Monday, August 28, 2006

Five Goats Drink Tea

Guillermo and I went to our first Yum Cha (飲茶, literally "drink tea" but actually a Chinese tapas meal) lunch in Buenos Aires with our friends Zoe and Mr.T on Sunday. The restaurant was one of only a couple, in this capital city, which had a Dim Sum menu at all. We were warned by Zoe ahead of time not to have much expectation, and certainly not to compare the dim sum (tapas) at Cinco Corderos* (Five Goats) to those served in London, Sydney or Hong Kong.

This restaurant on Las Heras, in Barrio Norte, doesn't take reservations on Sundays so we thought we would go a little early to get a table – now that turned out to be just too many previous Yum Cha experiences, in other countries, messing up our heads.

Yum Cha lunch, on weekends, is a ritual to many people in many countries. In Sydney, Chinese families and Anglo Saxons' alike crowd those spacious 1,000-2,000 seat restaurants from as early as late morning, often on a Sunday. By midday, the popular restaurants would have a queue and docket system going at the entrance; a waitress juggling a name list, a microphone and a walkie-talkie would be locating soon to be empty tables inside the restaurant for the hungry masses staring at her every move outside. Similar scenes are found, on Sundays and public holidays, in London, Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto and New York. For the popular restaurants in Hong Kong, this is a daily occurrence.

So Guillermo and I turned up at the restaurant at 12:30p.m. It was dark inside and we could vaguely see someone mopping the floor despite the sign of opening hours clearly stated that they open at 12:00; we were told to wait outside of the restaurant. Soon Zoe and Mr.T rolled up; we stood outside for a little while, and then decided to take a walk around the block. We had a leisurely stroll, even stopped at some estate agency to check out their latest offerings displayed at the shop front.

At one o'clock, we finally got seated in the empty restaurant. Zoe and I studied the short dim sum menu and decided that they should bring all the savouries on offer. We had about 5 small dishes, then, the flow of food stopped. By this time, the restaurant had more clients; we observed that everyone had spring rolls to start and went on to stir fry of sorts. Zoe asked the owner of the joint if more dim sum were coming; she was told that those we had already had were the only available choices. Out of an already short list of 15 items, the restaurant actually only had 5 in stock.

Since all four of us had "waited" up an appetite, we ordered fried rice, fried noodles and a meat dish. So it turned out not to be much of a dim sum lunch afterall; Guillermo explained that most porteños wouldn't even know what dim sum was after a life time of eating what they thought was Chinese food.

The problem of dim sum, like authentic Chinese food, needs a sizeable and affluent clientele. Dim sum chefs are a special breed of professionals among the Chinese chefs; they usually demand a much higher salary for their craft. The fine art of dim sum, and I don't mean just rolling up a spring roll, is also a labour intensive and time consuming process. On the other hand, due to the nature of dim sum (literally "a little bit of heart"), each dish cannot be as expensive as a main course so a restaurant needs quantity in consumption as well as high turn over to make the operation economically feasible. It is not unusual for a restaurant to "turn the table" 3-4 times during lunchtime. When many of these restaurants are also cavernous in size, you can do the math on how many they feed in those few hours every weekend.

The most famous morsels, served in a bamboo dim sum basket, have got to be prawn dumplings. The best I have had are from Golden Century in Sydney, due to the superlative quality of seafood available there. I would substitute prawns with pork and chives if you are making them in Argentina - there is no point in wasting money on rubbery and tasteless shrimps being sold at lobster prices.

Dough for Prawn Dumplings or "Har Gau":
150g "Tang" flour (available at Asia Oriental, Mendoza 1677)
15g corn starch
½ tsp plain flour
¼ tsp salt
1½ fl.oz boiling water
1 tsp corn oil

Mix all dry ingredients together, add boiling water to form dough. Rest dough for a while, then knead until smooth. Gradually add oil to soften the dough. Rest before use.

Filling for Prawn Dumplings or "Har Gau":
100g raw prawn, roughly chopped
25g water chestnuts, finely chopped
drops of oil

Roll the dough to make round wrappers. Mix ingredients for the filling well and spoon into the wrapper. Close each wrapper with your fingers; make sure each wrapper close properly. Place the dumplings in a hot steamer for 10-15min.

* Cordero in Spanish means lamb. The reason for my translation to "goats" is that the two Chinese characters, the Chinese name of this Chinese restaurant, stand for Five Goats. Lamb is not a meat commonly found in China. With the exception of the north west (the mostly Muslim region of China) where goat meat is a staple, most other Chinese would only eat goat in autumn and winter in a stew for the meat's "yang" nourishing value which is of particular importance in the cooler seasons.

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