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Dim sum classes teach diners how to taste a little bit of everything

Traditional Chinese lunch offers variety of small bites.

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Elaine Holcomb didn't like everything she tried during a dim sum lunch at Fortune Chinese Seafood Restaurant earlier this summer (the texture of the pork buns in particular didn't suit her tastes), but she tried bites of each of the dozens of small plates that were passed around her large round table.

To celebrate her 60th birthday, the Georgetown resident brought her husband and son along on a guided lunch and walking tour of the nearby MT Market, off North Lamar Boulevard near Braker Lane, with cooking instructor and cookbook author Dorothy Huang, who has been leading similar tours in Houston for 30 years.

The Holcombs are veteran travelers (they only recently moved into a permanent house after years living and traveling around the U.S. in their recreational vehicle), but they wanted a little help navigating the menu for dim sum, a Chinese lunch tradition of eating a wide variety of small snacks or bites that started more than 1,000 years ago in the Canton province, where Huang was born. Joining the Holcombs were about 15 other dim sum newbies from Cuero, Georgetown, Schulenburg and La Grange, where Huang's cooking classes frequently sell out months in advance. (The next guided lunch and supermarket walking tours in Austin, which cost $40 and include the price of lunch, are Aug. 21 and Sept. 25. To reserve a spot or get information about her cooking classes in Austin and other Central Texas towns, e-mail her at chinesecuisinedh@aol.com or call 281-493-0885. Fortune has recently started offering monthly Dim Sum 101 lunch classes. Go to http://dimsum101august.eventbrite.com for details.)

Dim sum literally translates as "touch your heart," she says, but the meaning is more along the lines of "eat to your heart's delight." "That's what makes dim sum lunch so fun. There's so many things to try," Huang explains to the guests seated around two tables in the corner of the large dining room that was quickly filling up with patrons on a Saturday afternoon. "If you eat little dishes, you can eat a lot."

Huang knows Chinese cuisine can be intimidating to American home cooks, so she always starts these classes with the basics: chopsticks and tea.

"We drink hot tea to cleanse the palate," she tells the group as the first small plates of dumplings, soup and rice noodles arrive. "It helps digest the food. The more hot tea you drink, the more you can eat." (If your table runs out of jasmine tea, leave the top to the carafe open to indicate that you need a refill, she explains.)

After Huang gives a quick primer on how to hold and use chopsticks, Lori Hagemann of Georgetown leans over to her mother-in-law, Charlotte, another La Grange resident, who is about to pick up a piece of fried pork belly: "You'll probably get good because you do all that crafty stuff."

Across the table, Holcomb is finding success with her wooden eating apparatus, which she'd only tried to use once before. "I'm eating with chopsticks. How about that?" she says to her husband.

For the next hour and a half, as servers push carts loaded with small plates filled with fried wontons, shrimp dumplings, pot stickers and steamed buns around the dining room, Huang orders for the group. She explains that you can ask for a specific item from the server by number or by name (the menu is printed in both English and Chinese, but sometimes the number is the most effective way of getting the dish you want) or just pick out what looks good from the cart.

"You can see the items first," Huang says. "The visual part is very important to the experience." Steamed items are in metal containers, and most of the items on plates have been pan-fried or deep-fried.

Huang's students, more adventurous by the course, spin the lazy Susan in the middle of the table so everyone can try the egg rolls, lotus-wrapped sticky rice, seaweed salad, clams in black bean garlic sauce and fried noodles. "Chinese like to eat noodles at birthday parties for longevity," Huang says.

Holcomb explains that she's celebrating a milestone birthday the next day. "Well, you'll have a long, happy life then," Huang replies.

By the end of the long lunch, Huang instructs the students, who by now are chatting jovially about their favorite — and least favorite — dishes, to reconvene at MT Market, located across the parking lot from Fortune.

With a copy of her cookbook "Chinese Cuisine Made Simple" (Pinewood Press, 2004) in hand and students pushing a few empty carts behind her, Huang hits the produce section first. She explains how to cook with bok choy, bitter melons and mushrooms with stems as fat as an eggplant.

In a store as stimulating and full of foreign sights and smells as MT, Huang knows it's impossible to keep everyone's attention. "The (large-scale Chinese) supermarket is a cultural experience," Huang says.

Students explore at their own pace, so she gets to help them one-on-one with their questions. Is light or dark soy sauce best? What about sesame oil? Which brand of hoisin sauce do you recommend? How do you use miso? What kind of noodles are best for the fried lo mein like we had at Fortune? What's the best wok for an electric stove? Which brand of dumpling wrappers should I use for pot stickers?

By the time the group has browsed all the aisles, the carts are full, students are waiting in the checkout lines and Huang is still answering questions.

Many of the students from outlying community thought ahead to bring coolers for refrigerated ingredients they can't get closer to home. When she teaches in small towns between Austin and Houston, Huang knows she's bringing with her a piece of the ethnic diversity often found in large cities. "When I come and teach, they can experience the traditional dishes that we have in the big cities," she says, but it's fun to host events like this tour that brings a new experience to all kinds of people.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Deep-Fried Shrimp Balls

1 lb. medium-sized shrimp in shells

3 oz. ground pork

For marinade:

1/4 tsp. white pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. minced ginger

2 Tbsp. cornstarch

1 Tbsp. dry sherry

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 egg white

Flour for dusting cookie sheet

For honey-mustard sauce:

2 tsp. mustard powder

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

2 Tbsp. plum sauce

1/4 cup honey

3 cups cooking oil for deep-frying

Shell, devein and rinse shrimp. Drain thoroughly. Add shrimp, pork and marinade ingredients to a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process for a few seconds, until shrimp is pasty. Remove to a bowl.

Dust a cookie sheet with flour. Shape shrimp mixture into 1-inch balls. Place them on the cookie sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together ingredients for honey-mustard sauce.

Heat oil in a wok to 375 degrees. Drop eight shrimp balls into hot oil carefully, one at a time. Deep-fry for three to five minutes. Remove with a long-handled spider or Chinese strainer and drain on paper towels. Deep-fry the remaining shrimp balls and serve with honey-mustard sauce.

— From 'Chinese Cooking Made Simple' by Dorothy Huang