Why Dim Sum Is the Ultimate Chinese Comfort Food
Ordering from the heart
A takeout box of sesame chicken undeniably falls into the realm of comfort food, but fans of Chinese cuisine know there exists a wealth of dishes beyond the Americanized staples that hit the same pleasure centers. For restaurateur C.K. Chin of Wu Chow, few meals give more comfort than a dim sum feast.
"When people say comfort food, my belief is things that bring you back to a certain time. I remember waking up on days when my grandmother would be making dumplings for our family. There's so much work involved in making something simple that's just one bite," says Chin.
Although dim sum is commonly translated to "touch the heart," Chin says the more correct translation is "order from the heart," an apt description for the seemingly endless selection of appetizers served alongside tea. Most restaurants send out carts loaded with delicacies, encouraging diners to order with their eyes. The small nature of each dish (most are 3-4 bites) encourages a shotgun ordering process which can quickly cover an entire menu without becoming too costly. Most Chinese meals are best enjoyed family style, but for dim sum, it's the only way.
"There's not a lot of meals out there that are designed for the more the merrier. The lazy Susan is basically designed for dim sum service," says Chin.
The serving style traditionally focuses on Cantonese dishes, with standouts like Chinese broccoli, turnip cakes, steamed buns, and unusual meats like chicken feet. But dumplings in all their permutations play the starring role.
"One could say that we have three different types of dumplings, six different types of dumplings, or 18 types of dumplings depending on how you define them," says Chin.
Wu Chow's best known for their soup dumplings packed with pork and mouth-scorching broth, but the dish is actually unconventional for dim sum because it originated in Shanghai. Beyond that, other dumplings include pork belly & shrimp, shrimp & cilantro, and rabbit (if you happen to go on Easter Sunday). Plus they offer an array of near-dumplings like an open-faced chicken and shiitake shumai or steamed bao buns.
Another way the comforts of dim sum differ from most Chinese meals is an emphasis on sweets. Granted, the average cook sneaks plenty of sugar into a sesame chicken sauce, but typically the closest thing to dessert at Chinese restaurants is a plate of orange slices. Dim sum on the other hand includes egg tarts, egg cream baos, and red bean sesame balls, delivered throughout the meal instead of at the end, making for an even more indulgent experience.
Wu Chow strives for authenticity to the point that they send orders to the kitchen in Chinese rather than English, but they do depart from convention in a few ways. The restaurant's layout doesn't allow for cart service, but it means that food's always delivered at its hottest and crispiest instead of cooling as it travels through the restaurant. They also source as much as they can locally, avoiding the commodity ingredients that mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants work wonders with.
"In Chinese food, adherence to fresh and local, it wasn't a thing, I'd never heard of it before. But I always thought, how good would this dish be if we used eggplant from HausBar Farms and Gulf shrimp?"
It's a difference you can taste and, more importantly, feel. That's not to say eating a meal of 15 dumplings will earn a pat on the back from a nutritionist, but when so many comfort foods rely on artificial ingredients to lull diners into satiation, knowing that Wu Chow's barrage of fried dim sum snacks aren't filled with mystery meat is a comfort unto itself.