Dim sum "hits the spot." That's the figurative translation of dim sum and that's the judgment of millions of Chinese -- and Americans -- who enjoy the dumplings, noodles and "small dishes" that make up a dim sum menu.
Tradition dictates that dumplings and noodle dishes be the highlight of Chinese New Year's meals, and there is just enough time to prepare them for the year 4689, the year of the Ram, which begins Friday.
Westerners typically associate noodles with Italian, not Chinese, cuisine. But in the wheat-growing north of China, breads, pancakes, noodles, dumplings and pastries have long been the everyday starch foods. And over the centuries their popularity has spread around the country, with each region developing its own specialties.
You can either make your own dumpling and noodle dishes at home or you can follow the lead of most people in China and go out to a tea house or restaurant. For a no-effort, instant "trip" to China, fly over to the Vietnam Taste and China Noodles restaurant on Viers Mill Road in Rockville, one of the few local restaurants where handmade noodles are a specialty.
At your table side, chef Shu Lau demonstrates the ancient art of pulling noodles -- an awesome show of skill that more resembles sleight of hand than food preparation. By stretching, pulling, braiding, twisting and tossing a six-foot length of dough, he magically folds and divides it into 256 fine strands of "longlife" noodles. (Considered an auspicious symbol of longevity, they are traditional for birthday celebrations as well as the Chinese New Year.)
Lau, who grew up in Shantung, says he never saw rice until he went to Hong Kong at age 14 to be apprenticed to a master pastry chef. He likes to relate how he practiced pulling noodles at night when nobody watched because "every time I did it wrong, my teacher beat me with a scoop. It made me learn fast."
Home cooks here, like most in China, will prefer the convenience of a factory-made product because hand pulling noodles is tricky business. Commercial Chinese noodles come thin, like vermicelli, or wide, like pappardelle , and are made with just flour and water or with egg added. Asian markets sell them fresh and dried along with rice sticks (noodles made of rice) and bean threads or cellophane noodles (made of mung beans).
Cooking techniques vary from boiling (for serving in soups or with a spicy sauce), to stir-frying (lo-mein style), to shallow frying (with vegetables and meats). Cold noodle "salads" are also popular. And instant noodles -- the familiar Japanese ramen -- are the original Chinese fast food.
Dumplings, unlike noodles, are often made in Chinese homes. They range in type from familiar wontons and pot stickers to pleated har gau and open-topped siu mai to stuffed steamed buns. Good quality wrappers are sold in Asian groceries and simple fillings are easy to make in the food processor.
During the Chinese New Year celebration, some cooks, before steaming, boiling or pan frying the dumplings, hide a coin inside the meat, seafood or vegetable-filled dough wrappers as a token of prosperity in the new year for the lucky discoverer.
But if preparing dumplings seems as challenging as pulling noodles, there are many local restaurants that serve them. The dumplings are prepared mostly by trained pastry chefs, like Shu Lau, skilled in the intricacies of handmade doughs and the practically infinite mixtures of fillings.
But if you want to try Chinese home-style dumplings, the place to go is China Canteen on Rockville Pike. There, Xiang-Ling Sun makes the dumpling varieties she learned as a child from her mother.
Last May she arrived here from her hometown near Shanghai to join her brothers Xiang-Nian Sun (who has worked as a chef here for the last 10 years) and Jack Sun (owner of House of Chinese Gourmet).
"She practiced making dumplings for three years before she came here -- at home and in a hotel kitchen," Jack Sun explains. "She had to learn the difference between amateur cooking and professional cooking: Speed, consistency and the ability to be able to cook small or large portions and make them taste the same."
Since 17 other family members came here, too, they opened China Canteen to provide work for everyone. But Xiang-Nian is the acknowledged expert on scallion cakes, specializing in the pork-and-leek-filled type peculiar to the family's hometown (she also makes them with a scallion-only and a fish filling).
These pancakes are considered home cooking and generally are unavailable in restaurants. So Xing-Nian has shared her recipe as well as one for meat-filled dumplings in spicy sauce.
