What exactly is that?
It’s a question that might cross the mind of anyone during their first afternoon of dim sum at a Chinese restaurant. This is a world of steaming carts that float by your tables, where people just order what’s fresh from the kitchen. If you’ve never heard of things like shaomai or xiaolongbao, and have no idea what they look like (or what you just put on your plate), how do you know what you’re eating?
Framed as a “field guide” (not unlike a field guide to birds), this book demystifies one of China’s most beloved culinary traditions and makes it accessible – and fun – for the average diner. You’ll find descriptions of every kind of dim sum (accompanied by cool retro drawings), so you’ll always know what you’re ordering. You’ll also appreciate Carolyn’s guidance on how to order your dim sum, along with the etiquette that everyone should know. It’s also small enough to fit into your purse or pocket, so you can discretely consult it under the table as those dim sum carts go by – and not miss a thing.
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016).
Her work has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Life & Thyme, Buzzfeed, Zester Daily, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium. She has appeared on such podcasts as KCRW’s “Good Food,” PRI’s “The World,” and on Berkshire “Bookworld,” and has been interviewed by such outstanding newspapers as the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. Upcoming appearances include the Smithsonian, 92nd Street Y, San Francisco’s Litquake, Goop, and Bon Appetit.
You can learn more about Carolyn Phillips at her website MadameHuang.com, and follow her on Twitter (@madamehuang) and Instagram (@therealmadamehuang). The Dim Sum Field Guide is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this site.
Tell us about the inspiration for this book.
My editor at McSweeney’s was working for Lucky Peach at the time, too, and she wanted me to contribute to the fourth issue, which had Chinatown as the theme. I tossed around a couple of ideas with the editors there, including something really off the wall – a field guide to dim sum – and that is the one they chose.
I have to confess, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a culinary “field guide” — and I find the approach quite fun. Could you tell us more about how you came to envision this as a “field guide”?
Lucky Peach, especially in those first years, was really out there on the edge. No other food magazine was like it. You couldn’t pitch them a story on, say, flourless chocolate cake or blueberry muffins unless it had an unusual hook.
I had this vision of a person taking this nascent field guide into a dim sum teahouse and using it to identify the dishes there, sort of like a birder taking an Audubon guide along. There would be identifying marks, origins, range, variant species, things like that. And then I suggested that I do black-and-white drawings, sort of like the old field guides, to make it even more weird and retro.
It was a hit, and the magazine reprinted it a couple of times, including for the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. That was unreal.
In terms of dining etiquette, have you noticed any rules that foreigners tend to fudge when having dim sum?
The biggie is picking up food from a serving plate with the same chopsticks that you are eating with. This really squicks lots of my Chinese friends out. The correct way is to either turn the chopsticks upside-down when selecting a piece, putting it on a plate, wiping off the tops, and then turning them around again to eat. Or, else, just use serving utensils. Shared cooties are a no-no.
Another is ordering lots of food all at once and piling it on your plate. Just get a couple at a time, slow down, savor the meal, and eat the dim sum while they’re still hot. Order more in a leisurely manner and enjoy your brunch. And please, serve others first and then take only one piece for yourself. Serve others tea, as well, and expect to be served in return.
The Chinese are incredibly gracious people, and they love it when you behave like your momma brought you up well. Finally, fight for the check. And if they beat you to the punch, make sure you pay for the next meal.
Your book covers a lot of delicious dim sum that people might not think of when they think of dim sum. For the adventurous palate, any recommendations on more unusual dim sum to try?
It all depends upon the teahouse. Look around and see what most of the Chinese people are ordering. If you don’t know the name of it, just ask a waitperson to get you some of that, and point.
Each of my go-to dim sum places has its specialities. One place makes the best Macanese custard tarts and guiling jelly. Another has amazing roast suckling pig. Another offers the freshest har gow. One place does duck chins in Maggi sauce like no one else. And yet another has these goose intestines that are the texture of gossamer, ethereal flutters of white with sparks of fresh green chile… It really depends upon the place and the chef and my level of hunger.
Finally, I have ask you since you’re such a foodie — what are your favorite dim sum when you’re dining out?
I must have some sort of steamed shrimp dumpling to start. I often judge a place on how well it makes har gow – freshness in the shrimp is vital, as is a snappy texture in the wrapper. I love taro or radish cakes, and honeycomb taro-wrapped pork is a must. I adore good custard tarts of any kind. And roast duck. And braised stuffed doufu.
When all is said and done, if it’s made well, I’m a happy camper!
A big thank you to Carolyn for this interview! Once again, you can learn more about Carolyn Phillips at her website MadameHuang.com, and follow her on Twitter (@madamehuang) and Instagram (@therealmadamehuang). The Dim Sum Field Guide is available on Amazon, where your purchase helps support this site.