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2013, the year of the black Snake begins on February 10th shortly after the New moon in Aquarius, the humanitarian of the zodiac. This 2013 year of Snake is meant for steady progress and attention to detail. Focus and discipline will be necessary for you to achieve what you set out to create. The Snake is the sixth sign of the Chinese Zodiac, which consists of 12 Animal Signs. It is the enigmatic, intuitive, introspective, refined and collected of the Animals Signs. Ancient Chinese wisdom says a Snake in the house is a good omen because it means that your family will not starve. (hanban.com)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the last time I went to Chinatown was in 2006.  I got dinner with my friend Bryce, I purchased a little bamboo plant for my apartment, and I remember I wasn’t feeling very well.  Two weeks later I was diagnosed with mono. Good times.

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More embarrassing still, not only have I never had Dim Sum, but aside from a vague remembrance of a Top Chef: All Stars episode where they had to make Dim Sum, I really had no idea what it was.  How can I call myself a food lover and not know this?!? I hang my head in shame.

Dim Sum is, in essence, a Chinese form of tapas, or small plates.  Often consumed at brunch time, the food is sometimes served off of carts moving throughout the restaurant, or in small steamer baskets.  According to Wikipedia the dining style has roots dating back to the time of the Silk Road where travellers would stop in tea houses to rest.  After learning that tea was good for the digestive system, owners began serving little snacks to travellers alongside their tea.  (you learn something new every day).

We decided to head south to Chinatown on Sunday, February 10th for no other reason than I was on a roll with my list and we figured “why not?” Neither one of us had any idea it was Chinese New Year.  That was a happy accident.

Chinatown offers no shortage of Dim Sum dining options for the hungry traveller.  In order to choose, I took the advice of my friend Gordan who suggested Cai and Ming Hin, both located in the Chinatown Square. However, Cai was also the first restaurant listed on Chicago Magazines, A Guide to Chinatown: Where to Eat, Shop and Play, giving it a slight edge and therefore we chose to dine there.

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We arrived at a little after 10:30 that morning, fully expecting it to be busy, simply because we know Dim Sum is a popular weekend brunchtime activity.  People were already waiting in the front vestibule, but we luckily managed to snag a two-top right away.  From the looks of it, Dim Sum Dining seems to be a popular family/big group activity where people gather before a large round table with a rotating platter in the center.  Dishes are placed in the middle and spun around to meet each hungry diner. Being that we were a simple party of two helped us break through the masses, and avoid long waits for a big table.

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We also, just happened to get there at just the right time, for not ten minutes later the place was overflowing with revelers.  Then, they began pushing around carts of sesame puff balls, which they would then take a pair of kitchen shears and cut into leaving them to slowly collapse in on themselves. We asked one of the servers what they were for and she cheerfully responded “To celebrate Chinese New Year.” Suddenly, everything began to make sense.  It was also making me very hungry.

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At Cai, you do not order Dim Sum from push carts, rather you order from a menu and they bring them to you on a cart (and sometimes in a bamboo steamer basket).  As first time Dim Sum’ers I think this was a good way for us to start, seeing as we could read the description of each option and make our choices that way.  After a few minutes of deliberation here is what we tried.

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Plain Congee with Dried Scallop and Fried Dough

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I had no idea what Congee was, other than I had a faint recollection of Paul Qui serving it during his victorious final meal on Top Chef: Texas (Top Chef plays a large role in my life, clearly).  Wanting to fully embrace this new experience, we pushed ourselves to order some items we have never tried, so congee it was.

It came in a large soup bowl accompanied by a warm plate filled with golden brown rectangles of fried dough.  Congee is a simple rice porridge, often served at breakfast, and that’s really the best way to describe it.  Imagine eating a bowl of super soft rice, in a watery/ slightly slimy textured broth with an ever so mild hint of scallop lurking in the background.  The dough serves as a nice vessel to eat the congee by dipping, but it’s fried dough, of course it’s going to taste good.  As this was our first dish to try, it left us slightly trepidatious about our upcoming dishes.

Pan Fried Pork Buns with Vegetables

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Arriving next was a trio of perfectly plump buns which were first steamed then lightly pan-fried, leaving them flat on top with puffed out sides.  The bun itself smelled sweet, almost like cake batter, but when you bit into it you were hit with delightfully bright flavors of ginger and scallions mingling with earthy mushrooms and tender pork.  The buns were done perfectly: the dough was light and springy, with a crisp outer edge from the pan frying.  Things were turning around on our Dim Sum adventure.

Fried Sticky Dumplings with Chicken

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These little lovers came out all light brown and bubbly.  They were indeed sticky, yet lightly crispy at the same time. How one accomplishes such a feat I cannot say, but I was quite impressed.  After the initial crunch from the exterior a wave of savory chicken surrounded by a slighty sweet filling, which seemed to be flavored with spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg, filled your mouth.  It made for a warm, homey dish for a gray and rainy day.

Steamed Chicken Feet with Peking Sauce

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When I saw that chicken feet was a menu item I knew we had to order it. We have never tried it, we want to be adventurous, it had to happen.  When it arrived in its bamboo steamer it smelled incredible. The pecking sauce had bold, slightly spicy aromas and I was intrigued to see how the dish would come together.  However once it came time to bring a claw to my lips, I’m not going to lie, I began to feel a little weirded out, and slightly queasy at the idea of ingesting a foot.  Matters were not helped by Jürgen saying, “don’t get grossed out but you can chew through the bone.”

Um….no I am not going to do that.

I took a deep breath and began to bite into the incredibly tender meat which was practically falling off the bone.  It was wonderful. Juicy, sweet, tangy with a slight kick from the garlic.  You could tell this was a dish that takes a long time to prepare and is done so with great care.  I am glad I pushed through my initial hesitation, even if the concept of eating feet is a bit off-putting.

Oh and your are definitely not supposed to the ingest the bones. Thankfully Jürgen is still here to tell the tale.

Siu Mai (Pork and Shrimp Dumplings)

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Ok guys I am a fool for any sort of food which is surrounded by dough. I just am. dumplings, pies, turnovers….I love them all. I can’t help it.  We obviously had our fair share of dumplings on this excursion and I am not the least bit sad about it.

I don’t have much to impart about the Siu Mai. They were good…pretty standard pork and shrimp dumpling fare.  They lacked a bit of crunch I was hoping for, but otherwise were flavored well and full of nicely cooked meat.

Streamed Creamy Egg Yolk Buns

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This dish was called out in the Chicago Magazine I referenced earlier, so I wanted to give it a try.  By this point in the meal we were incredibly full, but we managed to make room for these beautifully composed buns.  They were perfectly smooth and soft on the outside, with the same cake-batter-like aroma of the pork buns.  Inside the egg yolk was silky and smooth while not being runny, and lightly sweetened with hints of coconut.   The, once again, perfectly steamed and delicate bun was a great contrast to the rich yolk creating a harmonious end to an exciting new dining experience.

Oh and the total cost for this feast, which was so bounteous we had to pack some up and bring it home? $29.20

OH! And guess who was seated right next to us as we were finishing up our meal? My friend Gordon and his parents. Hilarious.

A very Happy New Year indeed.