Magical World: Nom Wah!

If you happen to wander through Chinatown, in New York City or in Philadelphia, the name Nom Wah may mean something to you. Sure, it’s a Chinese restaurant, but not many Chinese restaurants date back to 1920–a hundred years ago! Nom Wah Tea Parlor has roots in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration to the U.S. from China. Mostly, the now-restaurant began as a bakery serving tea, moon cakes filled with red bean paste (a particular delicacy, made very well by Nom Wah), and as a pre-lunch meal, Dim Sum. In time, in accordance with the market needs of its times, Nom Wah was a popular supplier of Chinese baked goods to other restaurants, and eventually, the Dim Sum business became the center of it all. Not many U.S. restaurants do Dim Sum better. And now, there’s a Nom Wah cookbook (now begins a relative term, as explained below).

In a world without COVID-19, Nom Wah would be a place I would visit several times each year. A great place to bring a small crowd of co-workers, family, friends. For the best Dim Sum in town. Ordered off a menu, so everything is freshly made (most Dim Sum palaces serve off rolling carts, which is fine if the place is big and busy, but Nom Wah is neither big nor busy). And so, it’s a place where Dim Sum can be ordered on demand, not based upon what happens to roll by. And I wanted to eat some of that food, in situ, prior to writing about this cookbook.

Begin with the hardware. You’ll need a proper wok, a wok lid, a wok ring, and a wok chuan (a spatula with a curved end to make its way around the wok), and also a spider (a long-handled mesh spoon to fetch the dim sum from a hot liquid). Also, a bamboo steamer and a Chinese cleaver. In the pantry, your checklist includes dark and light soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, chicken powder, fermented black beans (which smells in a distinctive way), two kinds of rice wine, rice vinegar, rice flour, cornstarch, potato starch, and several other items. You can find everything online, or from a good Asian supermarket or grocery store. Much of it can be stored for later use.

Now, think in terms of two types parts of Dim Sum: the fillings and the wrappers. And begin to practice three techniques, all essential: steaming, pan-frying and stir-frying in a wok. Next, before you attempt to cook anything, just sit down and read about the history, ingredients, and processes associated with Bao, and the Bao dough that you’ll use to make, for example, Char Siu Bao, or House Special Roast Pork Buns–in your own home. To me, this seems like magic, but when I review the ingredients and try it myself, it’s not as impossible as it seems: oil, white onion, sugar, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, dark soy sauce, chopped pork, cornstarch, water and the basic ingredients of the Bao dough: yeast, water, flour, sugar, oil, baking powder. It’s all in the instructions–but it is neither easy nor simple to get everything right without a lot of practice and a fair number of mistakes.

Ah, but when you do get something right, and it either looks or smells or tastes as it does in the restaurant, there’s good reason to grin. And to practice by making even more buns, and more mistakes. Stay focused. Get the buns right, and the dumplings become that much easier, too.

That’s the next step: the master fillings associated with dumplings: pork, shrimp, and “no pork no shrimp,” a vegetable filling. There are a lot of different types of fillings here, distinguished not only by their preparation (fried, for example), but their shape and their color. Then, there are Har Gow, the dumplings made in a bamboo steamer. and the Shanghai Soup Dumplings (Hiro Long Bao), which contain liquid and just be managed just-so, lest you make a gloppy mess.

Everyone is familiar with fried rolls–egg rolls and spring rolls, for example, but the floppy and slippery version, sometimes called a rice roll, is far more difficult to control.

And then, there are the cakes. You probably know Scallion Pancakes, but there are other kinds, too, perhaps more familiar in Asian than other households. And, rice and noodle dishes–but you won’t be making your own noodles this time around.

We’re about 2/3 done. There are feasts and various chef’s specialities, all wonderful, but I think of Dim Sum when I think about Nom Wah, I decided to concentrate my efforts on those dishes.

Perhaps I’ve given the impression that The Nom Wah Cookbook is a book filled with recipes from one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. Yes, it’s all that, but I’ve omitted the sub-title: “Recipes and Stories from 100 Years at New York City’s Iconic Dim Sum Restaurant.” Of course, the food is terrific, but the stories and the people and the places are so much a part of this book. There’s “The Man: Uncle Wally Tang,” a sixty-year employee who worked his way up from dishwasher to Dim Sum master. We learn about tea from “The Tea Guru: Timothy Hsu,” shopping in Chinatown from “The Queen of Pearl River: Joanne Kwong of Pearl River Mart,” and “The Grocery Store Goddess: Sophia Ng Tsao of Po Wing Hong.” And related: “The Tofu Kid: Paul Eng of Fong On.” All of this is a bit like traveling to a place that you’ve seen but never entered to explore. People who live and work in the community, who eat together, and share their food because that’s what friends and family do.

Many cookbooks attempt to combine technique, recipes and a sense of people and place in a single volume. It’s not easy to do, or to do well. Here, Wilson Tang and Joshua David Stein make it all work–and Alex Lau’s photographs make it all seem possible. For me, I love the book, but it draws me more toward the restaurant than to endless practice with results that will never be as good as the food I buy and eat at Nom Wah Tea Parlor. But that’s not exactly the point. For me, the point is owning, touching and feeling a part of Nom Wah, and, from time to time, attempting to conjure some of its magic in my own kitchen.

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