China

Our Worlds are Tasted Here

Chicago's Chinatown

Chicago’s Chinatown

Cantonese music plays softly behind the clanging of metal tins holding more than 60 different types of dim sum.

The large banquet style room of Three Happiness on south Wentworth Avenue is crammed with tables, enough to fit more than a hundred customers. Two college students, Kelly Tan, 19, and Shirley Tang, 21, are tucked in their usual corner.

“Three Happiness has been serving dim sum for over 30 years,” Tan said. “Dim sum is basically small portions of Chinese brunch; we usually have it every day for breakfast.”

Chicago’s Chinatown has more than 20 restaurants that serve traditional dim sum, according to Urban Spoon.

The unique culinary art of dim sum (Cantonese) or dian xin (Mandarin) means “a little bit of heart” or “touch the heart” and originated in China hundreds of years ago. Teahouses sprung up to accommodate weary travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road. Rural farmers, exhausted after long hours working in the fields, would also head to the local teahouse for an afternoon of tea and relaxing conversation, according to Nom Wah Tea Parlor’s historical dim sum webpage.

While dim sum was originally not a main meal, only a snack, and therefore only meant to touch the heart, it is now a staple of Chinese dining culture, especially in America, according to Princeton’s historical review of dim sum.

Typically served with tea, bolay (po lai, pu erh), which is a strong, fermented tea, or Jasmine tea, dim sum offers customers dozens of steamed, fried and baked items.

“Dim sum is a very traditional Chinese food served throughout Chicago’s Chinatown and the world,” Three Happiness manager, Keri Lee, said. “It is an extremely competitive market.”

Of the 20 restaurants that serve dim sum, Lee said Cai and Phoenix are their closest competitors.

Video Produced by Katherine Iorio

“Cai and Phoenix both keep hiring new chefs from Hong Kong in order to keep making new types of dim sum,” Lee said. “We are constantly on our toes trying to compete with their types of dim sum, but our boss is loyal to the chefs that we have had and he doesn’t want to hire new employees.”

To keep up with the business, Three Happiness constantly is improving their recipes and developing new types of dim sum.

“We have three chefs who make our dim sum and they have years of experience in making dim sum,” Lee said. “One of the chefs has 16 years of experience in making dim sum from Hong Kong where his parents used to own a restaurant in Hong Kong where they made dim sum.”

The technique of passing down the traditional art of making dim sum is popular in the Chinese culture, Lee explained.

“The reason why so many customers come back to our restaurant is because we have traditional family techniques of making our dim sum,” Lee said.

One of the challenges of serving dim sum is keeping them all hot, which is why Three Happiness uses metal cans placed on heated carts.

Photos and Slideshow by Katherine Iorio

“It is traditional in Hong Kong to use carts, so as soon as you get seated you can order them hot, fresh and ready to eat,” Lee said. “This system we have with the carts is faster. So, we can do a lot more, versus ordering it and having to wait a long time for it to be made.”

The United States is home to about 1.6 million Chinese immigrants (including those born in Hong Kong), making them the fourth-largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexican, Filipino, and Indian immigrants, according to Migration Information Source.

The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Chicago were in the early 1870s from the West Coast of the United States, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

According to Quick Facts Census information, there was an estimated 2,707,120 people living in Chicago in 2011; 5.5 percent were Asian persons.

The New York Times‘ interactive map showing immigration data 1880 reported having Cook County in 2000  with 28,233 Chinese born citizens living there and an estimated total population of Chinese residents of 5,376,741.

Nearly one of every seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, according to Illinois’ Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights. In Illinois, 25.8 percent of immigrants come from Asia.

For the two college students, Three Happiness is the best because of the prices.

“They have the best specials,” Tan said. “Both Saturday and Sundays are popular for people to come in get dim sum; it’s sometimes hard to get our usual corner table.”

Dim sum is prepared hours before Three Happiness opens in order to have them hot and ready for the customers, Lee said.

“Today we opened early for our chefs to come in and prepare the dim sum, so everything is freshly made in the morning,” Lee said. “It takes an hour to two hours to make the dim sum, but depending on what kind it can take longer.”

Pork Siu Mai, rose duck and sesame pork are only a few of Three Happiness’ most popular dim sum, not to mention their homemade sweet and sour sauce that goes with them.

“There are a lot of different restaurants that served dim sum in Chinatown, but every restaurant has their own unique way of making dim sum and types,” Tang said. “I like Three Happiness’ the best.”

Originally Published on Chicago is the World.

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