More than dim sum of their parts
WARILY, my wife eyed up the Spicy Chicken Feet. "No", she said, "I'm not eating them. They're just too recognisable".
I was somewhat glad I hadn't ordered the Duck Feet Wrap. But probably not as glad as she was.
Mind you, where do you draw the line when it comes to the exotica of Chinese cooking and, in particular, the exotica of Dim Sum in Dublin's Chinese restaurants? When my wife had ordered the Pork Crackling with Squid, Stephen, the manager of Wicklow Street's Imperial Chinese Restaurant, had immediately warned, "It's an acquired taste". Undaunted, she ordered it.
How long did it take to acquire the taste? About two seconds, I reckon, for in truth the thing that you need to acquire when it comes to the exotic Dim Sum is not the taste - which repeatedly revolves around rather sweet notes - but the texture.
The pork crackling with squid had lovely tentacles of baby squid in a bowl with large pieces of crackling which were actually soft, with a texture that put me in mind of long-simmered tripe (another choice on the menu, incidentally). The broth in which the contents rested had a clean, saline, shellfishy taste, and little pieces of white carrot completed a dish which was marvellous not merely for its mix of flavours, but for the unexpected flavours which it offered.
This is what I love most about the Dim Sum cocked in Chinese restaurants. The name translates as "a little bit of heart", and, like the contents of anyone's heart, this is a cooking of secrets and surprises. You don't really know what lies inside and in between the ordered dishes.
It's not all exotica and weird textures, of course. A simple dish such as the Imperial's special spring rolls are fairly conventional and expected cellophane noodles, wood ear mushrooms, slivers of carrot, shards of pork - but again it is the fact of the filling tied up in these elegant little parcels of pastry which makes eating them so much fun. A quick dunk into the rice vinegar and red pepper dipping sauce, and the bundle of flavours explodes into the mouth with every bite.
Another of my favourites is the parcels of glutinous rice. These little pillows of sweet, gleaming rice are wrapped in lotus leaves, and then steamed. They arrive in neat bamboo steamers, you unravel the leaf and inside is a spoonful of the sticky rice with its flavouring of tiny shrimps, pieces of char siu and some dried sausage.
That char siu - the celebrated Cantonese roast pork for which we give a recipe in this week's In Season - is perhaps best show-cased by the marvellous, classic dish which is Char Siu Cheung Fun.
These are pancakes of steamed rolled dough made from rice flour, intensely slippery and awkward to handle and, like so many of the Dim Sum dishes, their pleasure resides in the secretive filling - little pieces of the pork placed inside and wrapped in the roll - and the gloopy, slithery texture of the pancake of dough. Brilliantly white and shining, these are among the quintessential Dim Sum specialities.
Dim Sum occupies a special position within Chinese cooking. It is carried out by specialist cooks, and the techniques used for the most part are steaming and deep-frying, not the stir-frying we most associate with Chinese cookery.
This variation between the steamed dishes which are Unadorned by their cooking method - the trio of steamed beef balls which the Imperial serves, for example, with their delicate sweetness - and those subjected to the intensity of deep-frying, makes for a delicious contrast of textures and tastes. The best way to approach the meal is to order about half a dozen dishes, with maybe one sweet dish included - and to vary them according to those which are deep-fried, those which are steamed and the occasional ones which are braised.
Most things come in duos or trios: three beef balls; three spring rolls; two parcels of glutinous rice; three fine deep-fried squid cakes; three cheung fun - while the spicy chicken feet and the pork crackling and squid are served in a dish as they have sauces. Then you pick and choose and vary between the tastes, all the while drinking Jasmine tea, which is automatically served.
Chinese restaurants traditionally serve Dim Sum during the day, and the best time to enjoy it is a Sunday brunchtime. Then one sees that relatively rare thing in the West: a Chinese restaurant filled with Chinese people. By 1 p.m. on Sunday, the Imperial will be filled with Chinese families, ringed and arranged around the tables, from toddlers to totterers, everyone bright-eyed and peering as the next phalanx of steamer baskets is brought to the table.
The same scene is repeated just around the corner, on South Great George's Street, in The Good, World restaurant. The Good World has one of the more challenging Chinese menus in the country - "stewed cow's guts" or "shark's lips with duck's feet" more two vividly described offerings from a diverse main menu - and their Dim Sum cookery is masterly.
With a trio of vegetable dumplings, for example, expertly arrayed in their little gauze-like white parcels which are shaped like baby armadillos, they will flavour the stuffing with kow-choi, a green vegetable, which has a flavour somewhat reminiscent of garlic chives. Both the vegetable dumplings and some coriander dumplings - the little balls of stuffing wrapped and topped with a couple of green peas - are beautifully, exactingly, perfectly made, and the Good World offers even more surprises than normal Dim Sum menus.
With fried pork skin and fish balls, for example, the dish is pale golden in colour throughout, the exterior of the little fish balls mottled like the pork skin, with white carrots a base for the dish. Here, the pieces are all flavoured with curry powder, which gives an intriguing, musky odour and taste to a dish which is already replete with unusual flavours and textures.
This love of secretive touches can be seen with their grilled cheung-fun - they actually offer a selection of cheung-fun dishes- but the grilled dish has a teasing, pointed flavour which turns out to be dried shrimp, dotted throughout the pancake as it is rolled. The dish is completed by a little puddle of hoisin sauce for dipping, an arresting and mercurial array of flavours.
Crispy fun-quor were three little deep-fried prawn dumplings which were irresistible, and a steamed sponge cake - a squeezy slice of an ethereal sweet cake which was infused with the flavours of vanilla, ginger and orange. The variety and complexity of both techniques and discipline in these six dishes reveals masterly work in the kitchen of the Good World, and there is nothing nicer than to share this brilliant cooking in the big upstairs room on Sunday, packed with Chinese families. The only thing we didn't like was the fact that they use metal steamers, rather than the bamboo ones used in The Imperial, which are rather more aesthetic.
A word of warning, however do book a table, do go early and do try to go with a group, because then you will be seated upstairs. There is a small, basement dining, room, used when upstairs fills up, which has all the charm of a head cold, and you don't want to end up here. Service in The Good World is charming, whether upstairs or down.
And the best bit about Dim Sum, and the best reason to choose to eat it to celebrate the Chinese New Year, is the fact that it is the best value food in Dublin.
In The Imperial, Dim Sum for three people, and bowls of noodles for two kids, cost just over £23. For two people, for half a dozen dishes, in The Good World, we managed to spend just over £16. There is no better way to spend Sunday brunchtime in the city.