Pleasures of Life Dept.
Dim Sum-day at Christmas
A hometown guy tests the hot trend of eating Chinese food on Christmas Day
By David Claude Bailey
Now that our two girls are grown-ups and have homes (and Christmas trees) of their own, we empty nesters almost religiously endeavor to spend Christmas morning any place but home — in Savannah, in Florida, in France, in Spain visiting our older daughter.
And then, last November, Anne said, “Let’s not go anywhere this year. Let’s just stay home.”
And so it came to pass that on Christmas morning we find ourselves with our younger daughter, Alice, and her fellow serious eater, Evan, at arguably Greensboro’s most authentic Chinese restaurant, Hometown Delicious.
My idea was to eat in the company of others not entirely focused on little children giggling with delight around a Christmas tree. A few years ago while eating dim sum in Chinatown with Lori, a New York City friend and cookbook author, I heard all about how crowded Big Apple Chinese restaurants are on Christmas day with dim sum eaters.
Literally translated, dim sum means “close to the heart” and encompasses a wide range of hors d’oeuvres, mostly plump dumplings served in steaming bamboo baskets. Once back home, I did a little research. “Going out for dim sum on Christmas Day started as a New York Jewish tradition, spread across America and then caught on across the world,” says the Financial Times.
Getting back to our family summit in November, I proclaim, “Let’s feast on dim sum Christmas morning with Alice and Evan.” They readily agree, though neither had heard about the hot trend of eating Chinese on Christmas morning. I call several Chinese restaurants around town and find that most plan to be closed. One insists that I make a reservation to guarantee a table, which I don’t want to do without consulting my fellow dim (con)sum’ers. Evan, who doesn’t like crowds any more than I do, agrees with me that we ought to eat early to avoid the rush. I have visions of ordering deep-fried sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste only to have the waitress point to another table and say, “They got the last ones.”
So at 11 a.m. sharp, we’re sitting in the parking lot as the lights come on inside Hometown Delicious, and a waitress opens the door with a big smile and a warm welcome. Soon we’re sipping cups of piping-hot wulong tea, a traditional complement to dim sum. I’m glad we’re with family and not in snowy Canada, where I’d suggested going. Or Beirut, Lebanon, where, decades ago, I spent a cold and edgy Christmas on assignment.
To our delight, we have the restaurant totally to ourselves, and, for the first time in months, we are blissfully surrounded by the complete absence of Christmas music.
The menu, however, is almost dim-sumless. Still, we start our feast with an order of pan-fried dumplings, pillowy and stuffed with a savory combination of cabbage and garlicky pork. They are, in fact, delicious, whether they’re hometown or not. I am already one happy camper.
To us, half of the fun of eating Chinese food is sharing all the various dishes. Alice orders eggplant in red sauce as well as spicy mapo tofu. Evan orders pine nuts with corn. Corn? Anne orders the dry-fried green beans. A meat lover, I retaliate by ordering hearty braised duck with beer in an iron pot and a dish the waitress tells us is a specialty of the chef, fish-flavored shredded pork. Anne raises her eyebrows.
As soon as the shiny, purple chunks of eggplant arrive, literally still sizzling, visions of dim sum dancing like sugar plums disappear from our heads. The plump eggplant dissolves, a cloud on our palates, savory with a sauce that leaves you licking your fork. “Oh, my!” Anne says. Alice glows with satisfaction.
“It is cooked in the style of my hometown of Luoyang,” the chef, Jianjun Li, tells us later. (Luoyang is in east-central China in the Henan province — not to be confused with the Hunan, Hainan or Yunnan provinces.) The fish-flavored pork turns out to be a slightly sweet-and-sour stir fry with shreds of pork, slivers of peppers, bamboo shoots, carrots and the same sort of mushrooms found in hot-and-sour soup. “No fish — flavor of fish from the sauce,” Li says. As it swims into our mouths, Evan and I are ecstatic.
We all love the sweet, creamy-fresh corn, stir-fried and amped up with pan-roasted pine nuts. Origin? “Pine nuts with corn is a traditional dish from northeast China,” Li tells us. The dry-fried green beans are from Szechuan, as is the duck cooked in beer, which is my favorite dish. The spicy mapo tofu is, in fact, appropriately described and from Hunan.
Not from his hometown? “These are from my customers’ hometowns,” Li tells us, “so they feel at home in my restaurant.”
Which is where, on this sunny morning, we all feel perfectly at home — in Hometown Delicious.
No need to go to Canada or Florida, we decide over a last cup of tea. Home is wherever your family gathers and eats food cooked by someone who knows how to make people feel happy and at home. It also helps that most of Li’s employees are family members.
As we’re leaving, our waitress says, “Merry Christmas.”
I’ve heard this dozens of times in previous weeks, but not with such total sincerity.
“Merry Christmas to you and all of yours,” I reply.
As we’re stretching our legs and saying our goodbyes outside, I give my daughter a holiday hug and whisper in her ear, “Next year in New York City?” OH
O.Henry’s contributing editor David Claude Bailey fell in love with Chinese cooking 55 years ago when a UNCG faculty member’s wife gifted a wok and a Chinese cookbook to him and his own wife, Anne.