That's the essence of dim sum, the tiny treats traditionally associated with China's long, leisurely tea rituals.
The name roughly translates into "pierce the heart" or "heart's delight." And like Spanish tapas or Greek meze, dim sum is a collection of small dishes meant to underpin family, social, or business gatherings.
Some dim sum is sweet, like Gai Mei Bough--a baked bun stuffed with coconut and thick custard--and just right for mid-morning snacking or as a dessert. Others, like Yu Chi Gow--a shark's fin dumpling--are savory and can serve as part of a light lunch.
A meal composed of dim sum is an inexpensive way to explore authentic, exotic examples of Chinese cooking. And there may be no better place to begin the adventure than at Bo Loong Chinese Restaurant, in the heart of Cleveland's Chinatown, an area that extends from East 21st to East 55th streets and runs along Payne, Superior, and St. Clair avenues.
Bo Loong--part restaurant, part Chinese-community social center--has been in business since 1986. Anthony, Nancy, and Betty Yuen, siblings born in Hong Kong but raised in Cleveland, took control in 1995. They have expanded the menu of traditional Cantonese foods, to the extent that diners now receive both a red menu (sort of a volume 1) and a blue menu (volume 2) when they come through the door.
Still, not even those two editions fully chronicle the restaurant's dim sum selections. A third, pink dim sum menu comes close, with nearly fifty entries, but even it is supplemented by whatever else the chef feels like preparing on any given day.
Betty Yuen says the restaurant's dim sum chef and his helpers make each of the items entirely from scratch each morning--a chore she describes as time-consuming. While many of the items share similar ingredients--like the ground pork, shrimp, rice- or wheat-flour noodles, and finely diced scallions, carrots, and mushrooms that figure prominently in the savory dim sum--each one gets its unique flavor from the chef's secret blends of herbs and spices.
Ordering dim sum couldn't be easier. Between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily, employees wheel cartloads of the little delights through the dining room, calling out "Dim sum! Dim sum!" to alert the uninitiated, or waiting to be summoned by a nod and a wave from the more experienced.
On the cart, dozens of little round metal steamer pans are stacked perhaps six high. The dim sum lady opens the steamer lids to show off the tiny treasures within; if asked, she will point out their names on the menu to identify them to those who don't speak Chinese. Diners need only indicate which ones they wish to try, and the dim sum lady pops the corresponding pan onto the table. Each order of dim sum generally contains enough for two or three diners to sample and costs between $1.50 and $3. A running tab is kept at the table until the meal is complete.
Tea is essential to the enjoyment of dim sum, and Bo Loong offers several selections. On a recent visit, we considered an aromatic jasmine tea; a light, green Saumei tea; and dark, full-bodied Oolong and Pulei teas before ultimately deciding upon a bright-yellow chrysanthemum tea with a big, floral scent.
Our first dim sum selection was Nor My Gai, a rectangular packet of sticky rice wrapped in a gray-brown, canvas-textured lotus leaf. Although the leaf is not edible, it imparts delicate incense to the hot rice. Unwrapping it is rather like opening a beautifully scented gift. The rice, in turn, is wrapped around other treasures: bits of smoky Chinese sausage; a tiny, tough-skinned boiled quail egg; a few shrimp; strips of roasted chicken; and cubes of dark roasted duck. The savory meats contrast wonderfully with the fragrant, sticky rice, creating an exotic but thoroughly pleasant taste sensation.
We also tried Yu Chi Gow, vermicelli-thin shreds of shark fin mixed into a ground-pork-and-shrimp meatball and spiked with crunchy bits of carrot and scallion. The meatball was bound in an egg-noodle wrapper that, in tribute to the shark, had a ruffled ridge running down its back. When we bit into it, the heady taste and smell of freshly grated ginger, which seasons the meat, was an immediate delight.
Our next choice, Golden Mushroom Dumplings, was not on the menu, but we were attracted by its interesting appearance. Here, the ubiquitous ground-pork-and-shrimp meatball was topped with enoki mushrooms, slender strips of carrot, and a web of delicate black sea moss, and settled in a thin sesame-oil sauce. The flavor, which comes largely from the sea moss, was like a taste of the ocean: salty, clean, and refreshing.
