Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Early on in our seven-year history, I learned that Sir UM has a soft spot for the egg custard tart. You usually see this little guy at dim sum meals, but during an early visit to San Francisco, he took me to a bakery in Chinatown JUST to get the tart.

My experience of Asian food growing up white in the Maryland suburbs was: "Chinese takeout." In quotes. That's it. Cashew chicken, moo shu vegetables, pork fried rice. No dim sum. No sushi. No Thai or Vietnamese exposure, even, for this Sbarro aficionado. I'm not saying the options didn't exist; they just weren't in the picture for my family.

Moving to San Francisco changed that, big time, but the allure of dim sum remained opaque to me. A poorly lit, crowded room and food on wheels? During the day? Aren't there better things to do with the sunlit hours?

Now, after finally getting with the program via awesome meals in San Fran and New York, I have the proper appreciation for those rattling metal carts, and we happen to have a great place just a few minutes away in the suburbs, not far from where I grew up, that can satisfy the craving.

It's the kind of place where a crowd starts to form by 12:30 p.m. Where the cheesy name and unassuming exterior belie the deliciousness inside. Where the staff bring out forks to put next to the chopsticks when they seat a white person.

Here is where I finally learned about Sir UM's secret.

"Have you ever tried licking the tart?" he asked at the end of a recent dim sum meal, a plate of custards in front of us.

"What do you mean?" I said. Of course I'd never tried anything of the sort.

Truthfully, the tart always seemed extremely skippable, a fairly anodyne conclusion to a meal that involves whirling steam, chile sauce, and meats mauled into bite-size packages. Its charms are somewhat obscured by how pale and bland it looks. (You know, like me.) I'd eaten maybe four in my whole life.

He explained how, as a little kid in Singapore, he learned to hide his secret compulsion to lick the top of the custard tart.

Tonguing a tart is poor table manners, obviously. But have you ever tried? It turns out you get a hit of the sweetness concentrated at the top, while enjoying the silky smooth perfection of the surface.

His "technique," refined over many meals with adults, involves bringing the tart up to your face with both hands, forming a sort of visual screen, and then tilting the tart toward your mouth so that you can sneak in a lick, without anyone seeing, before you take a bite.

I love this for so many reasons, but the main one is how children can always figure out a way to enjoy life in the face of stiff adult opposition, and how adults are so removed from that enjoyment that they wouldn't necessarily know what to police. Among the many crimes I often got away with as a kid: drinking through a straw without holding the cup on the table, letting my ice cream melt into soup, concocting "potions" out of kitchen condiments, and collecting the colorful wrappers from candy that I'd eaten.

So now when we go to dim sum, I work on my technique, bringing the tart up to my face for a seemingly normal bite and going in for the kill. I treasure the secret, even though it will never be as surreptitiously sweet as it was to the little boy who first had the idea.

What innocent joys did you get away with as a kid?

No comments :

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.