by Alicia Lieu
December marks the holiday season. It is a time for family get togethers, tree decorations, baked goods, gift exchanges, and evergreen and mistletoe. While my family does partake in all of these things, there is one tradition that we have which is particularly tasty, satisfying, and communal. That tradition is dim sum.
Dim sum originated in southern China, with Hong Kong being the current epicenter of dim sum’s growth, development, and appreciation. It is available in major metropolitan areas with a significant Chinese population including the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto, New York City. Here in New York, there are a few different enclaves of Chinese populations. There is the historic Chinatown in Manhattan, the new Chinatown which is in Flushing, and a sort of mini new Chinatown in Elmhurst, Queens. However, since I grew up in Cupertino, California, I will always be biased towards the dim sum restaurants in Cupertino.
The photo below was taken recently upon my arrival from New York. My father picked me up from the airport and we went directly to this restaurant in Cupertino, called Pan Tao, for lunch. This photo only shows about half of the dishes we ordered. Dim sum restaurants serve the dishes in push carts that circulate around the restaurant, so it is basically one long continuous line of course after course.
Food plays a key role in bringing my family together. Any request to see another family member almost always includes food in the same sentence, whether it is going out, taking out, or cooking together. And because dim sum is only served during lunch hours, it is an informal and inexpensive way for people to get together, discuss business, or even celebrate a special occasion. There is such an abundance of dishes available on the dim sum menu that even the pickiest eater will not go hungry during this meal. There are egg rolls (spring rolls), dumplings, meat, seafood, tofu, noodles, vegetables, and rice, in various steamed, pan fried, or deep fried forms. And most Chinese restaurants that serve dim sum will also allow you to order off of the full menu, so the reliable standby dishes like fried rice and chow mein are always available.
So what is the dim sum and December connection? There is a non-traditional tradition that we have in our family. On Christmas morning, neighbors would bring us homemade cookies and breads. What did our family do? We delivered freshly made egg rolls to our neighbors. We had the whole family involved. My mother made the filling, I did the rolling, and my father did the frying. My brother did the tasting and delivering. Out in California, the weather is nice pretty much all year round and since my parents refused to fry inside the house, they set up an electric skillet in the backyard. Since us kids were up early to rip open presents, my parents got up early and started prepping the egg rolls. Here is the recipe that our family uses. It is a fairly simple recipe because according to my mother, too many ingredients crowd the palate.
Egg Roll Recipe:
1 head medium Napa cabbage, shredded
1/2 pound pork loin
5 dried black mushrooms (soaked) or fresh shiitake, julienned
5 stalks green onion, chopped
1 small knob grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp corn starch
3 tbsp dry sherry or other white wine
salt to taste
egg roll wrappers, defrosted
vegetable oil for stir frying and deep frying
condiments for dipping (vinegar, soy sauce, plum sauce, hot sauce, or sweet and sour sauce)
To make the filling:
1. Cut the pork loin into long, thin strands. Marinade it in the soy sauce, sherry, corn starch, half of the green onion, and the fresh grated ginger.
2. Prepare a wok (or similar pan) for stir frying, with enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. On high heat, stir fry the pork until it is no longer pink in color. Remove from heat.
3. Add more vegetable oil to the wok. On high heat, stir fry the mushrooms first, adding the Napa cabbage and the other half of the green onion after 2-3 minutes. Salt to taste. While the cabbage is slightly undercooked, about half cooked (the cabbage fill finish cooking during the deep fry), add the cooked pork into the vegetable mixture and continue to stir fry until the ingredients are well incorporated. Remove from heat.
4. Let the mixture cool to room temperature. Drain any excess liquid from the filling (this may cause the egg rolls to break during the deep frying process).
Wrapping the egg rolls:
1. Separate the egg roll wrappers. The wrappers are quite delicate so start by separating one half of the wrappers, then separate half of those, and so on. Keep the wrappers under a damp cloth, otherwise they will dry out quickly and crack.
2. Place a single wrapper in front of you in a diamond position. Place a modest amount of filling (approximately 1/4 cup) wrapper just slightly below the center.
3. Roll the bottom corner over the filling, gently squeezing the filling as you roll. When you have rolled the egg roll half way, pull in one corner first, then the other, while keeping gentle pressure on the filling to help maintain the egg roll’s shape.
4. Wet the remaining edges of the wrapper with cold water mixed with a tiny bit of corn starch to help with the seal. Finish rolling the egg roll the rest of the way.
Deep frying the egg rolls:
1. Prepare the vegetable oil for deep frying (medium-high heat).
2. Remove the egg rolls when desired crispness is reached.
3. Drain egg rolls on paper towels.
4. Enjoy! Get ‘em while they’re hot. Before anyone else gets to them!