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VOL. 43 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 29, 2019

Quest for authentic dim sum

Where – and when – to find the real deal in Nashville area

By Catherine Mayhew

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In Chinese, dim sum roughly translates to “lightly touch your heart.” And it does. Eating dim sum around a shared table with everyone taking samples off multiple plates is one of the happiest ways to build community through food.

Dim sum are little bites of a wide variety of Chinese dumplings, rice-flour buns called bao with savory bits of meat or tofu tucked inside and pillowy sweets with delectable fillings. They come four or five bite-sized pieces to a plate and can be steamed or fried. Sauces full of umami flavor and a fiery chili oil are served alongside.

Chopsticks are not required, but they add to the experience if you can wield them.

“To me, dim sum represents the wide variety of Asian cuisine in bite-sized nibbles,” says Elizabeth Power, a dim sum enthusiast. “I can taste all the different flavors without having to commit to anything. It’s like the entire palate opens up.”

Dim sum is traditionally served with tea and most often on weekends.

“Sundays are for dim sum,” says renowned chef Eddie Huang. “While the rest of America goes to church, Sunday School or NFL games, you can find Chinese people eating Cantonese food.”

A trip to Lucky Bamboo on Charlotte Pike – not exactly Charlotte Pike but close – is a good excuse to visit Miss Saigon Vietnamese restaurant and the K&S World Market.

The origins of dim sum are somewhat murky. The first recorded mention of it in Chinese texts is well before the birth of Christ. Dim sum is inextricably linked with drinking tea. The first teahouses were opened along the Silk Road, the land trade route that linked East and Southeast Asia with Persia, East Africa and Southern Europe.

Travelers were grateful for places to stop and enjoy tea, thought to be a help in digestion. Naturally, the teahouse owners added snacks so the tea drinkers had something to digest. Those snacks evolved into dim sum.

Dim sum originated in Canton, China, but jumped to the United States when sophisticated restauranteurs immigrated to America in the 1960s. Originally, fellow Chinese immigrants enjoyed dim sum until non-Chinese diners looked over at a table laden with tiny plates full of appetizing dumplings and bao buns and wondered, what’s that?

Dim sum is a meal that is supposed to be shared. Dumplings and other offerings arrive either in bamboo or metal steamers and, as Power says, the contents are meant to be shared so that diners can experience a wide array of items.

A bonus point is that most dim sum wrappers are made with rice flour and naturally gluten-free.

In Nashville, two restaurants offer traditional dim sum. A third features a contemporary version of the classic cuisine.

Lucky Bamboo owner Jack Ting serves dim sum from his cart.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

And, yes, there are plenty of restaurants with pot stickers and egg rolls on their menus, but we’re sticking with the places that will provide a special experience.

Lucky Bamboo

Lucky Bamboo is, shall we say, directionally challenged in that its address is on Charlotte Pike (5855) but the restaurant itself is not.

The best way to get you there is to go south on Charlotte Pike past White Bridge Road and Kroger. Look for a yellow Mexican restaurant sign and a green self-storage sign. Turn left at the driveway in between. The restaurant is up the hill in a shopping center that also includes some choice neighbors, the very fine Miss Saigon Vietnamese restaurant and the K&S World Market, a magnificent international grocery store.

Inside Lucky Bamboo is a koi pond with fish as large as small cats and an array of booths and tables. On dim sum days, which are Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., two carts piloted by restaurant employees wind their way around the dining room. They stop at each table to see if the patrons there want dim sum. If you need instruction, they will tell you the offerings in the cart.

The traditional steamed dim sum cart offers an ample selection.

There are shumai dumplings that resemble beggar’s purses filled with either chicken or pork.

Richard Kerz, left, and Noah Mayhew enjoy some dim sum at Lucky Bamboo China Bistro.

The soup dumplings, yes, contain soup and the proper way to eat them is to put them in a spoon and poke a hole in the wrapper. The soup comes out and then you pop the whole thing in your mouth. Silky scallops are encased in the rice paper wrapper in another offering.

More selections of steamed buns contain sweets.

The more adventurous can try the chicken feet or tripe. Both are prized for their texture, which is somewhat gelatinous in a very good way.

Eating chicken feet is very similar to eating the tip of a chicken wing. There is some gnawing involved, but you will be rewarded with luscious flavor. Pros will eat the entire foot, tiny bones and all. But you can also attack them as would corn on the cob.

The dim sum come in metal containers, and patrons are charged according to the size, either small, medium or large.

The second cart contains non-steamed items such as fried dumplings, tofu, egg rolls, bite-sized custard tarts and sesame balls, ethereal light balls of dough containing a sweet filling.

The servers leave a slip at each table noting how many containers were selected. Patrons are charged accordingly at the register.

Sichuan Hot Pot

Sichuan Hot Pot, 5680 Nolensville Pike, is nestled in a strip shopping center next to Lowe’s. It’s old meets new. Giant Chinese soldier statues take center stage in a space that’s lit in soft blues and purples. Soothing comes to mind.

The booths are plush and ample, and each table contains individual burners for the restaurant’s namesake, hot pot, which is hot broth into which you dip a dizzying array of meats and vegetables to customize your own meal.

But Sichuan hot pot also has a singular advantage over other restaurants that serve dim sum. You can get it every day 11 a.m.-3 p.m. A menu with photos and descriptions helps diners make their selections, an option not available at Lucky Bamboo.

All the dim sum is prepared to order, so expect a wait of about 15-20 minutes during which you can pass your time munching on the excellent peanuts that are offered on every table. At first glance peanuts seems a disconnect in a Chinese restaurant unless you know they’re a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture.

The menu has an enticing variety of dim sum. Steamed varieties include shrimp, pork and chive dumplings. But there’s also pan-fried taro cake, sesame balls and what the restaurant calls “fried bread,” which are deliriously delicious pillows of fried dough served with a custard dipping sauce.

The steamed bun dumplings meticulously shaped to look like bunny rabbits are whimsical and contain a sweet pudding-like center. And, yes, there are more exotic options. The ever-popular chicken feet are offered as well as jelly fish head, which is also considered a delicacy.

Let’s pause for a moment in praise of trying new things in a dim sum format. Dim sum are small plates like Spanish tapas. If you’ve ever wanted to sample chicken feet, tripe or jelly fish without going all in this is your best shot.

Tansuo

The question at Tansuo is are the dim sum really dim sum?

Yes, some of them come in noodle dough wrappers, and there is a modest cart that makes its way around the dimly-lit dining room. But then you encounter a Thanksgiving dumpling filled with roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry and crispy toagarashi potato hash with bacon and a fried egg.

Suddenly, you don’t care if they’re traditional because they’re just so stinkin’ delicious.

You can’t say you weren’t warned. Tansuo, 121B 12th Avenue N., is chef Maneet Chauhan’s modern interpretation of Chinese street food. Authenticity to the old ways was never the idea. So instead you have hot chicken pot stickers with Thai bird chilies (nuclear hot!), ginger, scallions and chili oil. And Cheng duck dumpling with duck confit, citrus, cilantro and chili oil. There’s a whole lot of chili oil going around on this menu and we couldn’t be happier.

This is exciting dim sum, explosive in flavor and presented like miniature art masterpieces.

Dim sum is available on all its menus ranging from lunch and dinner to Sunday Brunch.

And be aware that this kind of stuff doesn’t come cheap. While a regular dim sum selection might set you back around $25 for two, Tansuo’s offerings can easily double that. But you’ll walk out of the restaurant with huge smile on your face and a distinct back-of-the-tongue burn from chili oil. Hurts so good.

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