Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve at least heard the term “dim sum” and you likely know that it’s a part of Chinese culture. But what is it? Well, while it is a meal, it’s mainly a social meal to be enjoyed with friends and family. It’s what many would call “family-style” dining where there’s many different dishes that are shared with everyone else at the table. Synonymous with dim sum, at least for those with cantonese roots, is yum cha which translates to “drink tea” because tea is an integral part of dim sum - like love and marriage in the song.
Historically, dim sum comes from the silk road tea houses where travellers would stop to rest. They would have tea which was discovered to aid in digestion so tea house owners started adding snacks. This evolved in Guangzhou from a way to relax and recover to a bustling family occasion.
Many of the dishes served at dim sum are steamed (or at least served in steamers) and, here’s where things differ from regular restaurants in North America, they are placed in carts that are pushed around from table to table where you can see and smell them. If you opt to take one of the steamers from the trolleys then they just mark it down on your bill and place it on your table.
We’ll cover the must have dishes in a moment but before you get to that level you need to understand a few do’s and don’ts of dim sum. Let’s get to it:
Do pour other people’s tea first before your own. If you want to go really formal then you begin with the eldest and work your way to the youngest person. It’s customary to thank the person pouring your tea by tapping on the table with two fingers (supposedly you should tap with only a single finger if you’re not married but I had never heard of that practice before researching this). The lore behind this gesture is best explained with a quote from Wikipedia:
This custom is said to be analogous to the ritual of bowing to someone in appreciation. The origin of this gesture is described anecdotally: The Qianlong Emperor went to yum cha with his friends, outside the palace; not wanting to attract attention to himself, the Emperor was disguised. While at yum cha, the Emperor poured his companion some tea, which was a great honor. The companion, not wanting to give away the Emperor's identity in public by bowing, instead tapped his index and middle finger on the table as a sign of appreciation.
Dim sum restaurants can be quite loud and boisterous, and the conversation lively so the practice is also a time saver! Incidentally, when you run out to tea, simply leave the lid of the pot balanced on the handle so that the pot is clearly open and the wait staff will automatically refresh it for you.
Don’t ask for coffee. Just don’t.
Don’t expect really spicy dishes. Cantonese cuisine, which is what dim sum primarily is, is focused more on the freshness of ingredients than spice. If you do want a little kick then do ask your waiter for chili sauce (or la jiu in cantonese).
Don’t fill up on rice. Consider this a pro tip.
Do pace yourself. Dim sum is all about sharing and variety but those dumplings and buns can be surprisingly filling.
Don’t save dessert for last. There’s nothing in Cantonese culture that says you have to have your sweets at the end of the meal. In fact, you should feel free to have them at any point throughout the meal (how has this not caught on earlier?!).
Do try everything you can. There can be some dishes that might be a little foreign to North American tastes but I would encourage you to try everything at least once. You never know, you might find out you like Chicken Feet.
Don’t ask for a window seat. Dim sum is the right time and place to ask for a seat near the kitchen so you can get first dibs on the freshest tidbits as they come rolling out the door.
Don’t be shy about chasing down one of the cart ladies if they make it by you with something you want. Just remember to bring your bill/card so they can mark your dish on it.
Alright, on to the dishes that you need to try:
Har Gow (shrimp dumplings) are the litmus test for a good dim sum place. The pieces in the steamer should be uniform size, the dumpling skin should be relatively thin and definitely not dry.
Shu Mai (pork and sometimes shrimp dumplings) are the other mainstay of a dim sum meal and are very popular. As opposed to har gow which uses a rice wrapper, shu mai is served in an egg wrapper. Good shu mai will have filling even with the top of the wrapper; add a little soy sauce and enjoy!
Lo Mai Gai (lotus wrapped sticky rice) is one of my favourites though the recipe varies from restaurant to restaurant. Usually it will contain some kind of meat and some Chinese sausage (lap cheung); all this is wrapped in tasty sticky rice, which is somewhat glutinous, and a lotus leaf which imparts an almost tea-like aroma.
There are literally hundreds of other dishes which I don’t have time or the word count to go into, but I’ll refer you to my earlier comment about trying everything. Just give it a go!