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Why Dim Sum is Like Life, or, Be Glad You Didn’t Pick Tripe

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Why Dim Sum is Like Life, or, Be Glad You Didn’t Pick Tripe

My mom came to visit me here in Seattle for ten days (she left Saturday night), and, as the kids would say, we did all of the things. (Literally –see my list at the end of this post.)

It was cold and rainy most of the time, so we did all of the things in the rain, which was frustrating because the two weeks before my mom arrived, every day was gorgeous and sunny. And, ever since she’s left it has been gorgeous and sunny. Apparently this is the cute trick Seattle plays on visitors, or else the city is simply trying to keep up its reputation.

I kept apologizing to her for the weather, but my mom said not to worry. She was expecting the cold and the rain.

On one of her last days in town, we decided to spend the chilly, overcast morning drinking hot tea and eating steamed dumplings at a popular dim sum restaurant in the International District.

In case you don’t know what dim sum is (and I didn’t before moving here), it’s a style of Cantonese food that I think of as Chinese tapas. Servers speed through the restaurant with carts of food, and you pick out small plates of various items to share with your table.

And what are those various items? I wasn’t sure, so I looked at online reviews for Jade Garden, the restaurant my Seattle friend Devon had suggested. After reading a few reviews, I learned that dim sum menu staples include shrimp and pork dumplings, beef balls, BBQ pork buns, egg tarts, tripe, chicken feet, and cow stomach.

OK, cool, I thought. As long as I don’t accidentally point to the tripe, chicken feet, or cow stomach, I’ll be happy. And pointing was apparently what we would be doing. The servers don’t speak English, and there are no explanations of the dishes anywhere. “I don’t know what these are called,” one blogger said, posting a picture of an oblong, meat-filled fried thing, “but if you say “football” they’ll know what you’re talking about.”

“This is going to be an adventure,” I told my mom, who is definitely not the world’s most adventurous eater.

Dragon in Seattle’s International District. photo credit.

We drove to the International district, where red dragons cling to the telephone poles, and headed to Jade Garden, which, as the reviews had promised, had a line.

The line moved quickly, however, and soon the hostess was screaming my name. My mom and I sat down, and immediately a cart arrived. No waiting around for your food at this place! But we didn’t know what to pick. We didn’t know how much anything cost, and we didn’t know when another cart would come with different options. As for the options on this cart, I wasn’t sure what to choose. There were some pastry balls covered in a sesame glaze that looked good, but they could have contained most anything. (Cow stomach?!) The only recognizable item was a ridiculously gigantic pile of broccoli, and even though I like broccoli, I figured the point of dim sum was to eat something out of the ordinary, and besides, it was enough broccoli to feed a hungry family of twelve.

“Ummm…” I looked at my mom then back at the cart. The woman lifted up different plates and said the names in Chinese, trying to entice us.

So I pointed at the plate with the glistening sesame pastries. I hoped they tasted as good as they looked.

And they did. Inside the flaky crust was sweet, shredded pork, and I decided that these were probably the BBQ pork buns I’d read about. Yay! We’d made a good choice.

BBQ pork bun at dim sum.  photo credit.

BBQ pork bun at dim sum. photo credit.

When another cart came around, we were feeling a bit more confident. We pointed to a bowl of what looked like shrimp dumplings and at another of what seemed to be mushroom and pork dumplings. The server marked our selections on a sheet of paper that sat on the edge of our table, but still we had no idea how much this was costing us.

We dug into the dumplings, which were warm and chewy and delicious. And quite filling. “I have room to try one more thing,” I said, and my mother agreed. We looked around the dining room, trying to see what other people were eating.

But for a long time, no carts came by, and I wondered if we’d missed our chance at trying anything else. We drank copious amounts of tea and lingered over the last dumpling. Finally, a cart came with more pork buns, broccoli, something that might have been tripe, and egg custard tarts. So we picked the tarts. No sooner had the cart moved away, another cart went by that had tarts with glazed fruit on top. Aw man, we said, those look better!

