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Dim Sum

13 Ratings: 4.8
A type of Chinese cuisine that involves a wide variety of small dishes, and tea.

Dim sum (literally meaning "touch heart") is the name for a Chinese cuisine which involves a wide range of light dishes served alongside Chinese tea. It is usually served in the mornings until noon time at Chinese restaurants and at specialty dim sum … see full wiki

1 review about Dim Sum

Dim Sum 101

  • May 12, 2009
  • by
Growing up in a Cantonese household, I've been eating dim sum ever since I could remember.  At least one weekend a month, my parents would pack up my siblings and I (and sometimes Grandma!), and we'd hit up our favorite dim sum place where there would usually be a very long wait.  Most people have to work long hours on weekdays, so the weekend is usually the only time that families can gather together, and what better way to do that than over hot tea and yummy snacks?  Since I grew up eating dim sum on a pretty regular basis, I've honed my dim sum ritual skills through experience and observations!

When most Americans think of Chinese food, those buck-fifty fried rice/chow mein/lemon chicken places are probably all that come to mind, but there are so many other different forms of exquisite Chinese cuisines, and the real art of eating dim sum is something else!  I'm always shocked when I hear that someone has never had dim sum before.  I'm even more shocked when someone who has never had it before tries to describe it to me.  The cutest ones that I've heard so far are "dim sum is like an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, right?", and "dim sum is like some sort of rice".  The most accurate one I've heard was when someone described dim sum as "Chinese tapas".  In a way, dim sum is like a tapas meal, except it's generally eaten earlier in the day (anywhere between 5 AM to around 2 PM), and instead of wine and cocktails, tea accompanies the meal.

The History and Background
Way back in the day in China, tea was thought to cause excessive weight gain when had with food, thus teahouses only served tea and no food at all.  It wasn't until it was later discovered that tea can actually aid in digestion that teahouses began serving snacks to go along with their teas.  This practice was only meant to be a snack, and dim sum literally translates to mean "little heart", or "a bit of heart".  The term "dim sum" is also sononymous to the term "yum cha", which literally means "drink tea". 

The practice of dim sum and yum cha have evolved over the past few centuries, and is no longer just sipping tea with snacks; it has become a full fledged meal for some, especially in the United States.  However, when I go to dim sum places in Hong Kong at about 5:30 or 6 on a weekday morning, it's already half-filled with mostly elderly folks and business people and they tend to drink a pot of tea and order only one or two dim sum dishes, consuming just enough to be comfortably full.  This is in contrast to me, the American visitor who orders almost everything off the menu and gorges on it.  Hey, I can't get this quality of dim sum in the States because Hong Kong has hands down the best dim sum in the world!

The practice of sterilizing dishware takes place before every meal and not just dim sum.  Hot water or tea is poured into each person's cup or bowl, then each person swishes the hot liquid around their own bowl, cup, chopsticks, spoon, and plates, and then pours their liquid into a large bowl to be disposed.  I see this every so often in Chinese restaurants in the States and in Hong Kong, but this practice takes place in almost every restaurant that I've been to in China, which is surprising considering that they're not exactly the cleanest country in the world, nor are they so sterilized at all in most other aspect of their lives.

Speaking of sterilization, it's pretty common practice among Chinese people in Hong Kong and some parts of China to use communal utensils for communal dishes when they're not dining with family.  With dim sum though, since they're such small dishes, they don't usually come with a big spoon or their own pair of chopsticks, so to prevent the spreading of germs, it's common practice to flip your chopsticks over and use the wider side instead of the pointy side that you've been eating with (I do this when I'm sick, too, and don't want to get my dining companions sick!).

Chinese Tea Ritual
I haven't seen this anywhere in the States yet, nor in Hong Kong, but in the Canton province of China where the art of dim sum originated, a somewhat elaborate tea pouring ritual takes place prior to the arrival of food at most dim sum restaurants.  My favorite kind of tea to go with dim sum is some sort of green tea, pu-erh, or ti kwan yin.  You can read more about this in my Chinese tea ritual review.

The Grub
Dim sum dishes are typically a la carte tapas-sized dishes.  They can include buns, dumplings, or tarts that come in groups of three or four pieces, or other small dishes like pan-fried noodles or steamed rice rolls.  These dishes are typically steamed, fried or baked.  When steamed, they come in the bamboo steamer that that they were steamed in, but when fried or baked, they are plated.  Certain dishes are only available during the weekends when it is more busy, like the silken tofu dessert, for instance.

