Sunday, May 08, 2005

Ambushed By Soup

Sometimes you try to leave. Sometimes you get ambushed by soup.

Dateline - Chinatown. Mother's Day, 2005.

I love my mother but I'm broke.

I want to take her out to celebrate her special day. Where can I get a wide variety of cool, flavorful items on the table to excite our senses, fill our bellies for cheap and still be the "impressive daughter"? If you answered a Dim Sum joint in Chinatown, you'd be correct.

Like tapas without the bar tab, dim sum provides the opportunity to eat a whole bunch of tasty, yet mostly unfamiliar items to the adventurous diner - if you do it right. If you do it wrong, you'll be full three rounds in on glutinous rice, steamed assorted shu mai, and steamed buns. Tasty, sure. But I watched some bint on the Food Network try to convince me that she could create bao buns out of Pilsbury Whack-A-Biscuit dough in the tube and Panda Express boneless spareribs. That took the danger right out of it for me.

No, to really feel you're doing it right, you need to be surrounded by a lot of folks who don't look like you and really aren't speaking your language on a crowded Sunday around noon. Carts will come whizzing by. Pushy attendents will try to convince you that you want the contents of these carts. I secretly suspect they may work on commission, or some greater threat: "You will move 500 units of BBQ pork buns or we will not bring your daughter over from the mainland. Isn't capitalism grand?"

But you have to look past the familiar to get the good stuff. Using a combination of eye contact, lack of eye contact, pointing, a brief game of "What ticket? You have to stamp my ticket? I didn't order that. Oh, that. Yeah, I ordered that.", and a trip to the buffet of weird and esoteric stuff at the front of the room, Mom and I amassed a set of nine dishes that ranged from safe to somewhat frightening, and yet yummy.

We opened with a set of two dishes: mussels "au gratin" and salt and pepper wok flashed shrimp. The mussels were very non-Asian. They were on the half shell and covered with a white sauce with Parmesean cheese. Not particularly Chinese, although flavorful. The shrimp, on the other hand, came fresh from the kitchen in their shells with the heads on, coated in salt and pepper and on a bed on garlic and hot peppers. Tasty, cripsy and you get the added bonus of looking into their beady little eyes as you bite their heads off. Excellent.

Next up was a braised dish identified as "short ribs" in a garlic and bell pepper sauce, although the very tiny ribs seemed more like knuckles of some sort. Yummy knuckles, but, well, knuckles. We also got steamed shrimp dumplings. Good, and what you'd expect. Like a delicate, puffy ravioli of shrimp. The weird dish of the group was a meatball of shrimp and pork stuffed into a vegetable that looked vaguely like a sea cucumber, but appeared to be in the plant family upon tasting. It was green, melon like and bitter. We enjoyed it for its novelty.

As we tried to decide what to do next, we got a fried shrimp patty coated in shredded taro root. Taro is sweeter than potato and holds up to sitting around after frying better than potato. It complements the shrimp nicely, especially when dipped in hot bean paste.

Then Mom makes a break for the buffet at the front. She returns with ginger and garlic braised tripe and baby clams in garlic and black bean sauce. The clams were magnificent. Very briny and small enough that you can just pick them up, scrape the meat out of the shells with your teeth and discard the shells into a pile - only to keep repeating until the bowl is empty and you find yourself in a fugue state babbling something about "Clams gone. Clams all gone."

The tripe could be described as off putting to the uninitiated. Ok, it can be downright freaky to the uninitiated. Heaped in a rice bowl, honeycombs of white flesh, coated in a brownish sauce flecked with green can certainly seem a bit out of the ordinary. Tripe really don't seem to have a flavor of their own. They're all about absorbing the flavor of what they're cooked with, in this case a very intense ginger and garlic sauce. They do have a very distinct texture that can be a deal breaker for the faint of heart. To those who expect items that belong, even tangentially, to the meat family to be meat-like. It's almost crunchy and the honeycombed interior of the flesh holds all the sauce it's cooked with. I like it very much. Mr. Scoop can't get past the fact that it's stomach lining. All the more for me.

As Mom and I contemplated how full we were, an odd thing happened. A waitress arrived at the table with a steaming bowl of wonton soup, garnished with bright green stalks of Chinese broccoli. This was odd for a couple of reasons: 1) We didn't order it. 2) Wait service is unusual during dim sum service at this restaurant. So our best guess was someone had ordered it at the buffet and vaguely pointed in the direction of our table, which was near their table, and we got it by mistake. Either way, after the initial shock of getting an item we didn't order wore off, we ate the soup and it was delightful. If there was ever a soup destined to cure the common cold, or possibly, cancer, this soup was it. Between the homemade chicken broth, the light, chicken filled wontons (so much better than just plain noodles) and the sweet, crunchy broccoli, the soup was a positively virtuous experience. I think it may reverse my impending liver cirrhosis. We had been ambushed by soup. And it was good.

So, Happy Mother's Day all. Get out there and eat things that make you feel good. Eat them with people you enjoy being around. Don't freak out if something comes to your table that you didn't order. It may be an unexpected treat. And you may not be charged for it.

And save me some tripe.

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