Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dim Sum - A Metaphor For Life

Vegetarians need not apply (unless you're happy with a pile of bok choy for lunch), but for everyone else, dim sum is a must-eat. Not only is it fun, delicious, entertaining, and inexpensive, but a whole truckload of life lessons can be gleaned from participation in this gastronomic activity.

For those unfortunate souls who have never experienced dim sum, here's a quick yet vivid definition, straight out of The Mill's Unabridged Dictionary of Food-Related Terms (or, the MUDFOOT):

dim-sum (pronunciation)
- noun
1. Usually occurs in Chinatown. Chinese ladies push around little metal carts stacked with small dishes of various foods. When you see something you think you'd like to eat, you point to it, they put it on your table, and then stamp a card in such a way that lets the cashier know how much to charge you. Sometimes an unknowable scribble is added to the card, thus enhancing the mystery. A wide variety of foods are offered, ranging from the standard - dumplings, to the exotic - jellyfish, to the terrifying - boiled chicken feet. It's all very fun.

2. A metaphor for human existence as we know it.

Definition #1 is rather straightforward. You go to Chinatown, find the restaurant that's most packed with native Chinese folks, and get a table. You wait for the carts to come around. When you see your favorites, perhaps shrimp dumplings, or lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice, you point and grunt. You're then served the chosen items. A mark is made on your check, or Dim Sum Scorecard. You chow down on the savory morsels while keeping one eye on the passing carts, for any other eye-catching goodies. My favorites include the pork shumai, shrimp noodles, and anything deep-fried.

Not everything on the table is deep-fried, but they will fry the table cloth if you ask nicely.

Definition #2, however, needs a little more explanation. Dim sum is not only a meal. It's not just synonymous with delectable pork-filled doughstuffs. But to eat dim sum is to experience a true slice of humanity, and all the intricacies and social issues that go along with being human. You need to communicate without words - by pointing and grunting. You need to compete with other diners - for the last plate of fried sesame balls. And you often have to sit at a table with total strangers, some of whom may eat with their mouths open (a pet peeve of mine) - and instead of throwing hot tea in your noisy neighbor's face, you must try to remain civil and orderly. Something of a microcosm of society. It's a lot like the novel "Animal Farm". Or maybe "Lord of the Flies." Wait. Which was the one about the theme park where they clone dinosaurs, but the plan goes terribly wrong, and the dinosaurs become uncontrollable terrors? Basically, the moral of that story is you can't keep dinosaurs as pets. And also that you need to maintain order, lest all of society fall prey to the scourge of communism. It's completely analogous to a scenario in which there aren't enough pork and shrimp dumplings to go around - things could get very ugly, very fast. That hungry patron could quickly get as vicious as a velociraptor.

Dim sum waitress maintains social order by slinging pork at patrons.

To experience an authentic and delicious dim sum meal, such as the one briefly described above, I recommend Delight 28 (used to be called Hee Win Lai, which maybe means "delight 28" in chinese?). It's on Pell Street just east of Mott, in the heart of Chinatown NYC. The fried food is plentiful here, and so are the secrets of civilization.

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