A fragile spring roll (Chun Gin) came next. The finger-sized roll contained firm, sweet, finely shredded carrots and scallions, and bits of pork and shrimp in an exceedingly thin, crisp, deep-fried wrapper. The wrapper exploded into salty shards upon first bite, lending a wonderful flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables within.
Plump buns stuffed with roasted pork in a thin, sweet "barbecue" sauce show up on both the savory and the sweet dim sum lists. The savory buns--Gin Char Bough--are made of rice flour and steamed; the sweet ones--Shui Bough--are warm, egg-glazed yeast rolls that are baked. Both make a mild-flavored, breadlike addition to a dim sum meal.
Vegetarian dim sum is also available upon request. We enjoyed one example, a pan-fried tofu skin wrapped, crépe-style, around black mushrooms, pea pods, bamboo shoots, and baby corn. Again, the sweet, crisp vegetables played well against the tender, fried-egg-like wrapper.
As we nibbled away, we noticed that the pleasing aromas surrounding us weren't coming solely from our tea and food. Incense, wafting into the room from an altar to Guan Kong--a deity in charge of protecting business ventures--added its own distinct personality. Betty Yuen says the incense is burned twice daily at the ebony altar near the kitchen's entrance. Tiny cups of tea and wine and bowls of oranges are also put out each day as gifts to the god.
The altar isn't the only example of feng shui principles at work in the restaurant. Because the name Bo Loong means "precious dragon," one of the restaurant's walls features a large, stylized rendition of the namesake beast. Facing it is a painting of a phoenix, which Betty says ensures the proper blend of yin and yang. Between the phoenix and the dragon is a section of open wall that accommodates a large, red Chinese ideogram. When the restaurant hosts a birthday celebration, the "longevity" ideogram is hung; for a marriage, "double happiness" takes its place.
Even Bo Loong's numerous fish tanks contribute to the proper flow of chi, Betty explains. While some of them provide transitional housing for the lobsters, crabs, and tilapia on their way to the kitchen, others are homes for the fat goldfish that symbolize prosperity and good luck.
We were ready to dive into some of the sweet, dessert dim sum after completing our tour of the restaurant.
Our first choice was Gai Mei Bough, an oval-shaped yeast bun filled, Twinkie-style, with sweet, lemon-scented custard and shredded coconut. Topped with a shiny egg-white glaze, the bun tasted very much like a Danish pastry.
The Don tart--a petite, fluted pastry shell filled with tender, slightly sweet, and intensely egg-yolk-flavored custard--was the perfect accompaniment to our cups of floral tea. With its slightly salty, crumbly crust, the tart falls right between the sweet and the savory ends of the dim sum continuum.
But our favorite was the Gin Doi, a sweet, chewy, tennis-ball-sized pastry stuffed with lotus-seed paste. The paste has a taste and texture similar to a very buttery caramel and is encased in a delicate dough, studded with whole sesame seeds and deep-fried. While the fried sesame seeds make the bun crunchy and oily on the outside, its interior has the moist texture of a popover. The overall effect is much like eating a nougat confection.
Because of the time and skill needed to prepare it, dim sum is never made at home, Betty says. While dim sum and the tea ritual were initially reserved just for men, today entire families enjoy the treats at restaurants in larger Chinese cities. Even in rural areas, where restaurants are uncommon, street vendors sell little barbecued ribs, spicy nuts, and other miniature goodies.
If you miss Bo Loong's dim sum hours, plenty of other dining choices remain. The specialty of the house is the fresh seafood fished out of the tanks when ordered. Or take a group of friends to try one of the enormous, multicourse, family-style meals served at a round table with a spinning lazy Susan. The restaurant is open until 2 a.m. daily, and late-night karaoke sessions are popular among its younger clientele.
Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine a more pleasant way to dine than on dim sum: a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which together add up to a culinary heart's delight.
Bo Loong Chinese Restaurant 3922 St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland. 216-391-3113. 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily; dim sum served 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Nor My Gai $3
Yu Chi Gow $2
Gin Char Bough $1.50
Gai Mei Bough $1.50
Don tart $1.50
Gin Doi $1.50