(Spurred on by a morning “brunch” at Pagoda, I couldn’t help but want to write about a certain subject today. Sadly though I forgot to take multiple pictures of the food to better pair along with it, so I had to settle for simple, general shots of carts and things I found online)
The practice of Dim Sum, the almost buffet-style service of small Chinese plates from pushed carts (regular and steamed, though apparently there are some places that eschew the carts to ordering from a “menu” of sorts) and offered to patrons at different costs per item, owes its origins not to restaurants or Chinese family tradition, but to Tea; or, to be more specific, Tea Houses which took up residence along the Silk Road (Ancient trans-Asian trading route). Travelers, weary from the long treks and business, and Rural Farmers alike would use the houses as a place of rest. Just rest, and warm rehydration for the longest time, as tea and food were not consumed together (a belief of 1+1=really fat) until it was “discovered” that tea aided in digestion. Though there’s also theories it started due to a recent ban on Opium Dens; the only sense of which I could make out of being that they themselves (somehow) entertained a rich tea-drinking tradition… along with certain other indulgences.
With freedom to eat, owners of the small, limited houses started offering Small Snacks and dishes to consume and restore the patrons along with the tea. It might have lightly started with only a couple of “options,” or just one set dish made from whichever cooking tools they used. In particular, simple dishes like traditional Porridge (made with Rice in the South and Wheat in the North, also marking the regional focus on dumpling wrapper base ingredients), flavored with local aromatics and whichever proteins and vegetables one could get their hands on, were employed in much the same fashion as the Soups of the French Restaurers (said to be the first true “restaurants,” and where we get the term, and coming into existence a few hundred years after the tea house development). They “restored” a person’s energy, along with their Chi, their Soul.
This was “Eating to Live,” one of the various Chinese concepts and theories about the connection between food and person. Basically describing the consumption of grains, cereals, and similar energy and nutrition-focused items, it stands in stark contrast to “Eating for Pleasure,” the cooking of Meats and Vegetables designed, at that time (and still true today in many a sense), purely for the enjoyment of flavor, an extravagance used mainly when one can afford it, for special occasions, or the rich.
Growing to consist of a variety of now-familiar items such as various dumplings (bun and noodle based), sticky rice wraps, porridge, and fried noodle rolls/balls, ALL offered as-is or filled with any form of protein desired, one could thus conclude these Tea Houses (and/or some of the bigger “cafes” grown from the concept in a later century) to be one of the first Chinese establishments to properly combine and display both of these long-held ideals. A place one could go to experience pleasure, while eating that needed to live, either separately or together.
Its origins have been said to stem from the South, which makes a bit of sense considering the cuisine of the Canton region boasts the most diverse and varied offerings in China. Perhaps this may have been one of the original factors which lead to the smorgasbord of different offerings we have today (not to mention the many Steamed Dishes, the vaporized cooking method being a particularly important and traditional method in the region). Nonetheless where it began, this popular trend spread from the southern trading paths of Guangzou to nearby Hong Kong, soon becoming an inlaid practice for the sustenance of cities (not just roads) throughout the Country. Not to mention providing even further variety in main ingredients, cooking styles, and preparation techniques for the many different food options to choose from today (thank you North for the extra dumplings!).
Of the many new demographics over the coming decades of growth for this tradition, one of the most important (both in volume and impact), oddly enough, came in the form of their elderly. As morning exercises were an important cultural part to their day, the consumption of tea and (as follows) dim sum right afterwards to replenish energy and partake in group social traditions soon followed into a cultural habit. With this, the benefiting cafes and tea houses ended up “opening” the establishments as early as 5am as part of their culture (or that could just be certain ones nowadays, unclear), and traditionally halting dim sum around mid-afternoon. Which answered my personal wonderment as to why so many dim sum times happen during “brunch.”
With social convention woven in over the years, dim sum slowly turned from quiet moments of rest and contemplation to loud, joyful dining experiences. By this point its transition into “restaurant” use was more complete, and with various technological, geographical, emigrational and social changes has evolved to that point where it is today, both in China and worldwide.
And as many of these cultural culinary focuses sink into the present, the actions of interests, cravings and trends do what they are wont to do. For both the good and the bad, they find ways to take this tradition and apply it to ever changing demographics, ever needy audiences who shape delivery along with industry itself. From serving “dim sum” from carts and booths on the streets of today (some in skewers), to selling it as “take out,” and to who knows whatever interesting and weird ways of presenting it; and yes, even Food Trucks.
