For the past few years of my life, dim sum has become synonymous with the New Year. I cannot think of a better way to ring in the new than to be surrounded by friends, family and tiny bundles of joy. These tiny bundles are filled with well, joy (of course) but also pork, vegetable (usually mushroom) and seafood. Usually enclosed by thin flour dumpling skins, they are then steamed or fried and immediately served in tiny bamboo or metal baskets. A vegetarian’s nightmare, the endless varieties are best enjoyed by a large group of friends with copious amounts of soy sauce, hot sauce and piping hot jasmine tea amidst a noisy din of Chinese families enjoying their version of brunch.
I am especially overjoyed to see places that utilize the old school dim sum carts, a visual and tangible menu that allows the diner to see what they are getting as well as gauging its measure on the freshness barometer. Language is not an issue here, as once can simply point to what they want, or make a putrid face, waving off the ones they don’t want.
Dim sum is not only interactive but also reassuringly ambitious for the less physically inclined. What other breakfast/brunch meal allows one to try 10-15 different types of dishes before 3 p.m without ever leaving their seat? It is also terrifically economical. One will never pay more than $10-15 bucks per person at a truly authentic place (i.e. not one of those “fancy” dim sum houses that serve lobster dumplings and has not a single Asian person in sight).
Because of our close proximity to Chinatown in Los Angeles, the Husband and I usually go to Empress Pavillion on Broadway for its convenience for impromptu dim sum sessions with the homies. But whenever we are in Orange County (visiting the Husband’s family), we always go to Capital Seafood in Irvine, which in my opinion is one of the best dim sum places outside of Hong Kong.
With a visually appealing dining room, superb attentive service (gasp, water glasses are magically refilled!), and incredibly fresh dishes, this place elevates dim sum to a new level. With two locations in Irvine (the latest one springing up at the Irvine Spectrum), Capital Seafood never fails to disappoint when a hankering for really fresh and delicious dim sum arises. (I have yet to try its locations in Monterey Park or Arcadia).
And now a sampling of what we usually order:
Taro Dumpling (aka Wu Gok). Deep fried (need I go on?), this airy and crunchy puff is filled with delicious taro which is then pounded, mixed with pork and mushrooms and fried until light and fluffy. The texture of the outer skin is especially nice when contrasted with the soft inner filling. Mmmm, this one seriously melts in your mouth.
Turnip Cake (aka Lor Bak Gou). Made out of shredded Chinese radish (daikon) and rice flour, this one is especially popular during Chinese New Year. This is usually pan-fried which contributes to a slightly crisp outer covering which encloses a soft daikon cake filling with (you guessed it!) mushrooms and pork inside. Shrimp, shallots and scallops can also make an appearance inside depending on who’s making this.
Pork and Shrimp Dumpling (aka Shu Mai). The venerable Big Mac of dim sum diners, this is probably the most widely ordered dish in the dim sum kingdom. A pork dumpling usually containing mushrooms and shrimp, it is then wrapped with a thin flour wrapper, steamed and usually topped with crab or shrimp roe. A delicious treat indeed.
Steamed BBQ Pork Bun (aka Char Shu Bao). A personal favorite, these fluffy handfuls of soft steamed bread are filled with BBQ flavored pork which is slightly sweet and oh-so-tender. This also has a baked counterpart with the same name but the covering is baked, glazed and browned (Bao simply means “bun”). Both can be found at your local Chinese bakery.
Shrimp Stuffed Eggplant (aka Shrimp Stuffed Eggplant). Chinese eggplant covered with a flavorful shrimp paste for a tender flavorful dish. Finally a vegetable!
Savory Mochi Dumpling (aka Ham Sui Gok). Another study in contrasts, this dumpling is deep-fried to create a crunchy shell to contrast against its soft, savory mochi filling of pork, mushroom and vegetable. These taste best fresh and hot so that they don’t get soggy or oily. This one’s a fan favorite.
Other favorites not pictured: Shrimp Dumpling (Har Gau), Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce (Gai Lan), Steamed Rice in Lotus Leaf, Shrimp Rice Noodle.
Extra Credit Items (not for the faint of heart):
Beef Tendon (aka none for me). Not a personal favorite, but I know there is a cult following. This one is marinated with loads of garlic and then cooked until soft. The Husband loves this but to me it’s just offal.
Chicken Feet (aka Foong Jow). Another favorite of the Husband’s, these are for hard-core dim sum-mers. Deep-fried to get the skin and tendons to puff up, it is then marinated in a soy sauce, fermented black bean sauce marinade. The diner then sucks the skin and tendon away from the bones. Whenever I watch the Husband gnawing away on a foot, I cannot help but fall hopelessly in love with him again.
Hope you enjoyed this little primer on dim sum. And here’s hoping your new year is filled with bountiful bao. Cheers!