2016 / Saturday

A tiny taste of Dim Sum gives us a warming serve of heart

Nicolette Barbas

Beth Yahp: on eating dim sum. Photograph by Kyle Powderly

Beth Yahp: on eating dim sum. Photograph by Kyle Powderly

It’s the combinations of words that count most On Eating Dim Sum with Beth Yahp. Originally from Malaysia, she shares with us mouthfuls of memories that touch the heart, not the stomach.

Dr Yahp took to the Curiosity Stage on Thursday, to explain why food plays such an important role in overcoming differences, and resolving conflict. “I feel that food is so benign, that it brings people together, creating a space in which we can talk to each other.”

An award-winning author, editor and creative writing teacher, her latest book, Eat First, Talk Later, is a family memoir tracing her parents’ story alongside an astute critique of that nation’s history of British colonialism, ethnic tensions and political corruption.

The book has been acclaimed by former Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, currently incarcerated by government authorities for a second time. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has stated that Anwar’s imprisonment was “arbitrary”, that he was denied a fair trial and was jailed for political reasons.

Anwar, who is being held in conditions described by the UN body as “cruel, inhuman or degrading”, commented that Malaysia’s history was accurately depicted in her book. He also remarked: “What a book to read in solitary confinement, nothing to eat and nobody to talk to.”

Dr Yahp recalls dim sum in the early 1980s as a theatre of noise and sharing: “An army of waitresses would deftly steer trolleys stacked with bamboo steamers past three generations of Chinese families.”

Although her childhood was filled with food, dim sum was a treat, often enjoyed after church. It was her father’s mission to find all the best eating places in Kuala Lumpur, from the humble road sidestore to fancy restaurants. “Dad called out Captain at the entrance of the restaurant, and the immaculate head waiter appeared, ushering us to the best table.”

Having been a child in British Malaya and then under the Japanese occupation in World War Two, when conditions were brutal and food was scarce, Dr Yahp’s father was always hungry.

Even now, her father returns home with bursting bags full of groceries, leading the writer to think she has inherited some of this hunger, metaphorically at least.  “For me, eating dim sum with family and friends is an expression of gratitude.”

For Dr Yahp, this gratitude is expressed through the bite-sized, fragrant and mysterious offerings; “you never know what small bit of heart will be revealed, as the lids of the bamboo steamers are lifted.” And she notes that the smallness of the dishes is both enticing and comforting at the same time.

Dim sum refers to the portions of shared food served with tea for brunch, or yum cha. Legend has it that many dishes originated in the teahouses of the Ancient Silk Road, where small pieces of heart were given to help ease weary travellers on their way to China. Travellers would sit around, eating and chatting.

Childhood memories of Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions sharing dim sum – in spite of religious or political restrictions – still resonate.

“We could come to eat together, to eat in each other’s houses,” Dr Yahp said. This simple act of sharing provided ways to form communities across and around the prohibitions.

“When we allow ourselves to partake in the small pleasures of eating together, taking time to drink tea, and share stories together, we are making an effort.”