What Is Dim Sum? The Beginner's Guide to South China's Traditional Brunch Meal
Dim sum is a traditional Chinese meal made up of small plates of dumplings and other snack dishes and is usually accompanied by tea. Similar to the way that the Spanish eat tapas, the dishes are shared among family and friends. Typically dim sum is consumed during brunch hours — late morning to lunchtime.
A Brief History
Nowadays, dim sum is eaten all over China and the world, but the dishes are believed to have originated in the southern China’s Guangdong region before eventually making their way to Hong Kong. According to food magazine Lucky Peach, Cantonese dim sum culture began in tearooms in the latter half of the 19th century in the port city of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, after opium dens were banned throughout the country. Silk Road travelers and traders would take breaks in tea houses for a dim sum meal. As they continued to travel, the practice continued to spread and gained popularity throughout the region, especially in Hong Kong.
Nowadays, dim sum can include dishes and traditions adopted from other parts of China. But by and large, the culinary form remains the same as ever.
Etiquette and Ordering
How do you order dim sum? First, pick a tea, as it will be a central part of the meal — dim sum did originate in tea houses after all. If you want to follow traditional etiquette, the person closest to the teapot should pour tea for guests first before pouring his or her own cup.
Pot running low on water? Take the lid off and rest it on top or on the side of the teapot. This is a common signal to waiters that you need a refill. Ordering a meal at traditional dim sum restaurants is a fun and unique experience — and requires a good eye. Push carts roll out of kitchens filled with stacks of dumpling steamers and plates of fried food and weave through customer tables. From your table, flag down the cart with the food you want as it goes by. Waiters will unload your choices from their cart and mark your table’s menu card with what you’ve ordered. Nowadays, most modern dim sum restaurants rely on check-list like menu cards instead. Guests simply check off the dishes they want and wave the card in the air before handing it off to your server.
What to Order
Dim sum dishes include an assortment of seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes that are prepared in various ways: steamed, fried, or baked. Here’s a list of some of the most popular dishes to get you started:
Shumai (siu mai, shao mai)—These are thin, round wrappers in a cup shape and hold a filling — usually of pork, shrimp, or a combination of the two — and often a small amount of vegetables like bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, and water chestnuts. (Jessica Spengler/ Flickr)
Shrimp dumpling (har gow, xia jiao)— One of the most popular dishes at dim sum, these are chunks of shrimp encased in a thin translucent dumpling wrapper and served in a bamboo steamer. (Charles Haynes/ Flickr)
Soup dumplings (xiaolong bao) — Commonly referred to as ‘soup dumplings,’ these delicate items are filled with hot broth and pork and are served in a bamboo steamer. Though these are originally from Shanghai, their national popularity has secured their status as a dim sum staple. (Ted Murphy/Flickr)
BBQ pork buns (charsiu bao, chashao bao)— These are fluffy, bready white buns stuffed with sticky and sweet barbecue seasoned pork and served in a bamboo steamer. (Kate Hopkins/Flickr)
Chicken feet (tau zi fung zao, chizhi feng zhao)— These are whole chicken feet, with the claws removed, that have been deep-fried and then braised in a rich, slightly sweet fermented black bean sauce until tender and then served on a plate. (Alpha/Flickr)
Rice noodle rolls (cheong fun, changfen)— These are large, thin, usually handmade steamed rice noodles rolled around a tender shrimp or meat center or a crispy non-meat filling, like fried dough. (T.Tseng/Flickr)
Egg tart (dan tat, dan ta)— These are sweet, rich, custard-filled flaky pastry tartlets that originate from Macau. (Alpha/Flickr)