Apparently, my obsession with food and culture began long before I’d realized it was even a “thing”. My love of secondary titles also apparently began at a young age. I found this essay in my archive of assignments from high school, in which young, 14-year-old me attempts to advocate cultural education to my predominantly white high school in the form of dim sum. Excuse the overwhelming lameness of the writing, I was, after all, a mere tween and probably in the middle of reading the Twilight series. Please enjoy.
Welcome to the World of Dim Sum: Leave Your Conscience at the Door
“Har gow! Siu mai!” It seems as if I am being addressed by a small paper hat peeking out from behind a cart piled high with bamboo steamers. “Har gow, please,” I say, smiling, to the hat. Disembodied hands carefully select one of the many bamboo steamers from the large pile. It is then that I realize the paper hat sits on the head of a tiny, but tough-looking Chinese lady and that the hands are not disembodied at all. Looking around, I find myself surrounded by the clatter of plastic chopsticks against bowls and plates, along with the incessant chatter and peals of laughter coming from tables filled with elderly Chinese ladies. I do not feel foreign at all in this chaotic environment; actually, I feel quite comfortable. For me, it is just another typical Saturday and I have once again entered the wonderful world of dim sum.
I immediately descend upon my favourite dish, “White Cloud Phoenix Claws” or in real terms, vinegar marinated chicken feet. These delicacies look repulsive with their translucent white and wrinkly skin, but their salty taste and rubber-like texture cannot be found in any other dish. Since there is no actual meat on the feet, the only way of eating it is to gnaw on the bones and chew on the skin. Barbarous, I know, but nonetheless satisfying.
My grandmother comments on all the unhealthy and oily foods I have eaten throughout the week. Among the items in her lengthy list are pizza, ice cream, and some chips that I thought had gone unnoticed. The rest of the extended family looks on as I gape at her in amazement and humiliation. I do not notice that she had stolen my bowl and vigorously spooned something into it until she sets the almost overflowing bowl back on my plate. Pointing, she tells me in Chinese, “Eat congee. Flush out unhealthiness.” I ignore her command and inquire as to how, despite her age, her memory could be so incredible. She glares and responds, “Congee. Good for everything. Now eat.” Congee, this supposed miracle substance, is essentially rice cooked with too much water, resulting in a thick porridge-like burgoo. The stew is thick and bland, but the meat and greyish eggs give it a pleasantly salty taste, although the meat is really just a small pile of bones with a few tough tendrils stuck to them.
Throughout my lifetime, I have tried congee mixed with many kinds of ingredients; some, I must admit, have been better than others. I am told by my grandmother, who does not speak English, that the meat in this type of congee is called “field chicken” and the egg-like pieces are “Thousand Year Old Eggs.” My parents, uncles, and aunts all seem to be giggling about some twisted inside joke. I demand to know what they are laughing about, and soon regret that decision. Despite the name, Thousand Year Old Eggs are not a thousand years old. They are duck eggs preserved in ash and salt for a hundred days, thus explaining the greyness of the egg white. Worst of all, “field chicken” is not chicken at all; in fact, it is a fancy Chinese name for… frog. I am suddenly struck by a wave of nausea.
I move onto a dish I am much more familiar with: duck tongue and kidney, marinated in soy sauce and steamed to perfection. The pile of tongues lies morbidly on a plate, each one about half the size of my index finger. Like the chicken feet, there is no meat on the tongue so I carefully nibble around the fragile little bone and chew the slimy skin strewn with small pieces of cartilage. After digging into the mountain of tongue, I come upon a jewel of a kidney. Duck kidney is about the size of a large grape and three-quarters its thickness. It is somewhat tough but very chewy. I smile as I watch my young cousins fight over the last tongue remaining on the plate. The little munchkins clearly have no idea what they are eating.
Countless times, friends have asked how I can stand to digest these revolting delicacies. The simplest answer would be that I have grown up eating these foods; to me, they are as common as steak and potatoes. Another answer is that I tend not to think of where or what the food came from; I find that this is the easiest way to keep it all down. Besides, most of these exotic foods taste much better than they look. So the next time you enter a dim sum restaurant, please leave your conscience at the door. Once that inner voice has been muted, you will be taken on a subway ride of tastes and textures; each aroma you encounter will be unique and thrilling. Welcome to the magical world of dim sum.