About 1,200 years ago, at a time when Anglo-Saxons were still tearing roasts of meat apart with their hands, a family called Zheng left the imperial city of Tang Changan for a trip into the country. During the morning they paused at an inn, and while Madame Zheng retired to a private room, her cook improvised a fashionable meal of a dozen little delicacies. When the food was ready, Madame was summoned, but she told the party to start without her. “Dian xin,” she said. “Ignite your heart.” Which may have been the equivalent of “Knock yourself out,” but more likely meant, “Follow your heart” or “Choose what you like.” The phrase caught on, and in the south, where Cantonese, not Mandarin, was spoken, it was translated as “dim sum.”
Apocryphal tales (this one comes from Dimsum, a useful 1985 cookbook by Margaret Leeming and May Huang Man-Hui) can sometimes be a way into ancient truths. There may never have been a Madame Zheng, but the story is valued because it conveys a little of the mood of dim sum—the holiday atmosphere, the blend of the informal with the fastidious.
I ate a lot of wonderful dim sum on my one and only trip to Hong Kong, but none of it was as good as the perfect little treasures Terrence Chan creates at Lai Wah Heen, right here in Toronto. Chan started his career in 1978 at the famous Luk Yu restaurant in Hong Kong, learning how to make dim sum from the city’s acknowledged master, Wai Chu. Four years later, he was chef for the Jade Restaurants chain when he won first prize at a dim sum competition, beating 18 other restaurants with his “jade and coral fish” dumpling creation, a fish dim sum that actually looked like a fish.
To understand how astonishing and revolutionary this was, we must remember that dim sum is an ancient and essentially metaphorical art form. The recipes for “firewood bundles” (strips of chicken, bamboo shoot and mushroom bound with a coil of winter melon) or “chrysanthemum flowers” (deep-fried double dough) have not changed in a thousand years. “Laughing mouths” and “little redheads”, “Buddha’s hands” and “three-thread eyebrows” are entirely fantastical names possessed of more music than meaning. As for those autumnal moon cakes imprinted with an image of a hare, they have nothing to do with actual hares, rabbits or any kind of meat. They are a nod to people with a certain kind of mythopoeic vision, who can look the full harvest moon in the face and discern a hare busily mixing gold, jade and cinnabar in his alchemical crucible, making the elixir of immortality. Now there’s a recipe.
In a gastronomical backwater so formed by the eddies of fancy, chef Chan’s decision to shape fish paste into the shape of a fish was an act of almost aggressive literality. He became notorious, and soon other modernist chefs began to follow his pioneering example by making their own lifelike dim sum. Meanwhile, of course, chef Chan continued to hone his skills as a traditional dim sum master.
He came to Canada in 1986 and joined Lai Wah Heen as dim sum executive chef when the restaurant opened in 1995. I first tasted his brilliant (and mighty expensive) little lunchtime creations soon after that. I remember Susur Lee was at the next table.
At noon on Saturday, February 9, as mentioned in last week’s blog post, chef Chan and I will be hosting a dim sum lunch at Lai Wah Heen, as part of the Canadian Culinary Championships festivities. We will start with a dim sum cooking demonstration by chef Chan and his colleague, the Metropolitan hotel’s executive chef, Raymond Cheung. Guests will have the opportunity to practise making dim sum alongside the master; then we’ll all sit down for a special dim sum lunch in honour of the Chinese new year with rare teas chosen to match specific examples of Terrence Chan’s art. If you have never tasted his dim sum, I can guarantee you will be amazed—the textures so fresh and light and greaseless, bursting on the tongue, the flavours so pristine, rich and true, the merry poetry of the form more than enough to lighten the heart. They are to the average trolley-born Chinatown dim sum what a ripe époisses is to Kraft cheese slices. Tickets are an astonishingly low $85. And for that you get to meet Terrence Chan and learn his amazing secrets, together with a uniquely delicious lunch and all the tea you can drink.
To buy a ticket, call the CCC hotline at 416-646-2930 or just click here.