We ate our plain tarts, which were still pretty tasty, and when we were done, we took our marked sheet to the cashier. We wondered whether or not we were supposed to leave a tip. Our table had already been bussed, and new patrons were being seated there. I asked the cashier if I should leave a tip, and she said to give it to her, so I did. Hopefully that was the right thing to do, because I’ve since read lots of conflicting advice on whether or not to tip at dim sum.

My mother and I walked outside, happy and full. Above us, the sun was struggling to peek its head out from behind the gray clouds. Hey, at least it wasn’t raining!

We  headed to Greenlake to walk around, and I thought about how dim sum is kind of like life. Choices come at you, and without a lot of information about what the outcome might be, you either pick a dish, or let the cart pass you by. Some dishes might seem weird but taste awesome.  And some might look good on the outside but be filled with tripe (although they might also be filled with yummy BBQ pork — it’s hard to know). And then there are the times when you make what you think is your best choice, only to later realize something better would have come along, had you only waited.  It’s hard to know the true cost of any choice until the very end.

*  *  *

“Sorry it’s been kind of crappy weather,” I said to my mom for the millionth time. I kept thinking that if only she’d come two weeks earlier, we could be swimming in Greenlake right now instead of shivering on a bench underneath some ominously dark clouds.

“Oh, it’s fine,” my mom said. “I’m soaking in the cool before I have to go back to hot and humid Virginia.”

It was a good attitude to have. She’d picked her flight dates a long time ago, and there was nothing she could do to change them now, so she was embracing her trip for what it was.

And that’s what you should do at dim sum, too. You make your best guess, you pick a few dishes, and then you decide to be happy eating what you got. Sure, that fruit tart on the other person’s table looks delicious, but you don’t know for sure that it tastes any better than your plain egg tart. And maybe it does, but so what? Does that mean you can’t enjoy your tart, with its buttery crust and slightly-sweet custard filling?

We have so many choices in our lives these days that it can be anxiety-provoking. We are always second-guessing ourselves. We can become paralyzed by the fear of making the “wrong” choice. But in the end, the most important choice is how you choose to feel about your meal, about your trip, about your life. You can choose to embrace it for what it is. Instead of looking around and wishing you had what’s on someone else’s plate, you can be glad you didn’t pick tripe, and you can learn to savor your own meal.

My mom and me at Theo's Chocolate Factory.  (They made us wear hairnets.)  We did ALL OF THE THINGS.  See list below.

My mom and I toured Theo’s Chocolate Factory. (They made us wear hairnets.) We did ALL OF THE THINGS. See list below.

ALL OF THE THINGS My Mom and I Did When She Visited Seattle:  

• Walked to every single overlook in Queen Anne
• Went to Chihuly’s Garden in Glass museum
• Rode the monorail downtown
• Shopped in the public market
• Ate at the Crumpet House
• Saw the Freemont troll, Lenin statue, and topiary dinosaurs
• Toured the awesome downtown library
• Went on a whale-watching tour in the San Juan Islands
• Sailed on Lake Union
• Hiked at Snolquamie Falls
• Did a wine-tasting in Issaquah
• Had happy hour at Citizen with my friend, Layla
• Went to the Queen Anne farmer’s market
• Sat and read on the shores of Greenlake
• Went to the conservatory at Volunteer Park
• Had a massage in Capitol Hill
• Watched movies
• Went to Vancouver
• Saw an improv show
• Went shopping in the boutiques on Queen Anne hill
• Saw a cat circus
• Went to a piano bar
• Took a yoga class
• Had good Seattle coffee
• Played Ticket to Ride
• Went out for pho and thai and ice cream (not on the same day)
• Went to dim sum in the International District
• Walked around Carkeek Park
• Saw the Freemont Solstice Parade (and naked bikers)

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About evalangston

Eva Langston is a writer, among other things.

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