Breakfast dim sum at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong's Clipper Lounge — Photo courtesy of Katie Dillon
Whether you order dim sum off the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant, select blindly from a pushed cart, or feel clueless in a locals-only dumpling place, don’t let the mystery of what lies beneath the bamboo basket lid dissuade you. We are here to give you a brief history of dim sum, a basic lesson in how to eat it, tasty options to consider, and faux pas to avoid.
Dim sum, once only enjoyed in the afternoon, is now an all-day affair in Hong Kong and parts of Southern China. Literally meaning “from the heart" or "to touch the heart,” its original intent was to give a late afternoon burst of energy, through a cup of tea, to farmers and weary travelers along the Silk Road. No food was involved, but as tea's ability to help digestion became known, teahouses added in small snacks. The tradition of dim sum was born, though you may hear it referred to as yum cha, which means to "drink tea" in Cantonese.
It varies by restaurant, but the place setting may include chopsticks, a large Chinese ceramic soup spoon, a bowl, a small dipping sauce bowl, and a plate. Pick up the dim sum with chopsticks and dip it in sauce. Using your other hand, balance a spoon underneath the dumpling to avoid dropping it. It’s rare for anyone to eat an entire dumpling in one go, like some sushi, so rest the partially-eaten dumpling on your plate if you need a break. The bowl may double as a soup or fried rice bowl, but you may always rest your spoon there. Steamed vegetables (place them on your plate), such as pak choy, are often served with dim sum along with fried or white rice. Don’t assume a bowl of white rice is en route–you may need to ask for it. Drink tea, but serve others before pouring your own.
Assorted fancy dim sum — Photo courtesy of Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong
Dim sum can be steamed, baked, or fried, as well as savory or sweet. Try these popular menu items:
Barbequed pork bun (char siu bao): Char siu bao, perhaps the most popular dim sum dish, is a steamed or baked doughy bun with a sweet pork filling. When you see bao on a menu, this means bun-style dim sum.
Lotus leaf wraps (lo mai gai): The dark green lotus leaf makes this easy to spot. A filling of vegetables or sausage is placed in the middle of a ball of sticky rice and steamed inside the leaf.
Bone-in meats: Spare ribs or chicken feet are tough to eat with chopsticks so using hands is ok. Just try to be graceful.
Turnip cake (law bak gow): This savory cake is typically made from radishes, shrimp and mushrooms. It's a white, flat, pan-fried slice that is popular during Chinese New Year as a symbol of good fortune.
Small dumplings (shumai): Shumai can be made with pork, shrimp, tofu or vegetables. They are bite-sized, with a small crab roe on top.
Egg tarts: This dessert of custard inside a pastry crust is extremely popular in Hong Kong.
As dim sum is a shared meal, it's polite make sure your table mates each have a dumpling before taking a second helping. It's ok to eat egg tarts with your hands. The aftertaste of one course shouldn't bleed into the next, so toothpicks are commonly used in between courses or after a dim sum meal. Cover your mouth with your hands so table mates can't see you in action. If you're selecting from a stack of baskets (see the above photo), don't make the rookie mistake of taking the basket lid too. Lift the lid, take your basket, and put the lid back on the basket below!