What dim sum taught me about... life

Kenny Mah
Crispy 'cheun gyun' or spring rolls — Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, Nov 27 — We eye every bamboo steamer greedily: baked cha siu sou with a craggy polo bun crust; pan-fried cheong fun rice rolls in XO chilli sauce; soft, cartilaginous “phoenix claws” marinated with fermented black beans; crispy cheun gyun or spring rolls that promise a most satisfying crunch when you bite into them... the options seemed endless.

It was our first dim sum together, eagerly awaited. And it was mediocre.

To be fair, it wasn’t terrible. Perhaps our expectations were too high. Perhaps the dim sum chef had a bad day in the kitchen.

Take har gow for example. When it’s excellent, the shrimp fresh and the skin pale translucent, it is a cause for celebration.

When it’s poorly made, more often than not, with frozen shrimp and skin thick enough to be considered walls, it’s a cause for despair.

Let’s call it even and say the dim sum was terribly mediocre. My best friend and I survived but we weren’t impressed. Or at least I wasn’t.

ME: Ugh, this har gow is so dry.

BESTIE: So good!

ME: And the cha siu sou is cold.

BESTIE: Still so good!

ME: The cheong fun doesn’t have enough sauce...


ME: Are we even eating the same things??

A pot of Chinese tea and condiments (left). 'Har gow' or steamed shrimp dumplings (right)

Dim sum taught me to love what is, as Byron Katie would put it. Mediocre dim sum still fills our bellies. Sometimes it’s just an excuse for friends to meet up, get updated on our busy lives.

We touch each other’s hearts (in Cantonese, dim is “touch lightly” and sum means “heart). We reconnect, rebuild and strengthen our ties and bonds. We make time for those we care about.

In this instance, the person I care about and meet for dim sum, whenever we are even in the same zip code, has been my best friend for longer than either of us can remember.

Her idea of ordering dim sum begins with the ever indispensable basket of siu mai and to go crazy from there.

BESTIE: I also want sticky rice, custard bun, that thick rice noodles with prawn...

ME: Nor mai gai? Nai wong bao? Har cheong?

BESTIE: Fish ball!

BESTIE: The fried thing with yam inside!

ME: Wu gok? Oh, that’s my favourite...

BESTIE: Fried prawns with mayo dip!

ME: Uhm, are you sure you can finish all of...

BESTIE: Yes, I can finish everything!

Baked 'cha siu sou' with polo bun crust (left). Pan-fried 'cheong fun' in XO sauce (right)

She never does. It’s always up to me to finish every last morsel. She always over-orders. It’s her thing.

I don’t understand. And I don’t need to. I love that she loves her siu mai and her endless pots of chrysanthemum tea. (The latter largely because she can announce “Kok fah!” whenever the server asks which tea we’d prefer.)

Dim sum has taught me to enjoy what the ones I love enjoy.

Dim sum is also about expectations.

I don’t mean lusting for a fluffy, light as air char siu bao, filled with the most unctuous nuggets of barbecued meat, from Monday till Saturday, only to be disappointed by a stale brick of a factory-manufactured bun (frozen, reheated) come Sunday. Though there’s that too.

No, some expectations are more insidious, though not maliciously so. The simple act of ordering can be a minefield of racial identity to be navigated or cause for a casual prank, if your dining companion shares your adolescent sense of humour.

WAITER: May I take your order, sir? [spoken in Cantonese]

ME: Ask her. She’s in charge. [also in Cantonese]

BESTIE: Zou san!! I want the har gow, the wu gok, the hum sui gok, the loh bak gou, the...

WAITER: [flabbergasted] Uhm...

BESTIE: Not enough ah? No problem! Let’s order more! Some daan tat, mah lai gou...


The reverse is true, of course. When my best friend and I visit a restaurant for Indian food, the servers inevitably will turn to the (possibly) former Bollywood queen rather than the Chinese dude at the table for instructions.

Which is hilarious, not only because I’m usually the one with cravings for a good palak paneer and mutton varuval, but how oblivious she is to the male waiters’ blatant flirting.

The indispensable 'siu mai' (left). Steamed dumpling by spoon (right)

Not that I’m complaining; when you’re in a packed banana leaf rice restaurant, getting the attention of busy, overworked servers is paramount.

We can choose to be offended, naturally, but that’s too easy and leads us down an endless rabbit hole. (Just look at Twitter. Or don’t.) Better to see it as an opportunity to be a good team, and defying expectations rather than bemoaning them.

Dim sum is about learning to be comfortable with yourself. I have always been embarrassed about my lack of chopstick skills; my bestie tells me to just use a spoon for those precious steamed dumplings — “better than dropping it” — and yes, it’s better to be practical than try to impress strangers.

(Everyone else is busy dealing with their own dim sum, anyway.)

Dim sum teaches us that most things don’t matter. Food isn’t great? Be grateful we have something to fill our bellies. Folks laugh at you or you think they do? Find a way to laugh with them. Not comfortable in your own skin? Find friends who love you for who you are and love them back the same way.

And if you already have friends like that, don’t forget to ask them out for dim sum from time to time. If only to argue over the freshness of the har gow together.

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