Whether Marco Polo carried noodles and dumplings to the Orient or brought them back to Italy when he visited China in the 13th century is an age-old chicken-and-egg argument. Many food historians, though, believe they originated in China between 200 and 100 B.C. One undisputed fact is that Chinese cooks have had plenty of time to develop noodle and dumpling cuisine into a high art.
VIETNAM TASTE AND CHINA NOODLES' CHINESE NOODLES IN SEAFOOD SOUP (4 servings)
1 pound flat Chinese noodles
6 tablespoons oil
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 pound pork tenderloin, shredded
1 1/2 pounds napaSTART NOTE: Capped, or is this a different Napa? BobK. END NOTE cabbage, sliced
8 dried black Chinese mushrooms, soaked and drained
1 small zucchini, sliced
5 white mushrooms, sliced
1 small onion, diced
8 canned straw mushrooms
8 cups chicken stock, boiling
1 fresh squid, thinly sliced (optional)
3 1/2 ounces frozen fried fish cake, thinly sliced (Shung Kee brand)
4 shrimp, peeled
8 bay scallops
2 teaspoons dry sherry
2 eggs, beaten
Boil noodles in water to cover until tender, according to the package directions. Drain well, rinse under cold running water and set aside. Heat oil in a wok or skillet until almost smoking. Add salt and stir. Add pork and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add cabbage, black mushrooms, zucchini, white mushrooms, onion and straw mushrooms. Cook 3 minutes. Pour into boiling stock.
Return to the boil and add squid, fish cake, shrimp and scallops. Add sherry. Stir in egg to make egg threads. Add noodles and reheat.
Per serving: 621 calories, 38 gm protein, 51 gm carbohydrates, 30 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 239 mg cholesterol, 2748 mg sodium.
CHINA CANTEEN'S DUMPLINGS IN SPICY SAUCE (4 servings)
1 pound ground chicken or pork
1 egg white, beaten
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
12-ounce package wonton wrappers
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
6 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 star anise pods, broken up
1/2 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1/4 cup hot chili oil
Combine pork, egg white, sesame oil, salt and pepper into a smooth paste. Chill 30 minutes. Place a spoonful of filling in the center of each wonton wrapper. Moisten edges with cold water and seal. Squeeze the filling so that it forms a ball in the middle of the wrapper and wings at the top.
Drop dumplings into a large saucepan of boiling water and simmer 5 minutes or until dumplings float and filling is cooked. Combine broth, soy sauce, sugar, garlic and star anise in a saucepan. Bring to a boil.
Heat Szechuan peppercorns in a skillet over medium heat until they release their fragrance. Grind in a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle. Add to sauce along with hot chili oil. Remove dumplings from pan with a slotted spoon. Pour sauce over dumplings and serve immediately.
Per serving: 752 calories, 29 gm protein, 60 gm carbohydrates, 44 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 81 mg cholesterol, 3983 mg sodium.
CHINA CANTEEN'S PORK AND SCALLION CAKES (Makes 12 cakes)
4 cups flour
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound ground pork (or substitute ground beef)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
6 bunches chopped scallions, green part only
Oil for frying
Soy sauce and rice vinegar for dipping
Sift flour into a large mixing bowl. Pour in water and oil and combine to make a soft dough. Add more water if dough is too hard (dough will be very soft). Cover with a damp cloth and let stand 15 minutes. Stir dough.
Combine pork, soy sauce and sugar. Form into 12 balls. Tear off a golf ball-size piece of dough. Lightly flatten with your fingers or a small rolling pin into a 2- to 3-inch circle on a floured board. Dip a meatball in scallions and place in the center of a dough circle. Wrap dough around meat and press flat on a floured board. Lightly roll into a 1/4-inch thick circle. Repeat with other meatballs. Heat 3/4 inch oil in a wok or skillet. Add pancakes, one at a time, cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes, turning several times. Drain on paper towels and keep warm while making remaining pancakes. Combine soy sauce and vinegar to taste and use as a dipping sauce.
Per cake: 313 calories, 11 gm protein, 35 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 4 gm saturated fat, 27 mg cholesterol, 643 mg sodium.
Gail Forman is an English professor at Montgomery College and a freelance writer.