Every time I plan a trip, the food is one of the key highlights around which I will plan all other activities. I will spend hours on Yelp to make sure I know exactly where I’m going and why. When the husband and I return from a trip and friends ask how it was, our answer is either, “The food was so good!” or “The food was just ok.” Never mind that we were in Spain or Colorado or some other breathtakingly beautiful location. We just always come back to talking about the food.
Well, my parents and I went to visit my sister in Chicago this past weekend, and any foodie knows that Chicago has no dearth of incredible cuisines to choose from. The Parthenon in Greektown, Rosebud Steakhouse, Shaw’s Crab Shack, and of course the plethora of coma-inducing deep dish pizzas are must-visits. Caramel ice cream french toast at the Bongo Room for brunch? Yes please.
But on this particular trip, what we really craved one morning was dim sum in Chinatown. The food of my peoples. The shared understanding with the other immigrant families in the room that this food is at the heart of our own hearts, and hence it never gets old. The yuppy brunch boutiques couldn’t compete with the carts of savory deliciousness brought to you by women reminiscent of that favorite jovial-but-borderline-bossy Chinese auntie who glowed with pride at the morsels they offered, and hardly hid the fact that they were more than slightly offended when you declined their offers. Only in a bonafide dim sum restaurant would this attitude from your server be both expected and appropriate, and earn them a better tip. After all, it only showed how much they cared.
There is, of course, the pork or shrimp siu-mai. Savory, salty, juicy, deceptively light morsels of meat and finely chopped vegetables enclosed in the thinnest of wrappers, subsequently dipped in soy sauce, hot sauce, or hot mustard. I don’t need the fancy overpriced dumplings at Din Tai Fung. Sit me in an old B-rated Chinatown restaurant anyday, so long as I see the aunties with their carts and the wrinkles of pride on their faces, I know what they have to offer must be authentic.
My sister and I reminisced about how adding the thousand-year-old-egg always made the best pot of rice porridge. Don’t let the black-and-green color or the pungent garbage-like smell of those eggs fool you. That stuff is nothing short of gourmet. Barbeque pork steamed buns, taro cakes, deep-fried sesame balls with red bean filling, and egg custard pastry cups are non-negotiables.
But somehow, what we look forward to the most are the chicken feet and the cow intestines. Frightening as they may appear, these delectables deserve a spot on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Even if you need to close your eyes to eat them, or need a good Tsingtao beer afterwards to help you forget what you just consumed, the flavor in these dishes, when prepared correctly, is absolutely incomparable. (I have to admit though, when we found a small hair in our cow intestine dish, it seemed rather pointless to complain about it to our waiter. I mean, how clean can this cow intestine dish be, really?)
I could tell you plenty of other stories about the crickets and deep-fried waterbugs offered at Typhoon in Santa Monica. The live snake at the hole-in-the-wall in China that was subsequently sauteed into two dishes – one based on the skin, and the other based on the scant amount of meat running along the snake’s slithery skeleton. (That snake dish left me reeling with dizziness in the airport later that day, but it was so worth it.) The raw beef lips that I gleefully found in a 99 Ranch supermarket as the ultimate tool for a future practical joke. The brain soup of some poor unidentified creature that my uncle offered to me in a Taiwan night market. Just a brain in a bowl of broth. (No amount of Tsingtao was going to help me out with that one. I passed.) But alas, this post will remain dedicated to the glorious, incomparable cuisine known as dim sum, the food of my peoples.