A fledgling tradition, a mutual love of face-stuffing quick set into ritual. Dim Sundays were birthed when a friend noted that she had the connect for a cheap smorgasbord at a nearby fancy hotel. We all piqued: with the ease of access to foreign foods, it was simple sometimes to forget the delights and variety available in Chinese food (particularly those parts of China or not-China not terribly close to us).
Immortalized here are the happenings of one such Sunday, my words drenched in soy vinegar and soup dumplings as they are.
-0:14 We arrive early at the hotel, taking a taxi from our apartment complex, which is a thirty minute walk away. A well-dressed hotel staff-member opens the door for us, beckons us inside. I already feel embarrassed at the deference with which I am being treated. I maybe regret wearing flip-flops.
-0:06 The first Dim Sunday, we arrived nearly half-an-hour before the proceedings technically began, and the eternally patient waiters allowed us to sit while they scuttled around us, furiously setting up for the coming onslaught of food, saying group prayers and hoping not to be devoured with the meal. Today we wait outside, our patience tempered only by the knowledge of how much we will consume.
0:00 There are five of us, an odd number for this hotel restaurant, and thus we are sat at a table for ten. A monumental lazy susan rests at the centre, so that we might lazily spin our morsels towards us, never having to expend the effort of reaching or straining.
The hostess asks if any others are coming. They are not. We will order enough to justify our place at this table, enough to feed every imaginary missing guest, several other real ones, and possibly a few in neighbouring nations.
0:02 We place our order on a paper menu, ticking off the items that we want. A waitress quirks an eyebrow with disbelief. In her mind, she says, They cannot possibly mean they want that many egg tarts.
She is wrong. We do want that many egg tarts.
0:10 The first wave approaches, crashing upon our table. Shredded pork, some edamame beans, bacon shredded up with cabbage. Vegetables, sudden and shocking and strange. Our hunger is delicate, even bourgeois at this stage. No one is yet repulsed.
0:24 The second and third onslaughts arrive, and we must work a system of triage. It is difficult to remember each time which dishes were the most superior, and the menu includes some interesting translations. I have never seen the word “glutinous” used so many times. We refuse to order the “multiflavoured razor clams,” though I write the phrase down in my notebook and hope to keep it my mind forever like a gem washed up on the shore of my mental universe.
0:32 Some dishes must be discarded. The pan-fried durian puffs were an impulse order, and I am one of the few who attempts to ingest it. When the outer pastry carapace is split open, the oily garbage stank slithers through the air. I am asked to describe its flavour. “It’s fine. I wouldn’t turn it down if I was starving to death.” My compatriots nod. “Maybe don’t order more.”
0:36 The first order of egg tarts arrive. They are devoured. We clamour for more, rattling knives against the table. The waiters are beginning to stare at us with something approaching fear. They imagine us with blood pouring from our maws. It is not a wholly inaccurate image.
0:48 Bamboo steamers and their dumpling charges are unloaded onto our table quickly by the swiftest employees – they have sent only the strong and agile to deal with us, lest our hungers turn cannibalistic and they must flee. Will a dozen or so xiaomai and xiaolongbao calm our undignified level of want?
0:54 Apparently not. More dumplings, please.
1:03 We realize the couple at the table next to us has set up an iPad and is watching several episodes of Breaking Bad. This pleases us. We watch, mouths drooling and agape, bits of steamed crab seeping from the edges onto our shirts.
1:25 I recognize this episode too well, and can quote what will happen next, and am amused when the woman at the table starts as two gangsters are run down by a car. It occurs to me as I watch that I am still eating, largely without noticing or meaning to.
1:32 We assume that taking a plate down from the lazy susan is a recognized symbol of completion, a nod to discard unwanted morsels and bits of succulence that have not overcome our meagre standards of flavour to allow for ingestion. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not. The three untouched durian puffs have been sitting beside me for some time, taunting me. The waiters must think I am saving them, gluttonous and avariciously, keeping them from my dining companions. This is not the case. We want so desperately for the puffs to go away. Why won’t they go away?
1:45 Our waitress walks head-on into a tray heavy with china plates and teapots, and goes somewhere to lie down for some time. We briefly pause from stuffing our disgusting faces to coo and wish her well, as what has befall her does not appear to be totally awesome. Everywhere around us people are cringing, cringing with freshly carved duck clutched in their chopsticks.
1:47 Dessert arrives, earlier than we had expected, and without us ordering it. A strange, horrendous yellow gelatine cuboid quivers on a tiny square plate. Riveted through it are varicose arteries of red tendrils, of a texture I imagine cannot be from this dimension. It sits on the table top, moving constantly, shaking always, under its own power. Someone mentions having eaten it before, the claim that it is good for women, though none of us knows quite how. It will remain on the table for time immemorial.
1:51 We order a round of “daily cakes”. A plate of them arrives, in a variety of unearthly hues. Mine tastes like congee and partly congealed heavy cream. It has a consistency I can only describe as “floofy.” I consider asking for another plate of egg tarts to cleanse my palate.
1:58 Two hours later we leave the finely polished dining hall, our injured waitress emerging from her too-brief convalescence in a back room. She bows politely, her hair draped across the enormous lump on her forehead. We walk past delicate fans and beautiful laquer-work, flowers in expensive pots. We are ravaged and ruined and delightfully full, and this place is far too bourgeois to deserve our presence, and we will certainly be back next month.