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Dim Sum Dynamics: Catchy Names and Constant Creation

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These small dishes are among the most widely popular dim sum dishes.
GALLERY
These small dishes are among the most widely popular dim sum dishes.
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Shrimp dumplings formed into swans. Green tea balls stuffed with black sesame paste. For Janet Yu, there can never be too many kinds of dim sum, Cantonese for "heart's delight."

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On weekends at her Hollywood East Cafe on the Boulevard in Wheaton, more than 70 steamed, baked, fried or roasted dim sum dishes are available for a sumptuous lunch. Carts loaded with dumplings, rice-flour crepes, baked and stuffed buns and plates of a Chinese favorite -- steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce -- snake through the crowded, narrow aisles.

There's plenty of variety, but Yu wants even more -- along with some surprises -- for the 300-plus people who come to the restaurant on Saturdays and Sundays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. for a teatime meal, a custom the Chinese call yum cha.

"Some people like to try new things," says Yu, 53, who grew up in Washington's Chinatown, where her parents were dim sum chefs. "We want to offer something that's different." And something that customers can't get from the competition: There is another dim sum restaurant across the street and one just down the block.

That's why her two dim sum chefs, Guo Ruan, 42, and Kenny Lei, 21, set aside time every week to create new snacks featuring traditional ingredients in novel shapes. In the back of the enormous Hollywood East Cafe kitchen, beyond the towering stacks of bamboo steamer baskets, the busy wok station and the hulking pig roasting chambers, there's a quiet corner with a butcher-block table where the two men test their skills.

Neither Ruan nor Lei speaks English, so Yu helps with the translation. Both chefs are from the village of Taishan, in China's Guangdong province.

"We get together and look at Chinese magazines and get ideas from the shapes of flowers and animals," says Ruan, who has been a dim sum chef for eight years. "If it doesn't work, it goes in the trash can. But you have so much potential, with so much material like rice paper and pastry dough."

On this day, he has set out a series of dyed wheat doughs in deep shades of pink, yellow and green. The vision: a sweet dim sum in a delicate lotus flower shape. "It will be called 'Blooming Flower for Good Luck,' " Ruan says, selecting a yellow dough to start. "For the Chinese people, you have to have a good name."

Working quickly, using the side of a Chinese cleaver, he flattens one ball of each color of dough into a three-inch disk. The disks are then layered together, and a glob of sticky lotus paste is centered on the top disk. Tucking and trimming the dough into a ball that encloses the paste, Ruan uses a razor blade to score the dough, then gently pulls back layers to form the lotus flower.

"The first time we tried this, the flower didn't work," says Lei, who has five years of dim sum experience. "The middle was too big and too sweet, and it didn't taste good." The flowers later will be lightly fried in vegetable oil.

At the same time, Lei is working on the prototype of a taro seafood purse in a wheat-starch wrapper. A man of few words, he says that having a stranger in his kitchen makes him shy. But he is not timid with his creations. For the filling, he has combined minced scallop, shrimp, crab and carrot, added some mashed taro and sprinkled on chive flowers and cilantro.

"I tried it. It's good," he says. "And it's something we didn't have." The intricately shaped purse, topped with fresh green peas and then steamed, will join the ranks of the many dumplings on the weekend menu.

There have been failures. A few weeks back, the men came up with a pastry filled with preserved egg, ginger and lotus bean paste. It bombed. "The Chinese ate it, but no one else," Yu says with a laugh.

Another time, "I made this tapioca dough with dried shrimp and green onions and filled it with pan-fried pork, shrimp and mushrooms. I thought it was good," Lei says. "But for two weeks, no one wanted it."

Then there was the batter-fried condensed milk with gelatin. "It was kind of strange. Even I couldn't eat it," Yu says.

These days both men are on an animal-shape binge. Working with a pair of scissors, Lei fashions a porcupine from cooked sweet rice flour, cupping it out of sight in his hand until it's done. He plans to fill it with fresh cantaloupe.

"I want to make little rabbits and swans," Ruan says, grabbing some rice-flour dough. And sure enough, there are the animal shapes in seconds. But he has not decided what to fill them with.

Yu says many of her customers don't order the new creations, preferring to stick with the traditional dim sum. "They say they look and may taste strange," she says. "But I want my restaurant to be different. And if we have them on the menu for only two weeks, fine."


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