Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dim Sum Meal

We walked almost a mile from the San Francisco Hyatt Regency to the Oriental Pearl restaurant in Chinatown where we had dim sum lunch reservations.  I was excited about the lunch because our kids hadn’t ever really had a proper dim sum meal despite my Chinese heritage. Rachael Ray had recommended this restaurant, so it had to be good.  Here we could have an authentic Chinese meal. We found the restaurant and walked up the stairs.

Everyone looked at the menu.  It included some set menus for those who didn't want to order a la carte.  One was called 'The Dim Sum' and another 'Dim Sum Deluxe.'

“How about The Dim Sum set option?” I asked Brad.  He nodded. 

The waiter came back to the table. “Have you decided what you want to order?” he asked Brad. Brad said “Yes, we’d like the dim sum meal.”  “Which dim sum meal?” asked the waiter.  “THE dim sum meal,” Brad said, laughing. He pointed to the menu and the waiter nodded. Brad said, “I’d also like the order the spicy beef stir fry.” The waiter took the menus and left.

Valerie asked, “Can I have some tea?”  I sighed and said, “Fine. Do you want some too, Jacob?”  Jacob nodded and said, "Okay." I poured hot tea for her, me, Brad, and Jacob. Amanda drank ice water.

The waitress came to the table and placed a little plate of vegetarian spring rolls down. We all ate one except for Amanda.  “Are you sure you don’t want one?” I asked Amanda. She said, “No, they're gross.” It made a crunching sound when we bit into it, with warm and flavorful vegetables inside.  “Are you sure?” I asked her.  She shook her head again.

Then the waitress brought some potstickers.  “These are Jacob’s favorite,” I said. Jacob enthusiastically ate three; the girls didn’t eat any.  Valerie said, “I don’t like potstickers.” Then the waitress brought shrimp dumplings. I told the kids, “You really should try one. They’re delicious!” Jacob and Brad tried them but the girls didn’t eat any. I happily ate the leftovers, savoring the almost translucent white rice dough encasing the soft, sweet, pink shrimp flesh inside, like a beautiful noodle wrapper protecting a delicate treasure.

Then came the sui mai. “Kids, this is sui mai. It’s really good, a classic dim sum, with pork in it.”  Brad ate one and said, "It's okay, I guess." Jacob ate his up but the girls didn’t want one. I realized Amanda, the smallest and sternest of our group, was going to be starving if she didn’t eat anything and asked the waitress for a bowl of plain steamed rice for her, along with a fork.

Brad said, “I’m not really that into the dim sum. I’m glad I ordered the beef stir-fry.”   I grumbled under my breath, annoyed at his complaining. Next came the BBQ pork bao.  “Kids, this is like a Chinese hamburger. You’ll like it, just try it.”  Valerie took a little nibble, made a face and said, "Eww!" Amanda shook her head and said, “I don’t like dim sum.”  She sat back in her chair and crossed her arms, eyebrows furrowed.  I peeled the square piece of paper off the bottom of the bao and bit in. The pure white dough on the outside contrasted with the bright pink-red, sweet and savory chunks of pork on the inside. I probably could eat bao every day.

The flavors of the shrimp dumplings and the bao reminded me of big banquets in L.A. that I’d gone to when I was a kid. The big Young family on my mom's side celebrated special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries with these banquets.  Those meals could stretch out for hours and had more exotic dishes like shark fin soup, whole roasted pig, roasted duck, abalone, sticky butterfly pastries, and bird’s nest soup. It wasn't unusual to have ten or more courses at these meals. 

Amanda got her bowl of rice and shook some soy sauce on it. She started eating it with her fork. Then came the pyramid shaped taro in pastry, which I’d never had. It made a crunching sound when we bit into it. Valerie wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooh, it’s mushy inside. It tastes weird. What is taro?”  Brad said, “It’s a root that they eat a lot in Hawaii.” Amanda ate her steamed rice while we all took a few bites of the taro. I had to admit, this one was kind of strange with a purplish-gray color inside. Nobody ate all of theirs.

Then came some rice with mushrooms and Chinese sausage wrapped in a green lotus leaf. Amanda opened one up, at first intrigued by the idea, but then she smelled it and frowned, saying, “Mom, this looks really disgusting.”  Valerie agreed, “I’m not going to eat it either. It smells funny.”  Jacob, Brad, and I all gamely tried it and ate a few bites. She was right, it did smell funny and it was very sticky, almost gelatinous.  “This is Chinese sausage, you guys,” I explained in a wavering voice.

The last dish served was custard in pastry, more familiar looking and probably French inspired.  Valerie ate hers and said, “Mmm, it’s good. You should try it, Amanda.”  Amanda poked it and shook her head again.  The rest of us ate our custards. I ate the one Amanda didn’t eat. I’d stopped counting calories by this point.

The stir fry beef dish arrived with two big spoons for serving. Brad put some onto his plate and ate it quickly.   Jacob, Valerie and I ate some too. Amanda shook her head no.  Brad polished off the rest and said, “I’m sure glad I ordered that beef. It was good.” I had to admit that it was better than the dim sum.

I felt disappointed that the food wasn’t better and that the kids didn’t appreciate it. I know Anthony Bourdain would say my first mistake was listening to Rachael Ray. I had expected too much of the meal, not only a gastronomic feast, but that the kids would somehow feel connected to their Chinese culture. I failed at both of these objectives, but at least they got to try and taste new things and it added to our Chinatown adventure. We’ve even joked since then about THE dim sum meal.

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