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Liz Barclay
Liz Barclay

The Delicious World of Dim Sum

Liz Barclay
Liz Barclay

Dim sum, the Cantonese-Chinese twist on tapas, is unique among cuisines. Often served out of rolling carts, these delicate dishes emerged from a rich, centuries-old history, and today feature food as delicious as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is varied. There are thousands of permutations of dim sum—typically, they’re steamed, fried, and baked goods, recipes that have been mastered over generations.

It’s also finicky. If you’re not an early riser on weekend mornings, when it’s most commonly served, you might miss the good stuff. Why weekend mornings? Part of it is just logistics, as the detailed construction of the items disrupts kitchen flow, taking more time and painstaking attention than your typical wok-tossed Chinese meal. But mostly?

“Tradition, man,” says Wilson Tang, the owner of Manhattan’s critically acclaimed Chinatown eatery Nom Wah Tea Parlor. However, when he took over Nom Wah from his uncle in 2011—becoming only the third owner since it opened in 1920—he planned a big change: He’d serve the cuisine at all hours. Dim sum–craving New Yorkers have packed the place in droves ever since. Tang opened the first outpost of Nom Wah earlier this year, in Philadelphia. Clearly, a hankering for all-hours dim sum is spreading, and hopefully there’s a spot for it arriving near you soon. Until then, keep setting the Sunday alarm clock.

Photo by Liz Barclay

HOW IT GOT HERE

Dim sum’s origins date back hundreds of years to the Silk Road, when purveyors would set up roadside tea services for traveling merchants, with snacks. In modern times, tea serves as the traditionally social part of the meal, but also has a more pragmatic purpose: to cut through the grease and help digestion.

THE DUMPLING DIFFERENCE

On any dim sum menu, you’re bound to see all kinds of dumplings, with all kinds of stuffings, ranging from pork or chicken to shrimp and fish, or any number of land/sea/vegetable combinations. But there are a few key distinguishers: Siu mai (or “shumai”) usually bear an “open face,” or unsealed top. A wonton is typically sealed at the top with pleats, and is often served with broth (but you might see the term wonton used as a catchall). And har gow are typically sealed to the side, with a delicate, translucent wrapper.

WHAT IT MEANS

The literal translation of dim sum is “with a touch of heart.” According to Tang, it alludes to the tender care with which everything is made. “Everything is hand-pleated—it takes decades of culinary experience,” he says. But if you wanted to say you’re eating dim sum in Cantonese, you’d say “yum cha,” which means “drinking tea."


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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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