IT'S noon on a recent Saturday, and the China Pearl restaurant in Boston's Chinatown is crowded. Waitresses wearing bow ties and maroon waistcoats weave their way between tables, pushing steel carts stacked high with plates of steaming dumplings.
For the uninitiated, a dim sum restaurant like this one is a cacophonous feast of the senses, complete with clatter, chatter, and unfamiliar plates. But for my friends Betty and David Li and their family, who are regular customers here, it's a welcome taste of home.
''Americans eat the Dunkin' Donuts or a muffin,'' says Betty, as her four-year-old daughter, Sarah, tugs on her sleeve, asking for a shrimp dumpling. ''This is our breakfast.''
In the Cantonese dialect, dim sum means ''a place in the heart,'' and for centuries, Chinese have thronged to neighborhood eateries for a breakfast of dumplings, tea, and conversation.
In America, some of the first Chinese restaurants built were specifically made for dim sum, places where tired laborers could gather, celebrate, and feel like emperors for a little while.
Today, dim sum restaurants are the hottest trend in Chinese food. Americans with a taste for adventure can find them in every major city in the nation.
Dim sum comes in an incredible variety of shapes and flavors, You'll find crescent-shaped dumplings filled with juicy shrimp, white steamed buns filled with pork, fist-sized balls of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, and even a plate of tiny, flavorful spareribs. A large restaurant like China Pearl keeps a small army of cooks busy preparing some 80 delicacies.
The atmosphere inside a dim sum restaurant may seem like chaos, but a closer look shows a set of rituals that have developed for a thousand years.
Imagine a restaurant rolling its whole menu past your table for your approval.
Carts arrive, patrons choose, and waiters keep track of the bill by counting the piled-up plates. Pull the lid off your teapot, and it will be refilled without a word. If your host pours you a cup of jasmine or oolong, you thank him wordlessly by tapping your index and middle fingers. How civilized.
Cantonese is the lingua franca of a dim sum restaurant, but don't worry if you don't know a siu bau from a soi gau. Betty says most waiters speak enough English to help you distinguish pork from shrimp or chicken from vegetable. And when the spoken word seems to be getting nowhere, you can certainly look, point at something appealing, and not walk away with an empty stomach.
Everyone has favorites. Betty likes rice noodles and spareribs. Her husband, David Mo, likes the shrimp balls called siu mai. Sarah prefers the chicken feet.
''In China, the chicken feet are very expensive,'' David says, and with a laugh, Betty explains why: ''Most teahouses [in China] order a lot to make the chicken feet, but one chicken only has two feet.''
Most Chinese wouldn't make dim sum at home if a restaurant that serves it is just around the corner, she says, adding that a batch of the more complex dumplings can take an hour or more to prepare. And during special occasions, such as a wedding or the upcoming Chinese New Year (which starts Feb. 19 and continues for one week), a morning at a crowded dim sum restaurant is a must.
But if the Chinatown nearest to you is still a long march away, there are some basic delicacies you can try at home.
Fortunately, one of the simpler recipes happens to be my favorite: stuffed mushrooms. (See recipe, left.) To make the stuffing, the cooks at China Pearl combine diced shrimp, scallions, and bamboo shoots with egg whites and oyster sauce. This stuffing is then scooped onto sweet Chinese black mushrooms, and the mushrooms are steamed until the shrimp mixture turns pink.
Eating this concoction with chopsticks can be tricky - a mushroom and its stuffing are soon parted - so don't be embarrassed to use a fork. Many restaurants assume you will want a fork and will give you chopsticks only if you ask for them.
Any dim sum restaurant is judged by its soi gau, the ubiquitous ''water dumplings'' filled with shrimp, pork, and bamboo shoots. A good cook knows just the right moment to pull these dumplings out of the boiling water, when the dumpling skin has turned translucent and the filling has cooked to a light pink. At China Pearl, the soi gau waitress is one of the most sought-after, and she must make several trips back to the kitchen before serving the entire room.
It can be tempting to try everything, but Betty suggests some restraint: ''The Chinese like to say 'One pot of tea and two dumplings,' because dim sum should be just a light meal.'' So, those who like to have it all could always become regular customers.
As the meal draws to a close, some friends from Betty and David's neighborhood arrive and take the table next to ours. Sarah abandons her chopsticks and chicken feet to hop around the aisles.
Then comes the final ritual of dim sum: the fight for the check. David corners the waiter, a friend, and pays him in one fluid move. The barbaric American tradition of splitting the check is still unknown here. When I protest, David laughs, saying ''next time, next time.'' Believe me, there will be a next time.
* To learn more about dim sum, ''The Dim Sum Dumpling Book'' (Macmillan, 1995), by Cantonese cook Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, is an excellent resource.