"Where's the jook? " I wanted to know. It was my first morning in Tai San, a village in China's Pearl River delta. As the first foreigners to enter the village in more than 40 years, we had been regaled with a huge banquet the night before. The food had been delicious--and rather exotic; the piece de resistance was armadillo. As I sweltered under my mosquito netting that night, I thought about what breakfast would bring. I was sure it would be jook , the rice porridge that is eaten for breakfast in virtually every Cantonese household--but I wondered what delicacies would be in it? Fish, frog, preserved egg?
But there were no bowls to be seen on the breakfast table, and during my two weeks in Tai San, jook never once appeared. On that first morning, the waitress arrived bearing huge trays covered with golden pastries. There were small ones, long ones, round ones, fat ones; they looked like extraordinary sweet rolls, and we grabbed for them eagerly.
Only to be surprised; these pastries were not sweet. They were stuffed with savory fillings of all sorts--barbecued pork, curried chicken, beef with black beans. Every morning a dozen or so pastries appeared, and every morning they were different. The chef was incredibly inventive; he made the best breakfasts I've ever eaten.
I've never found baked dim sum in such great variety again, but I have found great baked dim sum. When I wake up with a craving for the flavor of southern China, I head over to the dim sum takeout shop at Empress Pavillion and pick up a box filled with baked pork buns and lotus seed cakes and little chicken pies. They're still warm, and so fragrant that I almost always end up eating them all before I get home; for those few moments I can almost imagine that the Harbor Freeway has turned into the Pearl River.
Empress Pavillion Dim Sum Take Out, 988 N. Hill St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-9898. Open daily 9 a . m. to 3 p.m.
Serve with onions in hot chile sauce, bean sprouts, chile peppers, limes, mint and basil leaves as desired. Makes 4 servings.