Dim sum originates from the Silk Road in China. People would take rest stops at tea houses and quick small bites were invented to be enjoyed with the tea. The word dim sum directly translates to, “touch the heart”, meaning each piece has been made with care. Dim sum is traditionally eaten for breakfast but nowadays there are many restaurants that serve dim sum all day, especially in North America.
Eating etiquette: Dim sum are small dishes that are meant to be shared so your best bet is to go with a group so you can try a large variety of dishes. Dim sum is always served with a hot pot of tea, when your pot runs out you can simply lift or leave the lid ajar on the teapot and servers will know to bring you a new pot. Dim sum can be sweet or savoury, but there’s no differentiation for dessert so feel free to eat them alongside your savoury dishes.
Utensils: Dim sum is usually eaten with chopsticks, but most restaurants will have forks if you ask. All the food is prepared in small pieces so a knife is not required. When you’re not using your chopsticks, rest them flat along your plate. It is rude to leave them standing straight up in a dish because that is how they are displayed during funerals. Eating certain dishes such as buns and pastries with your hands are completely acceptable but fried items such as spring rolls are best eaten with utensils.
Ordering: Dim sum dishes usually all fall under three sizes – small, medium and large. If the restaurant has dim sum trolleys, when you see and order something you like, the server will mark the dish on your bill under the appropriate size. If you see a popular item you like across the room, you can walk up with your bill to snag one and bring back to your own table if you suspect it will run out before it reaches you. If you don’t see a specific dish you’ve been waiting for, you can request it from any of the waiters not pushing a cart and they will send one to your table.
- Steamed Dumplings
Shu mai and har gow are the two most popular steamed dumplings and are on every dim sum menu. Shu mai are opened top dumplings made with wheat wrappers that are almost always fill with a pork base and additional ingredients such as shrimp or Chinese mushrooms. Har gow are round shrimp dumplings wrapped in a translucent wheat and tapioca exterior. There are always other steamed dumpling options but it varies from restaurant to restaurant.
- Rice Noodle Rolls
Rice noodle rolls can be filled with many different fillings with the most common ones being shrimp or minced beef. Usually restaurants will have a vegetarian option as well filled with Asian greens or mushrooms. The rice noodle rolls are steamed and served with a sweetened soy sauce. The rolls can be left whole or cut with scissors upon request.
- Deep Fried Rice Balls
A rice flour dough is filled with sweet or savoury ingredients and then fried until golden and the interior becomes hollow. Savoury ones come in an elongated football shape and are filled with a mixture of seasoned minced pork and vegetables such as carrots and peas. Sweet ones usually come with a sweetened paste such as red bean or black sesame. Sometimes the exterior is rolled in sesame seeds before it’s fried for more flavour and texture.
- Steamed Buns
The buns are made with a leavened, slightly sweetened flour dough and are soft and fluffy when cooked. The buns all have the same exterior but can be filled with different sweet or savoury fillings. “Char siu bao”, filled with sweet and savoury Chinese BBQ pork are a popular choice. For sweet buns go with the salted egg yolk custard filling which has a dangerously oozy molten core. Steamed buns are very filling, so make sure to save room for other dishes.
All the dim sum described here are just a small fraction of the most common options offered. Dim sum is a very interactive experience where a large variety of dishes can be sampled all in one sitting. Don’t be afraid to ask your servers to lift off the lids of the steamers so you can see what is inside. With an open mind, order all the dishes that appeal to your senses and you’ll be guaranteed a good meal.