October 7, 2013
One of my favorite pastimes is joining the Sunday morning hordes outside San Francisco’s Ton Kiang, a popular dim sum restaurant in the city’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. So when the opportunity recently arose to visit Hong Kong and not only dine on the bite-size delicacies but actually learn how to make them, I jumped at the chance.
Hong Kong is dim sum’s cultural epicenter and here, the cuisine is king. The name dim sum, which means ‘to touch the heart,’ derives from its roots as a simple snack food offered with tea to the weary travelers of Asia’s Silk Road. Even today, dim sum and tea go hand in hand, and going for dim sum in Hong Kong is known as going for yum cha, which translates to ‘drink tea.’
Cantonese immigrants first introduced dim sum to the U.S. during the mid-1800s, and the cuisine’s varied selection and small, convenient portions eventually caught the attention of Westerners. Still, although there have been about 2,000 types of dim sum since its inception, most dim sum eateries in the States stick to several dozen offerings that appeal mostly to westernized palates and incorporate easy-to-find ingredients, such as sui mai (pork dumplings), wah tip (pot stickers), and ha yeung (crispy shrimp balls). In Hong Kong, however, chefs have the advantage of utilizing a larger variety of tropical vegetables from nearby Asian countries, as well as catering to a clientele that’s grown up on dim sum and tend to be more adventurous in their tastes. This means exotic treats like Sun Tung Lok’s baked sea conch shells, or steamed hairy crab roe with pork dumpling at the InterContinental Hong Kong’s Yan Toh Heen.
For over a decade, Peninsula Hong Kong has been offering weekday workshops in dim sum making as part as their larger Peninsula Academy, a series of location-specific workshops that range from paper mache and Chinese puppet mastery to insights into the region’s contemporary art scene. The hour-and-a-half-long course takes participants behind the scenes of the luxury hotel’s 1920s Shanghai-inspired Spring Moon restaurant and into its industrial kitchen to learn the art of crafting both shrimp and vegetable dumplings. Henry Fong, Peninsula’s dedicated dim sum chef, has been working in the culinary world for nearly 20 years. He is also the workshop’s teacher and will be leading our group of six in our efforts to mix, roll and wrap restaurant-style cuisine.
With so many dim sum eateries across Hong Kong, it takes an extra something to stand out. To keep his clientele happy—and his creative juices flowing—Fong hits up local farmers markets and specialty stories like the region’s popular City’s Super on weekends, searching out fresh, new ingredients to incorporate into his menu. He says it’s the endless variety that makes dim sum more interesting to him then other types of cuisine. Though well-versed in creating traditional dim sum favorites like wah tip (pot stickers) and lo mai gai (sticky rice and meats wrapped in lotus leaves), Fong also likes coming up with innovative creations by mixing the conventional with the unusual, such as drumstick-shaped steamed dumplings filled with carrots, spider crab leg and pumpkin; steamed vegetarian dumplings packed with locally grown imperial fungus and topped with gold leaf; and baked crispy buns filled with minced Wagyu beef, onions and black pepper.
As the workshop begins, Fong provides us each with an apron and invites us to gather around a large stainless steel table. He then begins mixing what will be the translucent skin for shrimp dumplings. First, he measures out equal portions of corn starch and high protein powder and pours them into a bowl together, and then adds some boiling water and a small bit of vegetable oil. Next he begins working the mixture with his hands. As he presses, scoops, and turns the mix repetitively it becomes thick and doughy, almost like marzipan. Fong then offers each of us a try.
Once the dough cools, Fong rolls it into a long, thin, rope-like stretch and slices off half-inch pieces, using a blunt stainless steel Chinese cleaver to flatten them each into paper-thin circles. When it’s my turn, Fong shows me how to press down on the flat side of the cleaver with the palm of my hand, turning it as I go. My first attempt at creating a dumpling skin is nearly perfect, though my excitement is short-lived. As it happens, wrapping a shrimp dumpling is not so easy. Fong demonstrates, topping the skin with a teaspoon-size portion of dumpling filler—a blend of finely minced prawn meat, shredded bamboo shoots, and chicken power with some salt, sugar, and vegetable oil—and using two fingers, quickly creates a dozen uniform folds across its top, almost akin to a fan.
“The trick,” he explains through a translator, “is to not let the two sides touch in the middle.” When through my creation looks more like a shrimp-nado than dumpling, though it’s still perfectly edible (and delicious), which I find out soon enough. Someone then asks Fong if there are any natural dim sum makers. “Not too many,” he says, laughing. “If there were I’d be out of a job.”
For the next 45 minutes we continue honing our shrimp dumpling skills, and also give vegetable dumplings (easier to fold because they require less dexterity) a go. Once we’re through, Fong steams them all on a stove top. After five minutes, they’re ready to eat. Along with our own creations, Fong also treats us to plates of roast pork buns, custard balls, and—for the group’s vegetarians—mushroom dumplings. He then offers each of us a cup of jasmine tea.
We are weary travelers, after all.
Where to get delicious dim sum in the States? Fong offers his recommendations for a range of price levels:
Less expensive: “The food is good quality and comparable to dim sum in Asia,” says Fong.
365 Gellert Blvd
Daly City, CA
Moderately expensive: “There is a great variety of dim sum,” says Fong, “and the choices are the same as what we offer in most restaurants in Hong Kong.”
14 Elizabeth Street
New York City, NY
Most expensive: “Every dim sum dish is hand-made with the finest seasonal ingredients and the taste is authentic,” says Fong. “Also, the food presentation is outstanding.”
