But tea's digestive, grease-cutting, palate-cleansing qualities edged it into the dining room, and by the turn of the (last) millennium, Silk Road teahouses were offering brew-friendly snacks to their itinerant clientele. In the process the food took on the multisensual, life-affirming cachet of the beverage. A southern Chinese, particularly Cantonese tradition, dim sum has always been a sociable sort of snack served in public establishments where friends and family can gather and gossip and argue and sip and nosh. Its parallels are global: in the tapas bars of Madrid, where jerez and conversation are consumed with bits of bread topped with cheese, anchovies, and other savories; in London pubs, with their draught beers, pickled onions, and cheddar; in Greek tavernas and Paris cafes and German rathskellers. But dim sum has the longest lineage (it arrived hereabouts with Canton's '49ers) and the most intricate, delicate cookery.
It is said that the best place to sample dim sum outside Hong Kong is dumpling-happy San Francisco, and that the best place to sample dim sum in San Francisco is Ton Kiang, a bustling, attractive Richmond District venue well patronized by the very generations that brought the stuff here in the first place. There's a perpetual line of hungry people inching its way out the restaurant's front door, but two stories of packed tables and fleet-footed servers ensure a rapid turnover. Inside, the pastel color scheme, tall ceilings, and plate-glass windows create a sunny, airy ambience ideal for conversation and conviviality.
The service is highly professional, from hostesses coordinating seating arrangements via cell phone to busboys adept at the rapid-fire, almost balletic clearing and setting up of tableware to the servers who stroll from table to table with big platters of tiny foods, one of the great aspects of the dim sum experience. For a dedicated eater, it's Nirvana: You point at a plate of food and -- bim-bam, it's set before you, no middle man, no waiting.
It was a Sunday afternoon, prime time for dim-sum-devouring. To my right sat my friend Diana, who's spent much of her life in the neighborhood but who was born in Hong Kong (aka Dim Sum Central); to my left and around our large circular table were five relative novices to the art of buns, tarts, and dumplings. "Usually when you take guests out for dim sum you order lots of buns to fill them up," explained our guide. She didn't order any buns. Or, connoisseur that she is, lots of other stuff either.
"What was that?" I'd ask after she'd waved away a particularly fragrant platter.
"Oh, you can get that anywhere," she'd say.
Luckily there seems to be no end of minimalist variety at Ton Kiang, Diana's favorite San Francisco dim sum place (according to her, the best Hong Kong chefs fled to Canada, with its less restrictive immigration policies, after the changeover), and she steered us toward stuff we might not have tried otherwise. It wasn't always easy; when she'd propose something especially exotic the response tended to be, "Uh ... OK." The chicken feet in anise sauce, for example, weren't exactly embraced at our table, although another gustatory plunge, the sweet, weird-looking tofu soup, was sort of refreshing and surprisingly inoffensive.
But the overwhelming majority of the sampled dishes made us very happy indeed. What's most striking about Ton Kiang's dim sum is its light, clean, crisp quality, a revelation after too many brunches of greasy pot stickers and ponderous pork buns. When the plates and baskets of food were plunked down on our table's Lazy Susan, it was obvious after one taste that they had left the wok or steamer only minutes before. This was especially evident in the vegetable dishes: The shrimp-snow pea dumpling, for instance, tasted as verdant as a springtime in the countryside, while its cousin, the shrimp-chive dumpling, was spiky and bracing and bright. A third, equally tasty variety featured earthy napa cabbage.
"Shrimp means high quality," said Diana, "which is why there's so much of it in dim sum. It demonstrates that you're eating in a good place." Ton Kiang must be good: In addition to all the different kinds of shrimp dumplings, one of which included scallops, we had shrimp wrapped in flat rice noodles, mushrooms stuffed with shrimp paste, green pepper stuffed with shrimp and fish paste, shrimp and pork wrapped in dry bean curd, and, my favorite nibble of the day, whole jumbo shrimp, head, antennae, and all, deep-fried until crisp and then sautéed with garlic and onion. The servers kept coming and Diana kept picking and choosing, firing questions in Cantonese.
There were huge, deep-fried crab claws, surprisingly delicate pork dumplings out of Shanghai, and small spareribs, crunchier and tinier than the norm, dressed in black bean sauce. Crisp, deliciously fatty roast duck. Two kinds of flaky pastry, one filled with curried chicken, the other with barbecued pork. Conversation slowed to a minimum as platters and baskets were removed and replenished and the Lazy Susan was kept in fairly constant spin cycle.
Dessert: "The custard tarts are only good when they're hot," said Diana, choosing a plate fresh from the kitchen. They were very good, smooth and rich and presented in a tender crust worthy of any Parisian patisserie. Another tasty dessert was a sort of Chinese tamale: rice cake filled with red bean paste, wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed. (A similar concoction filled the rice dough with lotus paste rolled in sesame seeds.) Ton Kiang's walnut cookies were exemplary: crisper and not as tooth-achingly sweet as the usual Chinatown variety, with a nice lotus-paste filling pulling it all together. Concluding the meal in ideal fashion was a fresh, smooth mango pudding topped with cool condensed milk and studded with chunks of underripe mango to undercut the pudding's supple sweetness.
The dishes came and went so fast amidst so much multilingual byplay I have no idea how much each cost; all I can tell you is that the bill for all this food, which kept seven grown-ups gustatorially satisfied way past the evening hours, came to $109.69 before tip. (Tea was the only beverage consumed.)
I thanked Diana for her culinary guidance and wisdom. "There's no wisdom in eating," she said. "Just eat!"