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How a Dumpling Chef Brought Dim Sum to Bay Area Farmers Markets

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Three different types of dumplings in a bamboo steamer, with a pair of chopsticks in a red paper sleeve resting on top.
Tru Gourmet is one of the many Bay Area food businesses specializing in dim sum — but perhaps the only one to set up its bamboo steamers at a farmers market. (Courtesy of Olivia Liu)

Editor’s note: This story is part of KQED’s Youth Takeover. Throughout the week of April 22-26, we’re publishing content by high school students from all over the Bay Area.

Ever since I was five years old, one of my favorite traditions has been going to the Grand Lake Farmers Market with my dad every Saturday morning.

The market has been open since 1998 near the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland, and it’s the perfect place to find almost anything you can think of — organic produce, fresh flowers and hot meals cooked to order while you wait. When I came with my dad, we’d order fresh gaufres from the Belgian waffle vendor, then browse the ripe nectarines and strawberries that were in season. Sometimes, we’d get rotisserie chicken and potatoes for lunch from one of the food trucks.

I even tried dim sum for the first time. One Saturday we noticed a stand called Tru Gourmet that sold all kinds of steamed dumplings and buns. We ordered dumplings and crispy chicken wings, which turned out to be our favorite. Then we found somewhere near the booth to eat it all standing up.

That was about 10 years ago. As it turns out, Tru Gourmet is still around, setting up its stand at the Grand Lake Farmers Market — and two other farmers markets around the Bay Area — every week. When I visited their tent on a recent Saturday, the line was so long that it almost crossed in front of the vendor next door. Inside, the cooks were busy heating the dumplings in bamboo steamers. Everything smelled so good, it was hard to choose. When I finally bit into a savory scallion pancake and delighted in the softness of a juicy pork bun, I urged my dad to order seconds.

A display showing different kinds of dim sum available, all arranged in bamboo steamers. A sign on the table reads, "Cash Only."
A display of the different kinds of dim sum available at Tru Gourmet’s Grand Lake Farmers Market stand on a recent Saturday. (Nadege Mulamba)

What I realize now is that it isn’t very typical for dim sum to be sold at a farmers market — in fact, Tru Gourmet seems to be the only business doing it regularly here in the Bay Area. It made me curious: What made these chefs decide to set up their business outdoors instead of selling their dumplings inside a more traditional dim sum restaurant? And why doesn’t it seem like very many others are doing it?

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I had the opportunity to interview the owner, Olivia Liu, who shared her story of how the business started.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


KQED: When did you start this business?

Olivia Liu: Tru Gourmet started with my mom, Cathy Tsui, back in August 2008.

Wow, almost sixteen years! Why did you want to create dim sum at the farmers market?

My mother and I had a weekly tradition of dining on dim sum and visiting our local farmers markets, which gave us the idea to combine those two and start a family business. Dim sum translates into “touch of the heart.” Our goal is to touch your heart with handcrafted dim sum made from our hearts. [At Tru Gourmet,] you will find traditional dumplings one might see at popular dim sum houses and modern-day creations that aim to expand one’s view of dim sum, like black truffle shrimp dumplings or spiny lobster dumplings. We also have vegan dumplings such as our kale dumpling and bok choy dumpling, and seasonal [specials] like our asparagus dumpling.

We are proud to source most of our produce from the farmers markets we attend.

Did you know of any other businesses that were selling dim sum at farmers markets at that time?

Back in 2008, we could have been the only ones. We have never seen [any other] dim sum at any farmers market, but it is common in food festivals.

A young woman in a white chef's jacket serves dim sum to a guest at a fancy gala.
True Gourmet’s Olivia Liu serves dim sum at an event at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. (Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts)

About 10 years ago, my dad and I actually had chicken wings at your Grand Lake market stand. They were so good, and I was sad that you only seemed to sell them once every two months. Do you guys still sell those?

The spicy crispy chicken wings are definitely popular, and we also make spicy crispy salmon. We rotate our special every week, which is why it’s only served once in a while. My mother made these wings for me as a child, and they were my absolute favorite! I knew we had to put them on the menu.

Are there any challenges with making dim sum work at the farmers market? Do you have to change certain recipes to make it work?

We had never worked at a farmers market before, so we learned how to adapt and improve along the way. In our 15 years of business, we have learned ways to operate more efficiently and effectively, especially in setting up our booth.

We have a commissary kitchen we work out of to prepare all of the dim sum. The dumplings are wrapped in the kitchen, and we steam everything fresh at the farmers markets.

What is your favorite memory from running this business? Was there a specific customer that stood out to you?

It’s building relationships with my customers. So many regulars come every week and make my dim sum part of their weekly ritual. There have also been many regulars who moved away but make it a priority to stop by whenever they are visiting. Countless mothers ate my dim sum while pregnant, and I saw these babies grow up. Whenever a child wants my food for their birthday party, or if I cater a bar or bat mitzvah, quinceañera, holiday party or wedding, it feels so special to be included in their special day. Any time a first-time customer comes back after they try the dim sum to tell me how much they enjoyed it, it is one of my favorite things. The food industry is a labor of love, and it is incredibly gratifying to receive excellent feedback.

One rainy winter day when I first joined the Grand Lake Farmers Market, one of my regular customers, Jefferson, brought me a cup of tea because he saw me shivering in the cold. It was a small gesture, but it meant so much to me, and I still remember it over 10 years later.

A stack of scallion pancakes on a white plate.
A stack of crispy, savory scallion pancakes. (Courtesy of Olivia Liu)

That’s really sweet!

Yes, and during the wildfires, a customer named Linda gave me and my mother masks because she was concerned since we work outdoors. Knowing I am more than just a food vendor to these customers warms my heart. Being a part of this amazing community is such a special thing.

[People from] all walks of life enjoy my dim sum, from babies to their grandparents, people who have never had it or those with food sensitivities. We have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, seafood and meat options. There is something for everyone. Everyone loves dim sum!

What’s your favorite item on your menu?

A VIP client of mine hired me to cater her mother’s birthday dinner. She had requested that I make something with black truffles. That is when the black truffle shrimp dumpling was born. It is my personal favorite dumpling and has also become a favorite for many regulars. It’s special how we add black truffle to the shrimp filling, and we also add black truffle to the top of the dumpling.

But the traditional shrimp dumpling might be [better] for you if you are a purist. Some would say the shrimp dumpling is how to tell if a dim sum house is good or not.

Two varieties of dim sum on a paper plate. One of them is topped with black truffle shavings.
Tru Gourmet’s more modern, creative dim sum items include a shrimp dumpling that incorporates black truffles. (Courtesy of Olivia Liu)

What’s the best thing about selling at the farmers market?

I love working at the farmers market! It’s such a wonderful community. Most of my customers are regulars who come every week, rain or shine. I appreciate their support. Even during the beginning of COVID, regulars came every week. It was because of them that I was able to stay in business.

We have been in business for 15 years and hope for another 15 years to come.


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Tru Gourmet Dim Sum is open at the Grand Lake Farmers Market (746 Grand Ave., Oakland) on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. You can also find them at the Marin Farmers Market (3501 Civic Center Dr., San Rafael) on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at the California Avenue Farmers Market (400 California Ave., Palo Alto) on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Nadege Mulamba is a senior at Oakland Technical High School enjoys listening to music, writing and baking in her free time. She is passionate about screenwriting and wants to major in film.

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