529 Hudson Street
New York City, NY
June 13, 2013
If there’s just one thing I take away from my conversation with Louisville, Kentucky, historian Michael Veach, it’s that there is no wrong way to drink bourbon. Dilute it with water, mix it with ginger ale, or stir in a liqueur or two and call it something fancy like “The Revolver.” According to Veach, makers of America’s native spirit are just as pleased to see their product served up with a maraschino cherry as they are watching it poured straight into a shot glass. And you know? I believe him. Because when it comes to all things bourbon, Veach is Louisville’s go-to source.
As associate curator of special collections at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society and a former archivist for United Distilleries, situated in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon Country, 54-year-old Veach has spent decades studying bourbon history. Many local residents consider him the spirit’s unofficial ambassador, and it’s a title he’s undoubtedly earned. Veach once spent an entire year sampling the 130+ bourbons on hand at the city’s Bourbons Bistro and recording his thoughts in what would become the restaurant’s ‘Bourbon Bible,’ a binder overflowing with tasting notes and food pairing suggestions that now serves as a resource for the restaurant’s patrons. More recently Veach parlayed his expertise into a book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, which tells the history of the bourbon industry from the Whiskey Rebellion straight through to the 21st century. The text highlights often-overlooked aspects of the industry—such as the technology behind the spirit’s production—and includes a few of Veach’s own theories that may even surprise bourbon aficionados.
Take his argument on where the name ‘bourbon’ comes from. Visit any local distillery and you’ll likely hear that the moniker derives from Bourbon County—once part of a larger expanse known as Old Bourbon—in upstate Kentucky. However, says Veach, the timeline just doesn’t match up.
Though the Filson Historical Society is home to bourbon labels printed as early as the 1850s, he says, “the story that the name ‘bourbon’ comes from Bourbon County doesn’t even start appearing in print until the 1870s.” Instead, Veach believes the name evolved in New Orleans after two men known as the Tarascon brothers arrived to Louisville from south of Cognac, France, and began shipping local whiskey down the Ohio River to Louisiana’s bustling port city. “They knew that if Kentuckians put their whiskey into charred barrels [which gives whiskey flavor] they could sell it to New Orleans’ residents, who would like it because it tastes more like cognac or ‘French brandy’,” says Veach.
In the 19th century, New Orleans entertainment district was Bourbon Street, as it is today. “People starting asking for ‘that whiskey they sell on Bourbon Street,’” he says, “which eventually became ‘that bourbon whiskey.’” Still, Veach concedes, “We may never know who actually invented bourbon, or even who the first Kentucky distiller was.”
For those unfamiliar with what makes bourbon bourbon, here’s a brief primer. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon distilling is not limited to Kentucky, though the state does produce the lion’s share (Veach attributes this to the area’s excellent-quality limestone-filtered water as well as Kentucky’s extreme weather patterns).
For a spirit to be considered bourbon it must adhere to six standard rules: It must be made in the U.S.; aged in new, charred white oak barrels; and be at least 51 percent corn. It also must be distilled at less than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol by volume) and entered into a barrel at below 125 proof. Lastly, there can be no artificial coloring or flavor (hence the reason Jack Daniel’s is a Tennessee whiskey: it’s filtered over maple wood chips before bottling). The darker the bourbon, the higher the alcohol content; and for a true taste of its complexities, open your mouth while sipping.
As a lifelong Louisvillian, Veach not only drinks bourbon—he also has a few cherished places for imbibing the local spirit. Along with Bourbons Bistro, Veach pays occasional visits to the bar at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel (home to the city’s signature Hot Brown sandwich), as well as the iconic Seelbach hotel, a four-star property that F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions in The Great Gatsby (like Veach, Jay Gatsby’s golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, is also from Louisville). Veach also recommends Louisville’s Dish on Market for both its fine bourbon selection and its presidential breakfast: an ode to President Harry Truman, who stayed at the Seelbach while in town. “Every morning he’d have one egg, a slice of bacon, buttered toast, cup of fruit, glass of milk, and a shot of Old Granddad,” he says.
However, Veach admits he’s much less a tour guide and more a historian who loves bourbon, a notion that his book well reflects. In Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, American history and bourbon history—from the Pure Food & Drug Act’s effects on bourbon to how Prohibition contributed to the Great Depression—are distinctly intertwined. Still, there’s one thing you won’t find within its pages: bourbon ratings and reviews. “I really don’t have a favorite bourbon,” says Veach, “There are just too many different flavors and flavor profiles. It’s like asking what’s your favorite wine.”
Choosing a Bourbon
As with wine, some bourbons pair better with a particular dish or are best enjoyed during a certain season. Veach suggests the following:
For Father’s Day – “I like Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel,” he says. “At $30-35, it’s not overly expensive—though remains a step up from your normal everyday whiskey. Elmer’s about 93 years old, but he still comes down to the distillery on Tuesday mornings to pick the barrels himself.”
Relaxing after a Long Workday – Veach recommends something refreshing for spring/summer, like a Four Roses Yellow Label. “It’s light but flavorable,” he says. “Not overly complicated, but with enough complexity to give you a little interest.”
To Accompany a Nice Steak “There are so many good ones,” says Veach, “but the last time I had steak I enjoyed it with a neat glass of Old Grand-dad Bottled-in-Bond. It’s got a nice fruitiness that I find compliments meat well.”