Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Having Some Dim Sum for the New Year

Cultures: Two popular Monterey Park restaurants were crowded Saturday morning with customers celebrating a Chinese New Year tradition.

 

            In the cavernous and ornately decorated NBC Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park, every day is a business day, and every business day begins at 8 a.m. sharp.

            From then until 3 p.m., the restaurant dishes up dim sum, the savory and sweet Chinese dumplings designed to be washed down with aromatic tea and friendly conversation.

            Literally “a touch of the heart’s delight,” dim sum are rolled, folded and wrapped around fragrant mixtures of shrimp, pork, chicken or beef, then steamed, pan-fried or deep-fried.

            At a day and a time when most people don’t even venture out of their beds, lines for dim sum, a Chinese ritual, are forming all over Monterey Park. Last Saturday—the start of the Chinese New Year—began like any other day at NBC, except that as each employee arrived, owner Chui Lee greeted them with a “gun hay fat choy” (best wishes and congratulations) and handed them two small red envelopes. The money-filled envelopes are a fixture of the Chinese New Year, handed from employer to employee and from elder family members to children or single adults.

            One place where these hong bao, as they are called, are handed out is over a morning meal of dim sum, where families gather to wish each other well and ring in the new year. Tradition has it that no cooking is done on New Year’s, so many families have banquets in restaurants on New Year’s Eve or have dim sum on New Year’s morning.

            In Monterey Park, two favored spots to start the lunar year 4688 were NBC and its nearby competitor, the Harbor Village Restaurant at the intersection of Garvey Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard.

            At the 700-seat NBC, Monterey Park resident Daniel Szeto, a native of South China, and his family lingered over a dessert of miniature custard pies. To him, the holiday was a time to “say the old Chinese sayings, to tell the younger generation what Chinese New Year is about, so they can understand the old customs.”

            The holiday is primarily a family affair, and one in which eating plays a central role. At NBC, pink-clad waitresses roamed the expanse of floor, pushing steam carts laden with delicacies, stopping at each table to present their goods. Many spoke little or no English; some customers made their selections by pointing and nodding.

            For Szeto and his family, a morning dim sum meal was to be followed by a bigger family reunion in the evening. The banquet included a whole steamed chicken, complete with wings, feet and head. Chicken and fish are always served intact on New Year’s to symbolize unity.

            At the 450-seat Harbor Village, Kenneth Wang of Silver Lake, his wife Hsiao-chu and their son Philip waited Saturday morning for a table in the lobby. “We celebrated last night with our family, over a traditional feast,” Wang said. “Then we played some mah-jongg.

            “You have to have fish,” he said, noting that the Chinese word for fish, yu, is synonymous with abundance. “It means that you’ll accumulate more than enough wealth.”

            Nearby, Judith Su, 22, of Alhambra sat with Margaret Tsai, 21, who was visiting from Taiwan. True to the custom in Taiwan and China, Su was stylishly dressed in brand-new clothes for the New Year--gifts from her parents. But she seemed more the exception than the rule; many dim sum-goers on this sunny morning, especially at the more casual NBC, were dressed down, California-style.

            The lunar New Year brought more than just new clothes for Su. She and her two brothers and two sisters received $200 each in their hong bao, a gift from Tsai’s Taiwanese grandmother. “Some young people spend it quickly,” Su said, “but I’m going to put mine in the bank.”

            In the adjoining main dining room of Harbor Village, the hum of conversation and the clatter of dishes formed the backdrop for a feast. Chandeliers sparkled, tuxedo-wearing waiters hovered and waitresses maneuvered between tables, pushing acrylic-covered dim sum carts loaded with gourmet dumplings.

            Barbecue pork buns, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, roast duck and spare ribs in black bean sauce shared the limelight with other exotic dishes such as turnip cakes. Assistant Manager Dominic Lee explained that turnip cakes are made by mixing ground turnip, Chinese sausage, pork and dried shrimp, which are then steamed, cut in squares and pan-fried.

            At Harbor Village, the feast is the handiwork of 15 specially trained dim sum chefs, who cater to the tastes of a clientele that Lee estimated is 99% Chinese.

            The dim sum tradition does attract occasional non-Asian visitors, however, At Harbor Village on Saturday, Harvey Kushner of Woodland Hills ate with friends Phoebe and Bill Bryan of Beverly Hills. Phoebe Bryan said she was “amazed by the enormity” of the restaurant, “the amount of people they serve and how smoothly it works.”

            Kushner rhapsodized about the food. “I was here twice last week, just for dim sum,” Kushner said. “I’ve come by myself and had 10 plates and freaked the people here out.”

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