If you enjoy Chinese food then there's a very good chance you've gone to enjoy dim sum. Dim sum, a selection of bite size morsels of deliciousness, has been a part of Chinese cuisine for many centuries. Dim sum are the small snacks served at teahouses, offering variety and the opportunity to eat as little or as much as one wants.
Lately there has been a lot of discussion about cultural appropriation of foods. That (usually) white people are taking on and becoming experts of cuisines from countries that they have no connection to. Prime examples are Rick Bayless and Mexican and Andy Ricker with Thai food. One person that might fall into that controversy would be Carolyn Phillips with Chinese food. Towards the end of our event Phillips makes a very profound comment - that the younger generations throughout China are moving toward Western diets and soon thousands years of culinary history will disappear if it isn’t documented. So really, is it so bad that some people have taken enough interest to thoroughly respect it, research it, and document it?
Carolyn Phillips has been researching Chinese cuisine for over 30 years. She’s written several books and has been nominated for a James Beard Award for All Under Heaven. She’s also known as Madame Huang, appropriate since her husband is author J.H. Huang.
In her book, All Under Heaven, Phillips "divides China's food traditions into five major regions that share the same geography and climate, as well as similar basic ingredients, cooking styles, seasonings, and interaction among the cuisines. These were then further narrowed down into 35 unique food traditions."
I was joining her and a roomful of other hungry diners at Peony Restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown. The event was a Dim Sum Sampling with a dose of education. Phillips has another small book, easy to take to dim sum with you, called The Dim Sum Field Guide. In it she goes over each piece of dim sum you might encounter and she gives you the area of origin, ingredients, and variations. She also tells you the proper way to eat it with which sauce. Each one is illustrated by Phillips’ own hand.
Before we start, Phillips gives a short talk on dim sum etiquette. Start with the steamed selections before moving to the heavier fried selections. Always serve the person(s) of honor and eldest first. When the bill comes, fight over it or lose face.
Phillips chose the Peony Restaurant because she considers it the best in the Bay Area. The owners have hired and imported cooks from China that specialize in a style or selection of dim specialties. Everything is made fresh in house. Phillips explains that nowadays many restaurants get their dim sum frozen from centralized kitchens that produce thousands. (See below video showing Peony.)