we were able to experience it in its birthplace.
It was something of an eye-opener. Our group was small – just the two of us and three more elderly couples – and almost every meal was laid on for us as part of our tour package. As we quickly discovered, some members of our party had never tried Chinese food before – not even fried rice or a spring roll, Consequently, for the most part we were served what I would call ‘tourist food’, with nothing more adventurous than sweet and sour pork or Beijing duck. On the one occasion we were presented with more traditional dishes such as chicken’s feet most of the party recoiled in horror, and the experiment was never repeated. In the end one of the men in the group, having been fairly game initially, ended up eating only rice, vegetables and meat he could clearly identify.
Eating was still fun – as a small group, we got to know each other fairly well over the course of the holiday and dinners were always a good way to recount the events and sights of the day – but for us the culinary experience was a slightly disappointing one. The food was – to Heather and I, at least – familiar, unadventurous and of largely middling quality. A bit of a let-down in that respect.
On the two evenings where we did not have organised meals, however, Heather and I opted not to eat in the hotel restaurant and seized the opportunity to eat as the locals do. We got recommendations from our local tour guide and branched out on our own. That resulted in two mini-adventures, one of which involved us ordering dishes at random in a restaurant in Xi’an which had no English language menus – the only Chinese characters I can read are those on mah jong tiles, which isn’t hugely helpful – sandwiched between two taxi rides with drivers who made Michael Schumacher look like a considerate Sunday driver. Needless to say, the food was as wonderfully flavoursome as it was authentic, and more than made up for any sense of disappointment we experienced on other days.
Wandering round the Old Quarter in Shanghai and then taking dim sum at one of the city’s most well-known restaurants on our final day before returning home rounded the holiday off nicely. Actually being in China and eating in four different cities really brought home how much variation there is in cuisine between China’s different regions. Dim sum is prevalent in the south of China, dishes from the Szechuan region are full of garlic and fiery chilli peppers, while other areas where meat is not in ready supply are primarily vegetarian. But dim sum remains my favourite.