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Eating dim sum in China whets the appetite for more

If you've ever nibbled on a Chinese barbecued spare rib and wanted more, you will like dim sum.m Finger foods, barbecued tidbits, seafood dumplings, miniature hors d'oeuvres -- these snack foods are not exactly the kind of foods one expects to find in China. But this is dim sum, one vast parade of bite-size and larger appetizers -- a complete meal of snacks.

Usually steamed rather than fried, the delicacies are often served in small bamboo steam baskets or small oval platters, somewhat deceiving because you feel as if you really aren't eating very much. But since this series of snack foods is not eaten with rice, the meal is not greasy or heavy in spite of the tremendous variety you may consume if you like.

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Dim sum restaurants in China are open in the morning and the busiest time is from midmorning through lunch time, so it is somewhat like our brunch. But other than the timing, it is unlike any kind of American meal.

First, there is no menu. A pot of tea, cups, and chopsticks are placed on the table, then a waiter or waitress comes around with a tray or cart of one or two kinds of appetizers. The cart is pushed past all the tables, rather quickly and you must stop it if you decide you want something.

The dim sum may be in the shapes of crescents or buns filled with meat or seafood, or miniature spareribs or even chicken feet or tripe.

As the carts go by your table you stop the waiters and point to dishes you want. Even if you aren't sure what things are, you will enjoy trying them. There are always some that are unfamiliar and that's half the fun. And another cart with different choices, comes around every few minutes.

Most dim sum are steamed, but there are sweet and salty ones, some are fried or baked, and they are all small an in small portions, a wonderful way to taste many different kinds of dishes without ordering a huge serving. This is a perfect meal for people who say they could make a meal on appetizers alone.

One of the most familiar dim sum, to Americans, is the egg roll, but there are many more delicate and intriguing foods than this and even the egg rolls, or spring rolls, are more delicate and crispier in China than most served in the United States.

There are Shrimp Balls, Pork Balls, and Pearl Balls, which are minced meat and water chestnuts rolled in sweet or glutinous rice which becomes translucent when cooked. There are also miniature fried crispy balls, fritters, pies, won tons, paper-wrapped foods, steamed "bundles," sweet dumplings, lotus- leaf wrapped rice, and usually some dishes for the more adventurous appetites, like eel, tripe, and chicken feet.

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Payment is also different at dim sum restaurants, even in America. At the end of the meal the waitresses figure it out according to the shape and number of empty dishes and steamers that have accumulated on your table.

There is no tipping anywhere in China, of course, which makes this an inexpensive meal, but even in the United States, dim sum is a good meal for the price.

Although Americans have always liked Chinese food, it is only fairly recently that they have discovered dim sum. It means "dot the heart" or "small delights" and it has caught on very quickly.

There are many new restaurants that have opened just for dim sum serving in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, and other large cities. Other regular Cantonese restaurants have changed their luncheon menus for this teahouse style, especially on Saturdays and Sundays.

In China the dim sum teahouses are an institution, a cultural phenomenon, open from morning to midafternoon with people enjoying the food as breakfast or lunch, for socializing with friends, for reading the newspaper, or as a time to talk business.

Many of the especially nice dim sum dishes we had in China are available in the US in Chinese-American restaurants.

The US dishes include the steamed dumplings made with thin won-ton wrappers or Cantonese egg-roll wrappers filled with mixtures of pork and shrimp like the following:

Shao-Mais are one of the most popular dim sum. Good ones should be filled with plenty of shrimp and pork. However, since shrimp is expensive they are often made without it. Shao-Mais (Pronounced to rhyme with cow-my) 3 Chinese dried mushrooms 1/2 pound fresh shrimp 1/2 pound ground pork 1/2 teaspoon sugar 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon thin soy sauce 1 tablespoon water 24 won-ton skins Soy-Sesame Dip

Soak mushrooms in hot water until spongy. Discard stems, mince caps. Shell and devein shrimp. Wash with cold water, pat dry, and cut into peanut-size pieces. Mix all ingredients except won-ton skins in a large bowl and keep refrigerated.

When ready to cook, cut won-ton skins in round circles. Put about 1 tablespoon filling in center of each circle. Gather sides around filling to form pleats. Squeeze the center of the dumpling.

Press down the top to form up the filling. Tap the Shao-Mais gently to flatten bottom so it can stand up. You can make the Shao-Mais in advance and refrigerate them before steaming.

To steam, grease the bottom of the steamer or a heatproof plate with oil. Cover and steam over boiling water 15 minutes. Soy-Sesame Dip 1/3 cup dark or light soy sauce 1/3 cup rice vinegar 2 slices ginger root, minced (optional) 2 teaspoons sesame oil 1 teaspoon chili oil (optional) 1/2 teaspoon sugar

Combine all ingredients and let stand 10 minutes to blend flavors.

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