But one can’t deny the soul that this tradition has grown, starting its course from the routes of travel and moving to the table, yet still finding its way back. Even in this mishmashed, modern culture we live in today, dim sum is able to express itself and delight us in the same way as when it began, and in the way it truly is: as Street Food. Maybe not in the mobile sense, though some carts ARE sliding those dumplings on skewers, but in what street food WAS, and how it started. As those little booths, and stands, and shacks, run by family and serving simple, heart-warming food meant not just for the body but for the spirit.
This is the food that was tied to people, who they are and how they lived. It’s for this reason that it is still engrained into the cuisines and restaurants today, and it’s for this reason we still celebrate and look forward to it, not just because it’s fun and delicious but because of what it ties into, what those who make it try to share with us. Street food is more than just something one can hold in their hand, it’s something that can transport our spirit, and Dim Sum does that.
So, with all that said, why don’t we have a Dim Sum Food Truck here yet!!? Come oooonnnn, please?? I swear it’d be popular, truly (the Dim Sum restaurants do seem to be quite successful here, or at least growing)! It might not be the PERFECT street food, but it’s close, it even has the whole nostalgic and historic traditional thing going for it! I’ve already said they have carts skewering things, so why can’t we put the rest in a big truck as well? They already perform well in rolling mini carts, this way we just have people come to the food instead of the other way around (though I guess the truck would still be coming to “your area,” so kinda the same?).
Just think about it. Heading up to a very simple truck or large cart with large glass windows showing the various options just waiting for you underneath steamers or light warming areas (like Potter’s little pasty pile). You grab yourself a long skewer of 4 sauce laden pork/shrimp dumplings, large fluffy Char Siu (bbq pork) Bun, the thick and chewy deep-fried rice “dumpling” of Haam Sei Gauu (look it up, seriously, so good) in a paper wrapping, or maybe even a Coconut/Red Bean Custard Bun if you’re in the mood for dessert. Or maybe it’s a cold day, you’re tired from work/exercise or for whatever reason under the wheather, and you grab a nice, warm bowl of aromatic herb Rice Porridge filled with seafood or other meat to rejuvenate yourself for the rest of the day. Not to mention all the other almost-limitless possibilities.
Doesn’t that sound good? Doesn’t that sound AMAZING to find on the street, especially on some of the colder spring/autumn days? Of course it does. But it’s not going to be a reality until someone makes a decision to start, so let’s do all we can to find a way and make this happen! If you’re thinking about starting a truck and have some skill in Chinese Cuisine, consider this idea before stir-fry; if you know someone who makes awesome Dumplings and/or Cantonese food, push them to open a cart (don’t be subtle about it, I want these guys on the street NOW, haha), if you see a Kickstarter campaign… find a way to dupe someone with money to help fund it (don’t look at me, I’m practically still a college student with my budget atm)!
But above all, just keep supporting the various (quality) Trucks which come out, as well as the various means they use to survive, to help encourage other culinary entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and ideas. For in this ever expanding world of cuisine, Ever-changing Modern and Long-standing Tradition both hang at the forefront of importance; two very hot, burning pyres which need be ever stoked and kept alive, keeping the warmth of our lives ongoing and filled with flickering excitement. For this way we can spread the warmth, the traditions, the history of all these great and amazing cuisines, to show those we love and care about something new and fun, for which they can do the same for others. In that sense we shall truly expand and celebrate that warmth that is our soul with others, and connect with others as people have for centuries. That is what food does for us, and what it continues to do as we implement both new and old traditions of spreading its joy.
Maybe that’s why I decided to start writing about Dim Sum today, because it’s one of the World Foods which evoke this idea and feeling so well, and so easily on the initial thoughts and emotions whence consuming; after all, it does translate to “Touch the Heart.”
I rambled much from my initial dialogue and history lesson, much as I usually do in my various posts on this site, but I hope that in THIS sense/situation my readers are able to better understand why it is I do this now. And from here, hopefully my thoughts and feelings can better go out and encourage others to let themselves go in thought and conversation, and travel on their own fun, exciting, and emotional tangents in the middle of some journey that has nothing to do with it ever more often.
Though whether you enjoyed my travel in thoughts of this afternoon or simply see these paragraphs as the typings of an unorderly, random weirdo on a soapbox (which is about to collapse on itself I assure you), I dearly wish you Good Luck in whatever culinary travels you are to partake in, either soon coming or down the line, and Good Eating experiences to all.
Now go put a dumpling in your mouth.