Here are a few of my favorite (pescatarian!) dim sum dishes:
  • Daikon cake (lo-bak goh) -- steamed and pan-fried daikon
  • Steamed rice noodle with cilantro (yeen-sai chueng fun) -- cilantro in thick rice noodles drenched in sweet soy sauce
  • Steamed rice noodle with shrimp (ha chueng fun) -- Shrimp in thick rice noodles drenched in sweet soy sauce
  • Shrimp dumpling (ha gow) -- steam shrimp dumpling in clear gluttonous skin
  • Chive dumpling (gou choy gow) -- steamed chive and shrimp dumpling in clear gluttonous skin
  • Sauteed soy sauce rice noodles (see yow wong chow fun) -- thin, wide rice noodle sauteed in soy sauce and leek or green onion
  • Sauteed soy sauce egg noodles (see yow wong chow mein) -- above with thin egg noodle
  • Silken tofu dessert (do-fu fai) -- extremely silken tofu in sugary, ginger syrup
  • Egg Tart (daan tat) -- egg custurd tarts
  • Steamed cake (mai lai goh_ -- steamed yellow cake
  • Pineapple bun (ball laal bow) -- baked "pineapple bun", contains no pineapple, but it just looks kind of like one
  • Pineapple bun with custard (ball laal nai wong bow) -- the above with egg custurd baked inside
  • Custard bun (nai wong bow) -- steamed egg custurd bun

Three Ways to Order Dim Sum
  • On weekends, carts full of dim sum are pushed around by a dim sum lady (it's always a lady!) who yells out the name of the dishes on her cart as she pushes it around the restaurant.  People can hail her over (like a taxi!) and order the dishes that they want.  If finishing touches are necessary, the dim sum attendant is the one who pours sauces over, and cuts certain dishes with scissors.  Sometimes restaurants use carts when they are busy on a weekday.
  • On weekdays, a paper checklist menu, or one with a carbon copy, is given and people can just check off what they want to order.
  • Regardless of whether there is a dim sum cart rolling around or a check off menu, sometimes dim sum places have a table laid out with food and you can just go up to them, point to the dishes that you want, and then they'll be heated and brought to your table.

Dim Sum Pricing
Dim sum dishes are all ordered a la carte and are categorized as "small", "medium", "large", or "special" and there's a different rate for each category.  The labeling denotes size as a measurement, but in actuality, it usually has nothing to do with size, but more so the complexity of the dish and the types of ingredients used.  For example, a plate of egg tarts might be considered small, but a plate of shrimp dumplings might be considered large because it contains seafood.  A "special" dish probably has more expensive ingredients in it, or it was actually special ordered.  For example, most restaurants offer beef or shrimp rice rolls that they charge the "large" price for, but as a vegetarian, I special ordered vegetable rice rolls that were charged the "special" price.

When you first sit down a the table, there's usually already a receipt there labeled "small", "medium", "large", and "special", where the server who delivers your dim sum dishes will stamp or sign under the appropriate box.  That receipt is only stamped or sign when the dish arrives, so if you ordered dim sum dishes through the check off paper menu, or off the table and it never comes, don't worry about being charged for it.

Paying the Bill
When it comes to paying the bill, you're suppose to fight for it, Chinese style.  Duh!  This has become a bit of a running joke among the younger, more liberal Chinese people, but the old timers still fight over who gets to foot the bill.  So if you ever see Chinese people (especially men) chasing each other around a restaurant over a piece of paper, it's probably because they're both trying to pay the bill (or at least pretending to want to! :P).  Chinese people don't really go dutch the way Westerners do.  It's all or nothing.

So The Next Time You Get the Chance To Go Eat Dim Sum...
Try to go on a weekend because it's much more festive and there are a few extra, special dishes, and try to go as close to opening as possible to avoid the long wait, then pick your favorite tea, order dim sum to your heart's content, and ENJOY! :)
Dim Sum

