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!
Sterilization 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
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! :)
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About the reviewer
When I'm not Lunching, I'm a jeweler, and an all around, self-proclaimed web geek. My passions include social media, the interweb, technology, writing, yoga, fitness, photography, jewelry, fashion, … more
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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 eateries where typical dishes are available throughout the day. Dishes come in small portions and may include meat, seafood, and vegetables, as well as desserts and fruit. The items are usually served in a small steamer basket or on a small plate. Yum cha (literally "drinking tea") is the term used to describe the entire dining experience, especially in contemporary Cantonese. Some Chinese families like to gather for dim sum on special occasions such as Mother's Day or Chinese New Year. Also, Chinese parents like to bring their children there Sunday mornings to meet and talk with their grandparents. Some people bring newspapers with them and discuss news with their families. Some Chinese restaurants offer discounts on menu items purchased before 11:00 A.M. and tea time discounts after 2:00 P.M. to encourage patrons to avoid the lunch rush.