Steaming carts wheeled around tables. Countless little foods that smell amazing … if only you knew what they were called. Ordering and enjoying dim sum can feel daunting to the newcomer but fear not: By the end of this guide, you’ll be ready for any dim sum experience, whether you’re enjoying a catered meal at work or you’re out and about with friends.
What Is Dim Sum?
From its origins in the Guangdong region of southern China, dim sum grew in popularity with the traders and merchants of Hong Kong during the 19th century. As other aspects of Chinese culture enriched societies worldwide, so too has dim sum appeared on menus across the globe.
Similar to British teatime snacks or Spanish tapas, dim sum involves small plates of shareable bite-sized sweet or savory treats. They’re typically enjoyed with at least one type of tea.
The diversity of dim sum is part of the fun: Whether vegetables or shrimp, egg tarts or soup dumplings, you’ll be able to choose from a vast array of steamed dishes including dumplings, rolls, and buns. And don’t worry about flagging down a cart. While servers at many dim sum locales wheel steamer carts around restaurant seating areas, more and more restaurants offer dim sum menus.
The key to dim sum isn’t just the tea and food — it’s the social component. Traditionally considered a brunch-time gathering during the late morning hours or into lunchtime, dim sum centers around sharing food, conversation, and tea among family, colleagues, and friends.
Common dim sum terms and offerings
Now that you know what you’re doing, it’s time to try some dim sum. When it comes to spiciness, dim sum dishes are mild. If you want some condiment kick be sure to request dishes with Chinese-style hot mustard and chili sauce.
The world of dim sum is vast, and some dim sum restaurants are adding modern or multi-cultural twists. Whatever’s in the cart or on the menu, here are six common favorites to help you find your way.
- Shumai (siu mai): Shrimp or pork (or both), usually mixed with vegetables such as water chestnuts, mushrooms, or bamboo shoots
- BBQ pork buns (charsiu bao): Spongy-soft buns filled with barbecued pork
- Soup dumplings (xiaolong bao): Who needs a bowl? Originally from Shanghai, soup dumplings envelop tender pork and a savory, satisfying hot broth
- Chicken feet (tau zi fung zao): Deep-fried (and declawed) whole chicken feet braised in a savory-sweet fermented black bean sauce. While you don’t eat the bones, you can eat the skin and cartilage
- Shrimp dumpling (har gow): Shrimp covered in rice wrappers
- Egg tart (dan ta): Bright yellow egg custard in a flaky pastry shell
Be adventurous and try something new
One of the great things about dim sum is that there is something for everyone. Even better? There are opportunities to try foods you may not have encountered before, such as the aforementioned chicken feet.
The various regions of China have been perfecting cuisines for thousands of years. Odds are you’re going to encounter unfamiliar dishes, ingredients, and textures. You don’t have to like everything, but if you’re willing to give a dish a chance, you never know what might surprise you as a new favorite.
If you need a helping hand, ask advice from your dining partners or even someone at a nearby table. After all, people who love a style of food also tend to love helping other people find their way.
Get one or two items at a time
Now that you have an idea of the steamed or fried array of goodness you can choose from, it’s tempting to want to grab everything off the cart and set it on the table. Don’t.
Dim sum is all about enjoying one or two items at a time. That way you experience your dim sum while it’s hot and every flavor, aroma, and texture is at its peak. Savor not only each piece of food but each bite of larger foods. Vary softer steamed foods with crunchier fried foods; alternate sweet and savory, vegetable and meat.
In between foods and dishes, be sure to cleanse your palate and soothe your soul with sips of hot tea. Sooner or later your empty pot will need a refill. Set your teapot, lid ajar, on top of the pot to signal that you’d like more hot water.
Dine-in dim sum and dim sum office catering
The first of many dim sum experiences
The world of dim sum is vast, so don’t worry if you make a mistake or don’t get to try everything the first time around. Now that you have a solid understanding of the basics, you can dim sum with confidence.