Classical Dim Sum

"The real world is cooperative, not competitive." says Lily.  Lily offers cooking, sewing, and piano lessons. Her musings on how the world works are for free.

Meet Lily.  A pint sized, energetic, über talented Chinese woman who taught me how to make dim sum today.  She advertised cooking lessons on a local expat website.  I convinced a friend to come along and reserved two spots.

We were late.  Two other woman had beat us there.  That made five of us; an American, a Scot, a Spaniard, an English woman, and Lily.  Lily had all the ingredients out and was trying her best to break down a recipe she learned how to make as a child into something the rest of us could follow. Know this, dim sum takes a long time. 

Dim sum is what the southern Chinese say.  It literally translates to 'snack'.  It's a complicated snack. Lily says it's the Chinese equivalent of the Sunday roast.  Buckle up.

Her mother taught her.  She can remember the whack of her neighbors' knives on Sundays as they chopped pork for dim sum- food processors aren't (or weren't at that point) common in China. Whack went the knives.

Lily's knife of choice is a meat cleaver which brings her to another story of growing up in China. She always wanted long hair.  Her mother didn't think that was a good idea and would occasionally brandish a meat cleaver in an attempt to illustrate just how much Lily needed the occasional hated haircut.  Lily's husband thinks it is just plain prudent to hide the meat cleavers when his mother-in-law visits.

Back to the dumplings. Pork makes the traditional filling as chicken would be saved for something else.  Another Lily'ism...old hens make good soup, old roosters make a fine stir fry, and young hens lay small eggs.  She fed assorted vegetables through the food processor as she explained why some were suited to a food processor and some were not.

Garlic chives are not. Hand chop garlic chives.  

Garlic chives

Why? Because they are quite juicy and will be mushed in a food processor.  Mush is bad. Creamy dim sum is bad.

Bärlauch  can go in a food processor.  


Bärlauch translates to 'bear leek'.  Why is it called bärlauch? Because when bears come out of hibernation, they eat this and it makes them happy. I'm going to believe this, mostly because I don't know a single bear to ask. And she did such a great impression of a  bear delighted to find bärlauch, who am I to argue?

Bärlauch is also a good choice environmentally. It grows wild and it's free.  Garlic chives,  are not but they taste amazing.  These were imported from Thailand unlike the parsley which was bought from the local farmer. Winter parsley is tough with woody stems.  Into the food processor went the carrots, zucchini,  Chinese cabbage, and bärlauch.

Lily was simultaneously making a chicken filling just because.  That filling had the addition of shiitake mushrooms.  You must first soak the mushrooms over night. That enhances the umami flavor. Don't throw out the liquid the mushrooms were soaking in. That will be added later.

Did you know there are five basic tastes? Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.  Umami is the taste of Parmesan cheese, the tomato sauce on pizza, seafood, and soy sauce.  Umami is also the taste of breast milk.  Moving along...

In went the two kinds of soy sauce, oil, and spices including Szechuan pepper. Szechuan pepper is not spicy like you might think it is.  Instead it makes you numb, not whole body numb like a good vodka and grapefruit can, just your lips and tongue.  Seems like an odd spice to add but when paired with something spicy it is supposed to be a marriage made in heaven.  

I don't know about that but I did eat one and yes, my tongue felt...odd.  It got stuck in the way back of my throat and I had to go hang out in the bathroom and try to find it.  I did.  Then I had to go find something to eat to make my tongue happy again.  Apparently, I wasn't supposed to chew it.

Way before all of the Szechuan pepper nonsense, Lily had made a ball of dough and left it to rest while the fillings were prepared.  It doesn't need to rise, just rest. Like my tongue.

While my tongue was resting, I checked out her apartment.  A beautiful Steinway grand piano took up a third of the living room.  'Do you play?'  Since she was four was the answer.  I asked if she would play.  She would definitely play.  She would happily play.  

The piano was a hundred years old and had recently spent a year being refurbished at Steinway in Hamburg, Germany.  Only two original parts remained; the gorgeous wooden shell and something metal I've already forgotten. She said the mix of old and new gave it a unique sound.  I started jumping up and down on the inside thinking I would get to hear it.  Underneath the piano were about nine million Legos.

Her two year old must like to play there.  Seems like a good spot to me.

She once played at a party and showed up without a coat. She thought she was playing inside. Instead, she was playing outside.  The host told her to pick out a coat. She picked out a mink. Evidently, if you play piano like she does, people give you mink coats.  

She does give piano lessons but not to children.  When she teaches a child piano (she will teach them to cook or sew- yes, she's good at that too.  Did I mention she was a mechanical engineer?), she goes to bed unhappy.  Kids can make some pretty harsh sounds on the piano. My son took piano lessons for four years.  She speaks the truth.

The fillings were done. We moved on to rolling out small, thin circles of dough.  Not too big, not too thin, not too thick. Don't get filling anywhere near the edges.  Seal the top closed first,  then the sides. Side pleats are ideal because then they will sit up in the pot for cooking.  

She showed us how her mother sealed the dim sum. I filed it away in the 'Advanced Cooking Skills' section in my brain.  Typically, that's a one way journey.

Talk turned to schooling in Switzerland, China, and in the US.  In a nutshell, China is hypercompetitive, Switzerland has a more laid back, play centered approach in the first few years, and the US has a lot of tests and not enough outside time. 

That sorted,  Lily talked about the pressure and the intense competition to always be in the top ten percent and how the indignity of failure (or perceived failure- less than top ten percent) is public. She did well.  In college she wanted to major in environmental science but there weren't enough university spots for applicants.  Instead, she was offered a spot in a military school as a civilian but with a major in mechanical engineering.  She cried when she opened the letter.  But she went. Her father was happy, she was decidedly not. They made her cut her hair. She began her planning in earnest to leave China.

There's an art to rolling the dough. Roll towards the center. Never let go of the dough. Turn it, pressure on the roll towards center, release it back to the edge. Repeat. Lots of sprinkled flour helps. Her mom taught her and she taught us.  

Lily said it was perfect!

It is a cooperative world.  I think she's absolutely right. Thank goodness for the Lilys of the world.

Lily playing piano...she is amazing. My video skills, not so much.


  1. You're a great writer Jenny. :-)

  2. Greatthat made me smile and laugh. I think I have an advance cooking section in my brain, it's next to the moderate German section. Seema


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