Vegetarian Dim Sum: when I first heard about it, I got super excited. Finally- the meal that was almost inaccessible to me as a vegetarian would no longer be out of reach, no longer be stuck in the realm of Meat City. At Vegetarian Dim Sum, I’d finally have the chance to try exciting new Chinese dishes to my stomach’s content.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve eaten Dim Sum before, but only stuck with two vegetarian dishes, while my friend and her family sampled from so many more: a little plate of shrimp dumplings, a couple strands of chicken noodles. And that’s what is so appealing about Dim Sum: the idea of trying so many new foods, the idea of a feast. Small dishes = low prices = lots and lots of food = sharing and goodwill. So over the past few weeks, some friends and I have visited Vegetarian Dim Sum to partake in a couple of Chinese spreads.
My first time, I went with a Vegetarian Dim Sum veteran, who claimed he ate there once a week. He lavishly praised the wheat gluten plate, which wasn’t on the regular menu, but could be ordered anyway. We ordered it along with the House Special Corn Congee, the soup pictured in photo no. 1 along with the multi-colored gluten, and then ordered the Fried Turnip Cakes, Steamed Glutinous Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves, Rice Flour Rolls with Chinese Kale, and Mock Shrimp Dumplings.
The meal was aswirl in unfamiliar textures and flavors. The soup, which was a favorite among my two dining companions, was a slightly sweet pale rice-porridge, speckled with bright bits of yellow corn. I’m not much of a soup person and moved onto the wheat gluten plate. The vivid colors threw me off at first, and each color contained a flavor of its own: the Dim Sum veteran was a big fan of the orange pieces, which I found too sweet, and the other friend liked the green pieces, which were a little salty and more agreeable. I did not enjoy the brown pieces, which were hard rubbery blocks compared to the rippled textures of the other two.
I did like the Glutinous Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves, which, true to its name, was sticky-sticky. But the flavors were more familiar than those coating the wheat gluten, and there was novelty in unwrapping a lotus leaf to reveal a steaming pile of rice. The mock- shrimp dumplings were interesting: round white orbs with spots of the pastel orange-pink mock shrimp. The Rice Flour Rolls with Chinese Kale were slippery and shiny, and the kale inside was fresh and bitter. But the most wonderful dish from this meal was the plate of Fried Turnip Cakes: lightly fried pasty blocks with a mild, boiled turnip aroma.
For my first meal, I had let my friend order everything. However I went back to the restaurant a week later convinced that I hadn’t tried all that I should have. My second time, I did what any avid reader and food-lover is bound to do: I ordered all the foods I used to read about, in those countless scenes in children’s literature devoted to describing the Chinese New Year feast. (In addition, I also ordered a couple dishes that sounded interesting.)
I ordered (clockwise from top left): Steamed Sesame Paste Buns, Rice Flour Rolls with White Fungus and Golden Mushroom, Spinach Dumplings, Lotus Root Cakes, Red Bean Cake, and the Mashed Taro Treasure Boxes (not pictured).
At last, I felt as though I were truly leaving my safe haven of scallion pancakes and dun dun noodles because not only did almost all of these dishes sound exotic- they also tasted unlike any other foods I’ve eaten. It was exciting, in a way, to bite into the pristine Sesame Paste bun and be surprised at how similar in texture it was to bread and then taste the sweet, nutty brown paste inside.
Golden ribbons that tasted nothing like the mushrooms I’ve eaten before filled the Rice Flour Rolls with White Fungus and Golden Mushroom. The spinach dumplings, with their emerald skin and pungent spinach flavor, were savory and delicious, but perhaps that’s because they were more familiar in taste than the other dishes. I really liked the Lotus Root Dumplings which were kind of like fried potato sandwiches with a thick slice of crunchy, absorbent lotus root in between. And the Red Bean Cake, while the most fantastically foreign in terms of texture and flavor, was also the most delightful. Covered with a gelatinous layer of transparent tapioca, the red bean paste inside was unexpectedly flowery and wickedly addictive.
We left our second meal feeling stuffed, but not so much from savoring an extraordinary meal as from filling ourselves with unusual textures and tastes. My tongue and stomach needed to adjust to these unfamiliar substances; they weren’t sure how to process a slippery rice roll, or a starchy sesame bun. But, at least for me, the allure of Vegetarian Dim Sum lies in the weirdness of the food: it’s an opportunity to push the boundaries of my taste buds into uncharted flavors.
Mock Shrimp Dumplings: $2.75; Spinach Dumplings: $2.75; Sesame Paste Buns: $2.75; Red Bean Cake: $2.75; Steamed Glutinous Rice Wrapped in Lotus Leaves: $4.75; House Special Corn Congee: $2.95; Lotus Root Cakes: $2.75; Mashed Taro Treasure Boxes: $2.75; Turnip Cakes: $2.75; Rice Flour Rolls with Chinese Kale/Golden Mushroom: $2.75.
Vegetarian Dim Sum is located at 24 Pell Street, New York, NY. Tel: 212-577-7176.