After the pandemic left them empty, dim sum restaurants are back in the hustle once again: NPR

For many Chinese Americans, dim sum is not just a meal. It is a way to build community. The pandemic has shut down these means of communication, but dim sum restaurants are again open to patrons.

Lulu Garcia Navarro, host:

For many American-Chinese families, dim sum is not just a delicious meal. Small bowls of aromatic shrimp dumplings and pork buns bathed in hot tea are also a way to build community, and a way to stay connected. During the pandemic, this tradition has been discontinued. Daniel Lamm has a sound postcard from a restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood that once again welcomes diners.

Daniel Lamm, Beilin: At Mi Som Café, the regulars are finally back.

Unidentified Person #1: Oh, my God. There is Lillian.

Lilian Ting: Hello.

Unidentified Person #2: Hello. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome. Hello.

Lam: The hell chorus that Lilian Ting receives when she walks to Mi Sum is not unusual. Ting has been coming to the coffee shop for decades. For over 50 years, Mee Sum has used the same handmade recipes and antique cash registers. In larger restaurants, small plates of dumplings and bao cakes are served on carts that are pushed around the dining room. But at Mee Sum, all you have to do is sit at the table. When the pandemic led to the shutdown of indoor dining, Ting says she experienced a grim sum withdrawal.

Ting: You know, it’s a tangible thing. And then all of a sudden, to take it from you — like, oh, hey, you lost it, you know? Like, this was…

L: Dim sum is more than just food. It’s a time to catch up, gossip, and even run a business. It’s about being with friends and family. Ting calls Chinese Dim Sum Church and Chinese Cheers, referring to the sitcom bar where everyone knows your name. With Dim Sum, even strangers become fast friends.

Ting: You see them on the street. And you know, you’ll stop and go, hey, how are you? You know, you look good. You know, they were like, yeah, you know — I said, where do you go for tea now? This is the big thing. Where do you go for tea?

Lam: Another name for dim sum is yum cha, which means to drink tea. Dim sum means heart touching.

GRACE YOUNG: It’s all about pulling the lid on the steamer and seeing the steam rise and the dumplings sparkling completely. And you just don’t get that experience when you get it for takeout.

Lam: It’s food writer Grace Young. She believes that in order for dim sum to really touch the heart of the diner, it should be eaten in the restaurant with friends and family. Another experience you don’t get with eating out, she says, is spontaneity, another feature of life that the pandemic has put on hold.

Young man: The waitress is pushing the wagons, and you’re in the mood for har gow, shrimp dumplings. But is this wagon coming? Oh no. Instead, come a large steamer pot filled with chive dumplings or snow pea pancakes.

Lam: Unlike many restaurants, Mee Sum has never closed during the pandemic and has not raised prices. Joyce Jung is the owner’s niece and a regular. She says some of the staff were reluctant to come.

Joyce Gong: You helped here. I volunteered during the pandemic. I stayed for three weeks. I stayed here for three or four weeks.

Lam: Grace told Young she remembers hearing cries for help echoing around the tight-knit neighborhood.

GONG: Yes, (speak a language other than English). The older generation (speaks in a language other than English).

YOUNG: Which means no rice.

GONG: No rice to eat.

Lam: It wasn’t just rice. Basic goods were sold in many stores. So Mi Sum distributed meat, coffee and other supplies. They still partner with a local organization to provide culturally appropriate meals for seniors in Chinatown. Lilian Ting and Joyce Gong say they are not surprised by how the humble dim sum shop has evolved in a time of need.

Ting: This is what Chinatown is. This old Chinatown.

GONG: We stick to each other.

Ting: Yes.

GONG: We stick to each other.

Lam: The regulars say the pandemic has proven that nothing will stop Mi Som from serving the community. Now they are just happy to return to their favorite place in the neighborhood, enjoying dumplings and tea with old and new friends.

For NPR News, I’m Daniel Lamm from New York.

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