Wednesday, April 29, 2009

ESF Does Dim Sum!

On any given day, Chinatown is the last place I want to be at 10 o’clock in the morning. It tends to be busy, crowded, and to be honest it’s just a bit overwhelming for my taste. I was never a huge fan of Chinese food growing up. White rice and soy sauce—yep, that pretty much sums up what I ate before moving to San Francisco. It wasn’t the large population of Asian people or restaurants that finally persuaded me to indulge it was just healthy curiosity.

Anyway, on this particular Saturday morning in April, my ESF class was traveling to Chinatown to immerse ourselves into this incredible culture. After the 1906 earthquake Chinatown, like most neighborhoods in San Francisco, was rebuilt and became what Anthony Lee, author of Another View of Chinatown, called “a glittering ghetto.” The newly asphalted streets and shiny streetlamps were meant to attract tourists, which it certainly did. The class met up at the corner of Bush and Grant, where there is an enormous gate into Chinatown. As we moseyed toward our first stop the Tin How Temple, I couldn’t help but notice the insanely cluttered and overcrowded shops along Grant Street. Oriental merchandise was spilling out onto the sidewalks, which I’m convinced is just another marketing scheme to temp the tourists. (Walking inside would just be too much to ask!) The Tin How Temple was incredible, and we learned that it is the oldest Chinese temple in the United States. The tiny temple is located on the third floor of a typical San Francisco building and the seventeen of us barely fit inside, not to mention the place had enough incense to make you faint (or high).

By 10:45 a.m. we had finally made it to New Asia, where we would enjoy Dim Sum (literally “touching heart), and everything that entails. The restaurant was a mad house, and it seemed like every seat in the place was taken, not to mention another 30 people waiting. The hostess was shouting inaudibly into a microphone, I think she was letting waiting patrons know their tables were ready. The staff was running around, pushing carts filled with tons of different Dim Sum dishes. After waiting about 25 minutes our class was sat at two large round tables, where jasmine tea, which is said to aid digestion, was waiting to be consumed. It wasn’t long before food started appearing on the spinning circle in the middle of the table. Most of the dishes were made with shrimp, pork, rice, and noodles. Prepared in various ways, just a simple sauce switch or different noodle choice, dramatically changes the taste and texture of the dishes. The Northern Chinese inspired pork pot stickers, filled with meat and cabbage, were my absolute favorite, even though they aren’t considered traditional dim sum. Because of a pretty serious allergy to shellfish, I couldn’t chow down on any of the shrimp options, including classic steamed shrimp dumpling. Dumplings, known as Gow, are made by wrapping ingredients in a rice flour or wheat starch skin; the beautifully translucent skin showcases the delicious ingredients inside.

The Dim Sum or Yum Cha experience is like no other. While dining at New Asia I noticed many of the things typically found in a restaurant were missing, for example, menus were nowhere in sight. Instead as the cart pushers delivered us our Dim Sum treats, served on small white plates and in small steamer baskets, they also stamped the purchase onto a ticket, using various symbols. The white ticket, adorned with many stamps from our feast would ultimately become the receipt, which compared to other foreign fares dim sum is a steal.

After brunch the class splintered, as many had made previous engagements, and a handful of us headed to Ross Alley, to find an itsy bitsy fortune cookie “factory” that opened its doors in 1962. Upon entering I could barely navigate myself around the barrels and barrels of fortune cookies of all different shapes and sizes and flavors. Within ten feet of the entrance sits the first of a handful of women pulling circular cookies off a hot press. The women repeatedly fold the circular cookies into their famous “fortune” shape and inserting the wonderful fortunes. I asked the woman sitting in the front how she avoided being burnt pulling the steamy little cookies from the press, since the safety precautions didn’t exactly seem up to snuff. She simply responded by handing me one of the cookies straight off the press, which I learned was a bit toasty but not scolding hot by any means. I could go on and on about this wonderful experience on a beautiful Saturday morning in San Francisco’s famed Chinatown, but I wont. Check out more pictures from the trip on flick'r!