“You live in Alhambra and you’ve never had dim sum?!”
This was a line I heard repeatedly as friends learned that it was the first time I had ever attended the Chinese brunch. Apparently, the small portions of food served off carts are a rite of passage for those living in Asian communities, especially those in Alhambra, a city packed with restaurants offering the delicious meal.
In my defense, I had never been invited to dim sum and was too afraid to walk into a restaurant filled with Asian families and embarrass myself all alone. So when I received a Facebook invitation to go to yum cha (飲茶, “drink tea”) with eight of my Asian friends, I couldn’t resist.
As soon as we entered the restaurant, one thing became quickly apparent: I was the only non-Asian at dim sum. I drew curious glances but did a good job of inconspicuously sitting down at the circular table and not making a fool out of myself, a tall order if you know me at all. I was impressed with the ornate white tablecloth and the gold, fabric-covered chairs. This is how Lebanese decorate for special occasions! And after sitting for a bit, I realized this wasn’t too different from a traditional Middle Eastern meal, where families and friends gather around a large array of communal appetizers (called mezze).
But there was also much to learn. My first dim sum lesson was how to serve tea. It is traditional in Chinese households for the youngest at the table to serve the others before serving his or herself, and regardless of who is serving, it is important to never let a neighbor’s cup be empty. I also learned that the teapot is very hot and will burn you if you don’t grab the handle correctly. But, uh, who would do that?
Next was chopsticks etiquette. As dim sum is a communal meal where everyone picks food off shared plates, it is critical to never pick up a piece of food directly in front of another person. Never stab chopsticks vertically into a bowl or plate, as this is similar to incense burning during a funeral ceremony and considered very rude. As is not being able to grab a dumpling with your chopsticks and pushing it onto your plate instead. But, uh, who would do that?
Now that I wasn’t going to shame my friends, it was time for some actual dim sum. Women pushed steaming carts of mysterious metal bowls between the tables and shouted Chinese words I can only assume were the names of the dishes. Once or twice I was asked what I wanted, and could only look at the carts in hungry amazement. Luckily, my friends knew what they were doing and ordered the staples. Shrimp and pork in rice paper, egg tarts, barbeque pork buns, spare ribs, and various dumplings began to fill our table.
The dumplings and spare ribs tasted exactly how I would expect: delicious and meaty. The barbeque pork buns and egg tarts were interestingly sweet for meat dishes. And the shrimp and pork in rice paper went down like a newly discovered comfort food. I was thoroughly enjoying my brunch, happily catching up with my friends, and thinking, “Wow, all this food is so great. I’m glad I didn’t have to try anything too unusual.”
And that’s when they brought it: a small plate holding four bony chicken feet cooked and dipped in a red sauce. It was undeniable; the feet were still intact and waiting for me to eat them. My friends giggled and placed the plate in front of me. “Dig in, Nasrin!”
I had come to try something new. But a chicken foot? Could I do it? Would I want to endure the countless “You were chicken!” jokes if I didn’t?
I picked one up and tried not to think about what it actually was. I closed my eyes and took a bite. There wasn’t much meat on the bone, so, much to the amusement of the table, I began to nibble around it.
“You have to bite off a toe and really suck it,” someone said.
Well, now that I had graphic directions, I went at it again. But I couldn’t bring myself to bite off a toe; it was just too much like biting off the toe of a live chicken. So I tried to bite the foot from different angles. When that didn’t work, I just started to suck it anywhere. If sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is rude, I can’t imagine what noisily gnawing on a chicken foot must be. I’m sure that’s when the management began to discuss a more exclusive restaurant policy.
Luckily we were almost done. We paid the pleasantly cheap bill and left the restaurant full of delicious food, my happiest state of being. I’m already looking forward to my next dim sum experience, although, next time, I think I’ll pass on the poultry appendages.