More than a dish, Full Kee's dim sum is true yum cha.
From the Heart
If you're a fan of dim sum, I mean a real fan, then you probably can stop reading this. You already know that is the only place in Richmond where you can get authentic dim sum. But without yum cha, dim sum is little more than a confusion of fried dough. What's yum cha? First, dim sum.
Dim sum is not a particular dish, rather it is a type of meal consisting of appetizer-size portions of several different dishes ordered a la carte. In translation, dim sum is Chinese for "a little heart," or "touch your heart," which as definitions go is not very helpful in describing the food, but which goes a long way to explain yum cha. Yum cha, or tea lunch, is what dim sum is made for. It's the experience of dim sum. Yum cha is the Chinese custom of gathering with close friends or family to share a meal of dim sum and catch up on the details of each other's lives. It's the Eastern equivalent of Sunday dinner at grandma's. To see the tradition in full force, head to Full Kee on a Saturday or Sunday, traditional dim sum days, when, if you can get a seat, you can order dim sum from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. During the week, the crowd is much thinner.
The 31-item Full Kee dim sum menu includes rolls and crepes, but the vast majority of items, and what most people envision when they think of dim sum, are dumplings. Little dough balls of various shapes, sizes, textures and substances, steamed or deep-fried, and stuffed with ground meat (usually pork) or seafood, often shrimp. Overall, dim sum is light in flavor and benefits from generous dipping in one of three sauces: hot mustard, duck sauce or plum sauce. Or do as traditionalists do and try the plain soy sauce or chili oil available on every table.
Don't be fooled by the homey simplicity of the word dumpling. Dim sum is exotic, and having someone along who has been down the dim sum road once or twice can be helpful. I took a knowledgeable friend of mine for a weekday yum cha and guided tour through the Full Kee menu. [image-1](Stacy Warner / richmond.com)This was my second time with dim sum, but it was the first time I really enjoyed it. Why? Because of the four lessons I learned on my first unenlightened dim sum visit to Full Kee: 1) Omasa is Chinese for tripe (which is stomach lining); 2) you don't eat the lotus leaves; 3) chicken's feet are an acquired taste; and 4) no one there is going to keep you from making a mistake.
On weekends, the dim sum cart makes the rounds and you pick and choose from what you see. Unless you've had dim sum before, most of the items on the cart will be unidentifiable, so you'll have to ask a lot of questions. During the week, you ask for the dim sum menu, which is marginally more helpful than the cart, giving you basic descriptions of each item, some of which are less than descriptive. For example, sticky rice in lotus leaves is pretty straightforward (see lessons No. 2 and 4 above), but there's more to the fried taro dumpling than the words suggest. Taro is a pale purplish root vegetable, which in this instance is mashed into a doughy paste and formed into the size of an extra-large egg, covered in golden brown shredded wheat, stuffed with ground pork and deep fried. It's a work of art, and quite delicious: a study in contrasting tastes and textures. But none of this makes it onto the menu, which makes ordering for the first time sort of a blind man's bluff.
To complicate things further, no two dumplings are alike. For example, the taro dumpling bears no resemblance to the steamed pork dumpling, one of my favorites. The pork dumpling is a short mound of ground pork, wrapped in a pleated rice-paper cup and steamed. It is delicious with a dollop of plum sauce. Another particularly tasty item with surprisingly contrasted flavors is the fried shrimp and meat dumpling: Sweet rice dough is formed into the shape of a large egg, stuffed with pork and shrimp, and deep-fried. Delicious, but not one to get from the weekend cart if it's been cooling for a while. On the more exotic side, I suggest the smoky, sesame-flavored steamed shrimp and shark's fin dumpling. My friend played it a little closer to home, preferring the safety of the steamed roast-pork bun: plump, very doughy and a real plum sauce sponge.
All together we ordered seven items, plus No. 32, mango pudding, for dessert and an additional item from the noodle menu. This was way too much food for two people. But the yum cha flowed freely, and this, after all, is what it's all
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