I think it may have started with Mrs. Wong’s kitchen, but ever since a young girl I’ve long had a soft spot for Chinese culture. Whether Mandarin or Cantonese, the languages of China are my absolute favorite to listen to — some enjoy French, others Italian, I love hearing Chinese — perhaps because I understand nearly none of it. Many of my childhood and teenage friends were from Chinese homes, growing up in the U.S., but preserving their language and culture through Saturday schools, practicing traditions at home, and maintaining a tight-knit and friendly community. The writings of Amy Tan, Aimee Liu, more recently Lisa See, and others helped to paint greater landscapes of China in my mind. And the food — don’t even get me started on the food! Of course in my younger years it was the American typicals of Won-Ton soup, Cashew Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, etc., but I remember discovering my first Steamed Bun in Vancouver, B.C.’s Chinatown and crossing over a new threshold in Chinese cuisine. While living in Japan I sampled the Chinese flavors Japanese-style, and then spicier versions in India.
During my recent stay in San Francisco, my family and I discovered that our hotel was a mere two blocks away from one of the main gateways into Chinatown — a must visit! Although my mother repeatedly and incredulously kept asking, “Dim Sum for breakfast?” we just had to.
So, my parents, brother, and I traipsed around through Chinatown, watching it slowly come to life on an early Monday morning, admiring storefronts, taking in the bright colors, capturing many a digital photo, and scouting out for the right (and open) Dim Sum shop (ironically, it was only a month or so earlier that both brothers and I partook of a similar quest in L.A.’s Chinatown).
After following recommendations and directions of a few local shopkeepers, we found our way to a small hole-in-the-wall Dim Sum shop. Contrary to popular belief, this shop did not have us seated at round tables with Lazy Susans with Dim Sum-filled carts wheeling around us. It was more akin to a small pastry shop with many a steaming bamboo basket, each filled with its own delicacy. It was a lot of describing, pointing, peeking, and recalling from memory to order a varied selection of Dim Sum for the family’s breakfast.
Thankfully, the man who assisted us was incredibly patient, accommodating, and greeted each question with a smile. Once our table was filled with Steamed Shrimp Dumplings, Lotus Leaf-wrapped Chicken, Baked BBQ Pork Buns, Tofu in Black Bean Sauce, Steamed BBQ Pork Buns, Steamed Red Bean Buns, Egg Custards, Thick Noodles, and more we sat down to enjoy our feast. Complete with Green and Black Teas, a word of thankful prayer, and a quick digital snapshot. I don’t know if our breakfast was quite what my parents were envisioning upon waking up, but it seemed that we all thoroughly enjoyed our gastronomical adventure through Chinatown.
Being official San Francisco tourists for the day, we followed our meal with a Powell & Mason cable car ride through the city’s famous hilly and windy streets. From
Powell & Bush St. down to The Embarcadero, we took in the scenery on the moving National Historic Landmark, crowding in with fellow tourists, watching the grip operators flex their arms, and announcing our passage with the ringing of the bell. It was a gloriously beautiful May day in the city by the bay. So San Francisco!
After such a wonderful, but too short adventure, I hear the city again calling my name. If you, too, have left your heart in San Francisco, or even in Chinatown, look around you, there may be a small pocket of China near you.