Here’s SFPFS Member Betty Teller’s take on the recent Dim Sum lunch at Peony Seafood Restaurant in Oakland, featuring Madame Huang / Carolyn Phillips. 

The offerings in our local restaurants are far removed from their purported Chinese origin. I was reminded of that again recently when I attended an educational and delicious program on dim sum guided by Carolyn Phillips, a distinguished cookbook author and noted expert on the cuisines of China.

Our group, members of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, gathered at Peony Seafood restaurant in the heart of Oakland’s real live, modern-day Chinatown. Its chefs specialize in creating those incredibly varied and delicious tidbits that make up dim sum (which basically means “snacks” in Cantonese).

We tried 10 or 12 scrumptious dishes, none of which remotely resembled anything available here in town (and nearly all of which made me wish fervently that they were).  As we nibbled our way through the menu, Carolyn tutored us in basic dim sum etiquette.

It turns out that flagging down every cart that goes by, grabbing food randomly and pigging out is not exactly right. (Who knew?)

Despite the speed and frequency with which carts whiz around the room, the meal should progress fairly slowly, and one bite-sized piece at a time. Don’t fill up on steamed buns, Carolyn advised. Start with lighter steamed dumplings before moving on to fried items and heavier meats. Feel free to order off the menu.

Once you take a dish, proper manners require one to serve others first, offering the best to an honored guest or the eldest person at the table. (I plan to visit dim sum establishments only with younger friends in the future. Finally, a use for my wrinkles.)

And don’t just reach in and grab a piece with your personal chopsticks. The restaurant should supply separate ones (possibly of a different color) that are used only to serve the food. If you are lacking those, you should turn your chopsticks around and use the fat end to serve me, wiping them discreetly on your napkin before turning them back around.

Carolyn also was a font of information about the ingredients and origins of the various dishes on the menu, which relate to geography, climate, religion and language spoken in the many varied regions that make up China.

It was a whirlwind tour of a very sophisticated and complex group of cuisines that left me hungry for more. Our meal barely scratched the surface — the restaurant offers many dozens more dishes than we were able to try in one sitting.

Being dedicated to scholarship (and my taste buds), I am gearing up to do a great deal more research on the subject.


Read the full article on Betty’s blog, Amuse-Bouche, in the Napa Valley Register.