Yum Dim Sum:
A little knowledge goes a long way when sampling these small plates of hot and cold Chinese food

New Orleans Times-Picayune
December 4, 2009


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After my first dim sum meal at Panda King Fine Dining in Gretna, I walked away full but with the sense that I'd played a game without knowing the rules.

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As my family of three waited for a table, I followed with a hungry eye the silver carts stacked high with metal steamer baskets. At each table, the waitress lifted a lid, as if pulling the wrapper off a present, to reveal scallops, pork dumplings or stuffed eggplants.

Suddenly I spied a push cart that carried Peking duck. My 2-year-old loves that fatty meat covered in a crisp, mahogany skin, and it's my favorite too. Would it be a faux pas to grab a plate and guard it until we were seated? Before I can decide, the cart finished its circuit of the bustling banquet room and disappeared into the kitchen. Would the duck pass our way again before we paid the check?

The host called our name, and we took off like sprinters. After watching from the sidelines, I was ready to grab every dish that rolled past. Jalapeños stuffed with ground shrimp? Why yes. Steamed buns as soft as Bunny bread and filled with hoisin-sweetened pork? We'll take two. Sticky rice studded with sausage and wrapped in a lotus leaf? How could I say no.

With each order, a waitress added a stamp to our ticket and a couple of dollars to the final tab. I eyed a nearby table with envy. How did they get a plate of fried calamari tossed with hot peppers? Was I looking the other way when it rolled by?

As my hunger subsided, I became more selective. I skipped the congee, a warm rice porridge, and said no to another round of fried shrimp dumplings. I was holding out for the duck. And then, when a cart carrying duck finally arrived, I was too stuffed to eat a bite. Such is the heartbreak of dim sum.

Cai Ngo opened Panda King Fine Dining in May. It's his first dim sum restaurant and, he believes, the first place in the area to serve dim sum from push carts. Before, the local Chinese-American population traveled as far as Houston for a full dim sum experience, although Royal China in Metairie has long offered an a la carte dim sum menu.

"I had a lot of friends that asked why I don't open dim sum here," Ngo said about the banquet space next to his massive Panda King buffet. "But I'm trying to find a chef." Last spring, Ngo finally hired a Hong Kong-born chef, who in English goes simply by the name Chef Lam.

I returned to Panda King Fine Dining seeking the secrets of dim sum. My guide was Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, daughter of former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and granddaughter of Bing Lee, who opened the House of Lee restaurant on Oct. 10, 1959. Billed as "the largest Chinese restaurant south of the Mason-Dixon line" and located where Borders now sits on Veterans Memorial Boulevard, the House of Lee was a mainstay on the local restaurant scene until it closed on March 31, 1995.

Lee-Sheng arrived at Panda King with a crowd of friends, family and co-workers. This, I learned, was the one crucial rule of dim: Always dine in a pack. You need at least four people around the table, or you can't order enough to sample the kitchen's full range.

After we sat down, the first cart to come by had duck feet simmered in soy and star anise. Lee-Sheng's husband, Stewart Sheng, urged me to try one. Never one to avoid something unfamiliar that might be delicious, I grabbed a foot with unsteady chopsticks and started to nibble at its webbing, which I had been assured was the "best part."

"You are braver than me," Lee-Sheng said. I noticed that at our table of nine, only two of us were eating the duck feet. Was this a test? If so, I'm glad I took it. I vanquished my fear of feet and later tasted without trepidation a chicken foot coated in fire red pepper sauce.

"I haven't seen much adaptation of dim sum to American tastes," Andrew Coe, author of "Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States," wrote in an e-mail interview. "That's because most customers in dim sum restaurants here are Chinese."

Dim sum began in the tea houses of China's southern Guangdong province. The Cantonese dishes emphasize fresh flavors, light sauces and are more often steamed than fried.

A few carts at Panda King Fine Dining hold ingredients rarely found on New Orleans tables, like the feet of fowl or cubes of congealed pig's blood. But you're more likely to find under the steamer lids the familiar duo of pork and shrimp.

"In Chinese cooking," Sheng said, "a lot of it is just the combination in various ratios of soy, vinegar, wine and sugar."

At our meal, the Lazy Susan in the center of our table quickly filled with dozens of small plates. We ate steamed Chinese broccoli drizzled with a thick soy sauce. I sampled snow-white sheets of ground rice, slippery and slightly sweet, wrapped loosely around shrimp. We divvied up a square of spongy turnip cake that had a horseradish-like kick. Lee-Sheng insisted on two plates for the table of her favorite: deep-fried salty pork.

"Ah, we're shoving food down your throat!" yells Sheng.

There was, I was assured, no secret order to the culinary chaos of dim sum. No one outside the kitchen can predict what the next cart will carry. You simply grab what looks good and eat until full.

"The trick is always to sit at the edge of the table and look at the cart as it comes," said Alfred Yee, who works in Lee-Sheng's office. "It's a visual thing."

Just as on my last visit, the Peking duck appeared when the meal was over. Sheng insisted that I take an order home "for my son." Before the duck was packed up, though, neither of us could resist tasting a piece.


DIM SUM TIPS

BRING THE GANG.
It is best to comewith four or more people, so that you can sample more dishes.

GET A SEAT ON THE END.
If you're new to dim sum, you'll want to get a close look at your options when the cart rolls up.

BE ADVENTUROUS.
The portions are small and prices fairly low, so try the chicken's feet as well as the more familiar dumplings.

MIX IT UP.
The dishes are steamed and fried, hot and cold, filling and light, allowing for a balanced, tasty meal.


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