Henry Chan is a man with a vision.
He envisioned a dim sum restaurant in the United States with impeccable service, a refined atmosphere and clean bathrooms.
And eventually, after a great deal of family drama between he and his father, he managed to turn Yank Sing, the restaurant his beloved mother, Alice Chan, started in 1958, into the restaurant he had seen in his dreams. Now, forty-seven years later, Yank Sing is known throughout the United States and the world as -the- place to go for dim sum in San Francisco, a city teeming with dim sum palaces and teahouse dives.
“Dim sum”, for those who are not familiar with the term, literally means, “touches the heart,” or “dot the heart.” It refers to a variety of small snacks which are eaten with tea in special restaurants called teahouses. The practice of going out for dim sum is known as “yum cha,” which means, “to drink tea,” and it is a weekend tradition in Hong Kong and the southern province of Guangdong in China. The tradition of teahouses spread wherever Cantonese people who left China settled, and it is said to have first appeared in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1940’s or 1950’s. Certainly at the time that Alice Chan and her son Henry, arrived in the early 1950’s with the rest of their family, she got a job at Lotus Garden, one of the two existing dim sum restaurants in San Francisco.
The secret to Yank Sing’s success is not only that Henry Chan held it to a higher standard than all the other dim sum restaurants in San Francisco, insisting that the service and dining room be as elegant as any fine dining establishment that American foodies love. The heart of Yank Sing lies in the beautifully prepared dim sum specialties from a menu which includes a staggering one hundred varieties. Though “only” about sixty varieties of dim sum are available on any given day, each type is created lovingly by hand and with exquisite care in huge kitchens where highly skilled workers wrap up to 360 potstickers an hour.
That is a lot of potstickers.
Dim sum is best experienced in a restaurant or teahouse setting, but I have been teaching home cooks how to make it for about seven years now, and my dim sum classes have been constently the most popular ones I have offered. I have been experimenting with home recipes for dim sum for longer than that, developing my own ways of making various teahouse favorites.
As an outsider to Chinese cookery, I am put at a unique vantage point when it comes to evaluating dim sum recipes–most Chinese or Chinese Americans have a plethora of kitchen tricks that they grew up with, shortcuts that have been passed down in their families for generations. Non-Chinese Americans such as myself did not grow up with hese kitchen traditions, so in a lot of ways, we are more able to see clearly whether or not a recipe is written in a truly user friendly way, and if the instructions will help the home cook create not only an edible result, but a flavorful one, too.
The recipes in Classic Deem Sum: Recipes from Yank Sing Restaurant, San Francisco, by Henry Chan, Yukiko Haydock and Bob Haydock (Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1985) represent some of the clearest and most “authentic” dim sum recipes I have had the pleasure to work with and peruse.
When I say they are clear–they are written quite simply, with step-by-step instructions, in a format which is easily followed by novices and old hands at Chinese cookery. I attribute that to the work of Henry Chan’s co-authors, the Haydocks, who had previously produced three other cookbooks on Japanese cooking for American audiences.
Interestingly, this is the first book I have ever seen which advocates the use of a tortilla press in rolling out har gow or potsticker wrappers, a practice I had not heard of until it was suggested to me by someone out there in the blogosphere. Every other Chinese person I knew of who made wrappers from scratch for their own dim sum specialties (when they made them at all), rolled them out using a small rolling pin. However, not long after first hearing about the tortilla press, I went out to eat at Shangri la in Columbus, and lo and behold, the owner was sitting in a corner of the dining room, pressing har gow wrappers with a tortilla press and then wrapping them with nimble pinches of her fingers.
Since the dim sum at Shangri la is the best I have ever had in Ohio that I didn’t have diddly-squat to do with making, I couldn’t help but figure that the practice of using tortilla presses as a time-saving device in dim sum restaurants was not only widespread, but didn’t seem to hurt the flavor or texture of the dumplings in any appreciable fashion.
So, there you are, folks–cross-cultural grassroots cooking advice, brought to you by a friendly blogger with a penchant for out of print cookbooks. What more can you want from life?
The reason I use the loaded term “authentic” to describe the recipes (even though it is hardly “authentic” to use a tortilla press in a Chinese kitchen) is simple: the authors call for lard, pork fat and pork to be included in nearly every dish, a sure sign that a traditionalist is at the helm in the dim sum kitchen. Pork fat is the reason why so many dim sum specialties taste so blasted good and are so juicy. (That is also why the Chinese government recently condemned dim sum as not being a particularly healthy food, much to the outrage and dismay of teahouse fanatics throughout the country.) Pork and its derivatives are in almost every recipe in Classic Deem Sum, which means, if you are Muslim or you are cooking for an Islamic friend, I’d suggest you not make dim sum out of this book.
However, if there are no dietary prohibitions against the pig in your chosen religion or lifestyle, I cannot suggest more strongly that you look up this book on Bookfinder, and pick yourself up a copy. While it is sadly, and unjustly out of print, there are quite a few copies available, including first editions and copies signed by Henry Chan himself, if you are into collecting such things.
Until you can get your hands on a copy of the book, however, high thee hence to the nearest dim sum palace, pour yourself some tea and enjoy some dumplings and buns.
And remember–even though I disagree with Emeril Lagasse on many points, I concur with him on this point:
Pork fat rules.
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