Eating With a Dim Sum Pro

Carolyn Phillips reveals the secrets in her new book and shares the way at Chef’s Wok.


During our Saturday brunch at Alameda’s bustling Chef’s Wok Restaurant, Carolyn Phillips tells me to look around the room. “See the way the Chinese families are eating, slowly savoring each dish. No one is rushing. They are here to chat, sip tea, and eat for maybe an hour or two. “

By contrast, non-Chinese dim sum diners often eat too eagerly, says the author of the recently published The Dim Sum Field Guide. “By selecting too many dishes and shoveling them down, they miss the essential purpose of the dim sum meal,” she says.

Her compact guidebook, akin to a birder’s field guide, describes scores of steamed, baked, pan-and deep-fried dim sum classics, plus teas and sweets. Every page is lovingly illustrated with elegant line drawings. Added symbols convey handy tips, such as which dishes are vegetarian, contain bones, or can be eaten by hand. An introduction briefly covers dim sum’s history, strategies for ordering, and rules of etiquette.

Phillips prefers to order from the menu to ensure ultimate freshness. But on this busy morning, the turnover at Chef’s Wok is so fast that the har gow (shrimp dumpling) from the cart passes her test. “See how the bottoms aren’t soggy,” Phillips says, holding up a plump, pleated dumpling between her chopsticks. “I hate it when the filling falls out.”

One of Phillips’ key recommendations is to order the specialty of the house. “Look around and see what the Chinese people are eating. If most of the tables seem to be enjoying the same dish, it’s a good bet,” she advises. “Or ask the manager, but tell him you’d like to order what the Chinese people are having, not the Americans.” At that moment, we spy an intriguing item on a cart that even Phillips doesn’t recognize: steamed fish balls, dotted with cilantro and studded with corn kernels. After the server cuts them in half, we dip the steaming morsels in a dab of hot mustard and soy sauce.

Phillips’ advice for the order of the meal: “Start with steamed things, which are lighter and whet the appetite. Then move on to fried and breaded dishes, vegetables, and sweets. If you start with cha siu bao (barbecue pork buns), you’ll get full right away. Armed with a menu, order maybe three dishes at a time. That way you can regulate the pace. The point is to sit there for one to two hours and enjoy a leisurely morning.”

I confess my quandary to the Dim Sum expert when ordering gai lan, often called Chinese broccoli. I have a hard time holding onto the thick, slippery stalks with my chopsticks. Phillips tells me that customers can always ask the server to cut up any item into pieces with their scissors, either for ease of handling or smaller portions.

This Alameda resident’s love affair with dim sum started early. She remembers being 5 or 6 and accompanying her mother and grandmother on a special outing to San Francisco’s Chinatown from their home in San Jose. “Back in the ’60s, it was a big deal,” recalls Phillips, “we all wore hats and gloves.”

Photo By Anna Mindess

It was there she tasted her first egg tart. But the defining moment was when, as a preteen, she tried pressed duck. “It just blew my mind”—and sealed her fate. At 21, after finishing college, she moved to Taiwan to study Chinese. She fell for the culture, the cuisine, the language, and her future husband, writer J.H. Huang, who shares her love of food.

Phillips also immersed herself in Chinese art classes, a talent that is evident in the illustrations for this book and her acclaimed cookbook, All Under Heaven, which features recipes from the 35 cuisines of China.

While we are enjoying our crispy, deep-fried taro dumplings, the server brings over Chef’s Wok’s signature Macao style egg tarts with the distinctively burnished tops. “They need to be eaten while still molten,” Phillips urges. The butter yellow custard is satin smooth, the puff pastry dough flaky and lighter than the usual egg tart. “Isn’t this phenomenal?” she murmurs.

Phillip’s last bit of advice is, “Be curious and try at least one new dish every time you go, to broaden your horizons. Don’t fall into a rut by ordering the same things every visit.” I feel emboldened. Next time I might try one of Phillip’s favorites: braised duck chins. Her guide entry describes the way the tough meat slowly becomes tender when cooked in “a savory broth of soy sauce, rice wine, rock sugar, warm spices like star anise and cinnamon and aromatics such as fresh ginger and green onions.” I’m game.


More Dim Sum Tips

Pour tea for others throughout the meal.

If you run out of tea, turn the lid on the pot over to signal the server.

Serve others before yourself. You may select the choicest morsel and place it on another’s plate.

Use the serving spoon or the larger ends of your chopsticks to select items from a communal plate. 

You can wipe off the serving ends of your chopsticks on your napkin, which Chinese diners keep folded on the table instead of open in the lap. Just make sure you refold it so that a clean edge is always showing.

Only put two or three items on your plate at one time; more and you’ll look piggish.


Published Feb. 28, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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