The Year of the Rat is upon us, and as years go, 4706 has definite possibilities. Consider the Rat's singular qualities: they're intelligent, versatile, incredibly charming, and deeply passionate, with enviable leadership skills and enough hardworking ambition to accomplish any task. (They're also conniving, power-hungry, quick-tempered, and cruel, but every year needs a little badass.) Marlon Brando was a Rat; so was Jackson Pollock; so, to complete the triad, was Truman Capote. If you were born during the last ten or eleven months of 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924 or 1912, you are a Rat. Your year began on February 7, and for the next thirteen lunar cycles, it's all about you.
But a celebration ain't nothin' without platters and platters of food — dim sum, preferably, which can't be enjoyed without tea. You see, the small plate tradition grew out of tea's rising popularity. For several centuries after the Emperor Shen Nung (apocryphally) invented tea by sipping a cup of hot water into which a camellia blossom had fallen, the beverage was considered a solitary sort of experience ideal for reflection and relaxation, unsuitable at mealtimes, not unlike the martini.
But tea's digestive, grease-cutting, palate-cleansing qualities edged it into the dining room, and by the turn of the (last) millennium, Silk Road teahouses were offering brew-friendly snacks to their itinerant clientele. In the process the food took on the multisensual, life-affirming cachet of the beverage. A southern Chinese, particularly Cantonese tradition, dim sum has always been a sociable sort of snack served in public establishments where friends and family can gather and gossip and argue and sip and nosh. Its parallels are global: in the tapas bars of Madrid, where jerez and conversation are consumed with bits of bread topped with cheese, anchovies, and other savories; in London pubs, with their draught beers, pickled onions, and cheddar; in Greek tavernas and Paris cafes and German rathskellers. But dim sum has the longest lineage — it arrived hereabouts with Canton's '49ers — and the most intricate, delicate cookery.
It is said that the best place to sample dim sum outside Hong Kong is the dumpling-happy San Francisco Bay Area, and one especially popular option is Restaurant Peony, a bustling, attractive Oakland Chinatown venue well patronized by the very generations that brought the stuff here in the first place. At lunchtime there's a perpetual line of hungry people inching its way out the restaurant's front door, but an acre or two of table space ensure a rapid turnover. The restaurant's wedding-banquet ambience — starched linens, suited waitstaff, pastel color scheme — make it an elegant place to sip, nibble, and chitchat.
One of the nicest things about the dim sum experience is that the stuff is wheeled right up to your table on heated carts for your perusal. For a dedicated eater, it's Nirvana: You point at a plate of food and bim-bam, it's set before you, no middleman, no waiting. At Peony, however, snagging a cart can be problematic. Growing up non-Asian in the Bay Area, I take it for granted that when you enter a Chinese restaurant, the good stuff (or at least the most authentic stuff) won't be immediately forthcoming; you're tagged as a chow mein-lovin' doofus until further notice. The Peony waitstaff can be particularly aloof, but if you persevere and wave your arms enough you can end up with a fairly eclectic array of buns, cakes, and dumplings.
Let the buyer beware, however: the tab won't be cheap (quite the contrary), and the dim sum won't be as tasty or imaginative as the stuff served at any number of lunch places around the bay. Steamed vegetarian bean-curd crepes are bland and gummy. The Szechuan pork is exactly like a pressed ham fresh from the refrigerator case. The barbecued ribs are tough and chewy with no discernible oomph, and the chicken buns are doughy and ponderous. One of my favorite examples of dim sum, a tea leaf-wrapped "tamale" of steamed rice and gizzards, is reduced here to a packet of barely flavored rice with some random shards of shrimp and egg.
There are treasures to be gleaned here and there, however. The barbecued pork pasty is wonderfully light and airy. The steamed shrimp-spinach dumpling is spiky and bracing and bright, while the fried shrimp-scallion dumpling is crisp and feathery on the outside, meaty and robust within. The house jook (rice gruel), the great Chinese restorative, is warm, soothing, and ribboned with mushrooms, green onions, and chicken; and the fragrant whole-flower chrysanthemum tea is absolutely invigorating.
At dinnertime Restaurant Peony serves a menu of seldom-encountered Hong Kong specialties: braised rock cod belly, cured chicken claw, pan-fried deer, fish maw/egg drop soup, and the like. The shark's fin soup with crabmeat is chewy, gelatinous, bracing, and thoroughly unique. The shrimp balls with fried custard, crunchy orbs of deep-fried shrimp meat served with big, baked Alaska-type gobs of deep-fried bland white custard, is a questionable exercise in oblique culinaria. But the black bass fresh from the fish tank, simply steamed and served with scallions and soy sauce, is a tender, flaky triumph. (The tank also hosts lobster, crab, turtles, frogs, and other dinner-table options.) For dessert there's a disappointingly bland mango pudding or those gummy deep-fried red bean-filled sesame balls that I savor the more I'm exposed to them. When it comes to the dim sum, though, you might want to toast the smart, snarky, energetic Rat at a more fitting venue across the bridge or back in the old country.
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