Dim sum is one of my favorite foods of all time. Spanning several decades since childhood, I’ve probably eaten dim sum more than a thousand times in dozens of cities around the world. Yet, I am still learning about this cuisine and tradition. If you didn’t grow up eating dim sum or don’t speak Chinese, the learning curve for becoming a dim sum pro can be steep. Hopefully this dim sum guide will be helpful as you explore this delicious custom.
Introduction to Dim Sum
Dim sum is a type of Chinese food consisting of small portions of food (similar to appetizers) that are traditionally served in steamer baskets or on small plates. There are dozens of varieties of dim sum dishes. Traditional dim sum makes ample use of meat and seafood and is usually prepared by steaming or frying.
The Chinese characters for dim sum literally mean “to touch the heart.” It originated in Southern China many centuries ago when it was first served at tea houses frequented by travelers and farmers. The concept has evolved through the years into a festive social meal that strengthens bonds among family members and friends. Simply put, dim sum is comfort food for the Cantonese.
Dim sum is an extremely popular tradition among Cantonese families as they “drink tea” (yum cha) particularly on Sundays. I did this almost every week of my childhood growing up in New York City. Dim sum is usually a noisy and festive meal so don’t expect a quiet ambiance. Although some restaurants are starting to serve dim sum in the evenings, it is typically served from morning through mid-afternoon.
In most restaurants, dim sum is served in individual containers or dishes. Servers push carts from table to table loaded with fresh dishes from the kitchen. Diners wait patiently for their turn to select their food, hoping that their favorites are still available.
By design, dim sum is a social eating experience so aim for a total of four to eight people. That is a sufficient number of people to allow the group to try a large variety of dishes but not so large that sharing food and ordering becomes unwieldy. Another consideration is that many dim sum dishes, such as buns and dumplings, often come three pieces to a plate. So a multiple of three is good for making sure each person can have a taste (or share half a piece).
How Dim Sum Is Served
When you are seated at a table, the waiter will ask you what type of tea you would like. If you don’t drink tea, you’ll need to ask for water or something else to drink. They usually don’t serve water at dim sum unless you request it.
Almost always, dim sum is served from carts brimming with stacks of bamboo or metal steamers and dishes. In most restaurants, there will be at least one cart devoted to steamed dishes, one with fried and baked dishes, one for congee and similar foods, and one with desert and sweet items.
“Dim sum ladies” push the carts and will stop by each table in turn. Frequent customers will ask for what they want. Others will point to what they want which is perfectly acceptable. Many servers will be able to explain what each item is if you don’t recognize it. Be aware however that most servers are not native English speakers and you may have a hard time understanding them. If you missed something or want more of an item from a cart that passed by, don’t worry, the carts recirculate after they get restocked with fresh dim sum.
When you get your dish, the server will stamp or initial your table check indicating the size of the dish. Typically, the categories are “small,” “medium,” “large,” and “extra large.” The price of each category is marked on the bill. Occasionally, servers will try to sell you a special dish that is not from the carts. I usually avoid these since they tend to be very expensive.
When you have eaten your fill, ask the waiter to add up your damages and bring you some containers for any leftovers. Be aware that dim sum is best eaten fresh and many dishes lose their texture when stored and reheated.
Dim sum restaurants will typically have three types of servers. First and foremost, the “dim sum ladies” push the carts and give you your food. The waiters, usually men, give you your tea, take special orders, and add up your check. If you want to order a special item not in the carts, such as fried noodles, ask your waiter, not the ladies pushing the carts. The busboys fill up your water glass and bus your table.
I recommend that you always eat a new dim sum dish without any additional sauces or spices. However, with many dishes such as steamed meatballs and shrimp dumplings, I enjoy adding a little more spiciness. To do this, I usually mix up a small amount of red chili sauce and soy sauce into a slurry and dip my dim sum in this mixture before eating.
Dim Sum is Not Health Food
A word of warning to those with cardiovascular health issues. Dim sum, although often steamed, is not health food. More often than not, dim sum will contain moderate to high amounts of fat and salt. So, if you are overweight or have heart disease or hypertension, you’ll need to watch how much dim sum you eat. And if you are a vegetarian, be advised that very few dim sum dishes are vegetarian-friendly. That’s because Cantonese people love meat and seafood. Unfortunately, if you have food allergies, especially to shellfish, it’s best not to eat dim sum because of cross contamination concerns. Be aware that Chinese restaurant staff are seldom reliable sources for food allergy information. And it’s very hard to avoid gluten when eating dim sum.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I will provide more information about how to select a restaurant, proper dim sum etiquette, and describe common varieties of dim sum.