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July 10, 2011
Add to the list my favorite which is vegetable dumpling with soy sauce.
July 11, 2011
Mmmmm, choy gows are always good! :)
October 01, 2009
I have always loved dim sum but never new the history or culture of it at all. My company had an office close to the international district of Seattle and that was one of my favorite things to do with my co-workers. Well written post, thank you.
October 02, 2009
Thanks, Theron!  Hopefully you've gotten a new perspective on dim sum for the next time you dine :)  By the way, I love the international district of Seattle, and Seattle in general.  So much great food, and not just dim sum!
September 30, 2009
EXCELLENT REVIEW! I couldn't have done any better and you've saved me the trouble of doing a review, haha.... Well, you can get great dim sum even in Shanghai these days and in Toronto or Vancouver if you're in Canada. I found great ones in Shenzhen just last week! Anyway, I'm one person who won't be running after a bill ;-) I love it when others are buying lunches and frankly, I don't lunch with just anyone too! So, it's a privilege for the guys, LOL...
September 30, 2009
Thank you!  And haha... you're welcome? :P  I'm lucky enough to live in the Bay Area where there are a ton of great dim sum places.  And you're a lady, you should never have to run after a bill in a Chinese restaurant.  I feel the same way about it being a privilege for the fellas to dine with me ;D
September 30, 2009
Well, your Dim Sum 101 is certainly generating more interest than my Nanotech 101! LOL... But I like doing reviews of things that others don't do. So, I'll pass on this one since you did such a great job of it! I've had fun doing food reviews though. Considering that JR thought all I had to say about is travel, I guess I'm doing ok here ;-)
October 02, 2009
I dunno... some people eat nanotech for brunch, it seems :P And you're doing great on Lunch! ;D
October 02, 2009
I'm all over Lunch, that's not so great. I think I've to harness my talent on something more refine like Beauty, Food, etc... LOL Afterall, these are billion if not trillion $ industries ;-) May be I'll be offered a job thereafter!
September 23, 2009
Ahh...Dim Sum...yet another wonderful thing I have to drive all the way to New York to get. Great review! PS...you and I are apparently kindred with our love for food... ;)
September 29, 2009
Kindred with love for food? I can dig that! Thanks for your comment, Raymon! :)
September 22, 2009
Great write up! I love to go for dim sum. I have only been to two different places, one in Austin and one in Dallas, but have been several times to each. I wish my husband enjoyed it more, but he is not quite as adventurous. I have noticed when going for dim sum that this is the only time I regularly see three or even four generations of a family sit down to a meal together. I am always impressed by that.
September 29, 2009
Thanks, Amanda!  Dim sum's a Chinese family favorite to catch up with each other!  It's really casual and laidback with great food :)
September 11, 2009
I so wish I had your ability to review food the way you do! I told people you were a wizard!
September 11, 2009
Aw, thanks, Sean! I thought your Benihana review was awesome though! :)
August 21, 2009
I love dim sum and in fact, I love the concept of many tastes. So Dim Sum, Tapas, or even ordering 3 appetizers instead of a large entree is my way to go. The object is variety not satiety.
August 21, 2009
Long live the Bento Box
August 23, 2009
I love tapas-style dishes to, and being able to experience variety without feeling too full.  Dim sum is dangerous though, because it's a bit greasy, and a lot of the times, really rich, so you can get very full without intending to! This is probably one of the reasons why tea is always served, to cleanse :)
July 15, 2009
Excellent review - wow, I learned a great deal about dim sum (the world's greatest food). :-)
August 12, 2009
Thanks!  If you haven't already, you should check out the sushi version... ;)
June 15, 2009
WOW...great review, hon! My family fights for the bill just like the Chinese do so if you see a bunch of white American mutts chasing each other then, we're trying to pay. But, I've gotten sneakier by pretending to go to the bathroom, finding the waitress and slipping her my CC! Works every time! I LOVE Dim Sum...what's your fave place in SF?
June 26, 2009
Thanks, lady! I've been known to slip a card to my server when "going to the bathroom"... Some of my friends are sneakier though, and give their card to the server before anyone even orders! My fave dim sum place in SF is currently New Asia on Pacific, second would be Great Oriental on Washington.
Yank Sing
is pretty good, too, but pricey!
June 26, 2009
Have you ever tried S&T Hong Kong Restaurant on Noriega or Koi Palace in Daly City? Those are my top two...and my third, a close third, is Dol Ho just down the street from New Asia at 808 Pacific. I totally agree about Yank Sing, went there once and was like whoa...all this for Dim Sum?!?
June 08, 2009
This was one of the best food reviews I have ever read! I remember Dim Sum when I lived in California as being the best thing I had ever eaten! Now...Im here in Florida with very few choices. My favorite is HaLong Bay in St Petersburg.
June 08, 2009
Ooooh, I'll have to check out HaLong Bay. My friend in Tampa (who transplanted there from SF) has been CRAVING real dim sum, but we gave up after trying one really bad one, which was TC Choy's in Tampa. I mean, it got decent reviews on Yelp, but it definitely wasn't authentic!
June 09, 2009
HaLong Bay is all we really have here. It is good... But not fantastic by any means... I love their stick rice and the crab claws are good too. The food itself however is excellent! This is where I go to get my treat of Boba Tea too!
June 09, 2009
*Sticky rice that is...
June 25, 2009
I lived in St, Pete for nearly 50 years and never knew there was a good dim sum place !
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