Jane and I knew we loved dim sum. We agreed that Sunday afternoons are best dedicated to an hour spent in a bustling restaurant with carts of steaming buns and gleaming pork pushed around endlessly. And we thought we knew what the best dim sum dishes were to eat.
But we wondered: did our innate perspectives as an American and a Chinese citizen influence the way we enjoyed our favorite type of food when we ordered dim sum? Were we missing out on dishes that were unknown to our usual order?
So we decided to embark on a transformative dim sum journey, learning about much more than the food in front of us.
The Location: Wonton King
We decided that the best way to go about choosing dishes was for each of us to pick one or two items from each food cart that we wanted the other person to try. In doing so, we imagined we would best be able to see both the overlap in our dish choices, and the differences in the types of foods we gravitated toward.
Rachel: I stuck to my favorite dishes and ordered: shrimp and pork sit mai, custard bao (creamy warm custard inside a light doughy buns), sesame balls (bean custard inside a dough coated in sesame seeds), lo mein noodles and shrimp dumplings.
Jane: I ordered what I think were the most representative dishes: shrimp dumplings, rice roll stuffed with BBQ pork, baked custard buns (pineapple buns), steamed spareribs and sticky rice in lotus leaf (with chicken inside).
Reactions About Each Other's Choices
Rachel: There are some dishes that I never want to order because the way they look throws me off. For example, I never order pork because it is presented in a way that seems foreign to me. Jane, however, ordered the table two different pork dishes, and they were savory perfection. I definitely will be ordering more when I go back!
Toward the end, Jane also suggested (if I ever get brave enough) to try the Chinese delicacy of chicken feet. At first, the idea of it freaked me out, but I think after our whole experience, I would be open to trying a dish that Jane claims is delectable.
Jane: I was surprised by how much Rachel knew about dim sum. Although she has never been to China before, and we did not communicate about what to order, we both picked some of the most representative dim sums like the shrimp dumplings and the shrimp and pork sui mai. She has a taste for authentic food, and her choice of food was really classic. I did not realize that dim sum had such popularity in the U.S. before I met her!
Our Old Favorite Dishes
Rachel: Bao is my favorite dish because of how oozy and creamy the custard is, especially because it's paired with such a light and airy dough.
Jane: My personal favorite is always steamed spare ribs with black bean sauce. Because the meat is cooked when it is still attached to the bone, it is very tender and juicy. The gravy also adds a rich bean flavor.
Our New Favorite Dish
Rachel: My new favorite dish is definitely the pineapple buns that Jane suggested I try. I couldn't believe it was possible, but they were even more delicious than the bao! I also really enjoyed the BBQ pork rice noodle rolls Jane ordered. The sauce they drizzled over was filled with flavor, and the texture of the noodles was smooth, contrasting with the shrimp inside.
Jane: Unfortunately, I did not find any new favorite dishes here because I've tried almost all kinds of dim sum back home in China.
Reflections on Eating Together
Rachel: I was so thankful that Jane was there. The restaurant we went to was traditional, and while they did understand English, it was significantly easier to order food in Chinese (and Jane was able to call over waiters easily!)
Also, Jane introduced me to so many dishes that I would have never ordered on my own, and I am so glad I got to push beyond my comfort zone. Jane mentioned how the dim sum here was pretty good, but not amazing compared to the food in China. Now, I am determined to one day make it to China and go to all the restaurants she recommends!
Jane: It was a wonderful experience to have Chinese food with Rachel as I always want to know how the food that I love is perceived by others from different food cultures. I was very happy to introduce new food to Rachel because I know that sometimes it's difficult to understand the menu and order the dishes when the descriptions can be vague and confusing.
Also, I can imagine it's difficult to choose from the menu because there are so many kinds of dim sum. I was really glad that Rachel liked the dishes I introduced to her and that we had similar tastes in the end.
Rachel: I learned that I'm eating foreign cuisine with maybe the wrong outlook. I often use my American lens to choose what dishes to try instead of experimenting and allowing myself to eat things that may scare me.
After trying some dishes I would've never ordinarily ordered and loving them, I am inspired to be more adventurous with my food choices and listen to what people have to say about food from their home countries. Too often, the culinary customs we have grown up with blind us from experiencing new and awesome things. Next time I get dim sum, I will most definitely be ordering chicken feet.
Jane: Food is universal. Although we are from different cultures, we both share a love for dim sum. One interesting thing I noticed was that the restaurant we went to actually preserved many traditional Chinese elements.
For example, dim sums were served in little carts that were taken around by waiters to show the customers the actual food, so they could order directly from the carts. In China, many restaurants now have abandoned this way of ordering and have chosen only to provide a list or a menu with few pictures.
I recommend trying the food from your home city or country, but in a new place or context because you may be surprised by how authentic it actually is!