Discovering the meaning of dim sum in Seattle

by Janice Nigro

Being a nomad is great. Until you realize that your closest friends live nowhere close.

So when the last minute opportunity came up a few weekends ago to travel to Seattle to see some friends from the USA who I met in Norway and now live in Tasmania, I took it (yes, complicated). The airfare didn’t fall within the magic greater than two week window, but it didn’t bust my bank account either. And the trip was in the same time zone, just up the West Coast. Easy.

Though I’m not sure I would have said yes, knowing how rough the landings would be, both in Seattle and in LA on the way back. Due to some freak weather in SoCal and well, maybe just winter in Seattle.

But I almost missed the weekend. The jet up to Seattle (and back) was an Embraer 75 which is the kind with two seats on either side of the aisle and only about 22 rows.

These planes depart from a remote small jet terminal at LAX. News to me. The airport provides a shuttle driving you across the tarmac to the terminal and stopping for planes. Even though I had no problem reaching the terminal of just ten small gates, I waited at the wrong one once I got there. A glance at my phone and I realized I had only a few moments to departure. A bit of a blip on the I’m-about-to-miss-my-flight meter.

I raced onboard toward my assigned seat in one of the last rows. And a tall and big man crammed in next to it. I felt embarrassed when I said out loud that I could sit in another seat. If he wondered whether he was too large, I just confirmed it.

My option on the other side? A man wearing a mask. To combat whatever diseases might be swirling in the cabin air. Coronavirus? I hesitated for a moment, then took the seat next to the masked man and faced the window for the rest of the ride.

A weekend trip already testing my travel savvy.

I figured I could handle Friday to Monday without a plan. I hadn’t been to Seattle in years. How difficult would it be to entertain myself? I also wanted to be open to spend as much time with my American Norwegian Tasmanian friends as they could tolerate.

The one thing I didn’t want to leave Seattle without though was a sampling of dim sum. Maybe I have the wrong city in mind, but I think of Chinese food when I think of Seattle. Chinese food is not something I have a chance to eat much of in Los Angeles, as the best places are on the other side of town.

The descent into Seattle was long and rocky. The toddler behind me screaming out “bumpy bumpy” pretty much captured those 45 minutes coming out of the clouds into SeaTac and the way every adult might have been feeling. The passengers clapped when the wheels hit the runway and the plane came to a rolling stop.

I could now relax and consider the next step in my adventure, the cheapest way to reach the city from the airport. I embrace public transportation, even in the ease of access age for the ride-share vehicles. Seattle is one of those civilized cities that has a metro rail system, with one route going from the airport to the city. It takes about 30 minutes and the bonus is to be immersed as soon as you arrive in the local culture, tattoos and colorful hair and all.

I didn’t have a plan for where to get off exactly, not a good one anyway. I gave up the exercise and called the hotel which told me to take the monorail once I reached the city. The monorail? Of course, I would take the monorail. It qualified my trip right then as a real adventure.

That meant going a few stops further than I had thought on the metro rail. A bit of a hiccup as I didn’t realize that I had to transfer at the Pioneer Square Station. I sat there for a few minutes but got the feeling I needed to do something. Maybe it was the people racing off the train into the one across the platform.

The monorail is from another era, but heat blasted out from below my seat. It’s about 15 minutes to the Space Needle offering an elevated view of the city of Seattle which the tech world has taken over. The city sports what appear to be affordable housing options (although might not be), apartment complexes of modern minimalist design.

They added some color to the chilly gray rainy Bergen-like day I watched pass by from the warmth of my monorail seat, wondering who the other passengers were. Do locals take the monorail?

I walked the last bit to my hotel. Since I was from out of town, my American Norwegian Tasmanian friends took care of me for dinner that night. One night down.

Saturday morning, I met some other friends for breakfast, people I am related to through my sister’s marriage. They took me to breakfast at a place called Eden Hill Provisions. I only mention it (it was great!) because I hadn’t heard the word provisions in a while and yet it popped up a few times around Seattle. I started to think about how local word choice is reflected in the culture in different areas of the USA. Some are obvious, like soda versus coke or pop. Some, like provisions, are more subtle.

When I got to the donut shop that claimed their donuts (Top Pot Donuts) were hand-forged, I saw a relationship of Seattle vocabulary with the physical labor of vocations like logging, conquering the wilderness, and mining for gold.

The party took place on a Saturday night in the Swedish Culture Club. I thought it was a cute choice based on my friends’ time in Scandinavia. It wasn’t. Someone had an “in” there and the room had a grand view of Lake Union and the entire Seattle area.

Everyone at the party had known each other for years. I was probably the most recent add on, and I felt out of place because of it. Until someone mentioned the possibility of dim sum for breakfast the next morning.

I was in.

The thing I wished for came true. I didn’t even have to ask for co-conspirators. There’s a lot that’s just fine to do as a solo traveler, but not dim sum. Once in Singapore, a local, a total stranger recognized my dilemma and shared some of his dim sum plates with me. Dim sum is one of those activities best shared with someone or better yet, many someones.

The group from the party had nine enthusiastic someones. We met at the restaurant (Harbor City Restaurant) in the International District of Seattle at 9:30 am, prime dim sum time. I was delighted to be there, in a part of the city I would have not ventured to on my own, even though it wasn’t that far from where I had been the day before.

The downside of sharing is when the choices of the others are not exactly yours. Or maybe you don’t get enough. Dim sum is not the time to be shy. And heck, you can just about grab whatever it is you want from the rolling carts. But this group favored vegetarian, steamed only dim sum. And one of us was shrimp allergic.

“Dim sum means shrimp made many ways,” the man sitting next to me joked when we realized that shrimp was in nearly everything. It was a restaurant specializing in seafood.

I laughed, but what does dim sum mean? I had read once from a menu in a restaurant in Singapore that dim sum means to touch the heart. As in the chef wants to woo the recipient, or to stimulate emotion in the eater.

Ooh and aah my way through several spins of the Lazy Susan, the centerpiece of the dim sum experience? Check, dim sum makes me do that.

A great weekend trip including 30 minutes of dim sum. I could have lingered a bit longer around the Lazy Susan. Did I have enough? Yes. And I got to share the meal with a whole group of new friends at a favorite of some locals.

Maybe dim sum means just that, sharing with friends.


©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


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