Trying a new cuisine can be intimidating. Especially when names, utensils and etiquette are all a mystery (you order chicken feet and don’t know what to do). Fear no more food friends, hungryhouse has created a simple Dim Sum for Dummies guide that will make you feel like a pro (not that you’re a dummy, but you get the picture).
So give the Chinese takeaway a rest for tonight and consider ordering dim sum.
Dim sum isn’t a specific dish, such as kung pao chicken or sweet and sour soup, but rather a style of preparation. Saying ‘dim sum’ is similar to saying ‘tapas’.
Literally translated in Cantonese, dim sum means “point of the heart.” Each item is meant to be a little delicacy with a lot of love.
The tradition of dim sum links back to the silk road when weary travelers needed a place to rest and eat. It used to be considered bad for your health to combine drinking tea with eating as it was thought to lead to weight gain. Eventually the digestive benefits of tea was discovered and the combo moved from a bad habit to a good one. The tradition of “yum cha” (drink tea) evolved from enjoying a quiet cup o’ tea, to a chattering interactive food experience.
This is like the dough of a pizza – there are a few types of dough and endless toppings! Rice flour or wheat starch are the two typical wrappings that dumplings are made of. While the translucent rice flour looks simple, it’s quite a delicate task to prepare a proper dumpling.
This is the most exciting part of dim sum. From pork and prawns to mushrooms and cabbage, the filling of a dumpling varies.
Har gow (shrimp dumpling): steamed in a bamboo basket until translucent. A good chef will prepare this dumpling with 7 pleats imprinted on its wrapper, while a master chef fits in 10. Watch out pescatarians, most har gow are cooked with pork fat.
Fun guo (mixed steamed dumpling): this dumpling changes names and fillings depending on where it’s served. Fillings can include peanuts, jicama, coriander, pork or shrimp. Hawaiians have the best name for fun guo based on its shape. Do you care for an ‘ear’?
Jiǎozi (potstickers): This is a safe bet for dim sum beginners. You can think of it almost as a Chinese style ravioli packed with ground pork or vegetables. This dumpling is popular in North America and across Asia.
Cha siu bao (barbecue pork bun): The mother of all dim sum, the sticky, succulent and incredible pork bun. The bao (or bun) can be soft and fluffy if it’s steamed, or glazed and breadlike if baked.
My first day in Hong Kong went something like this.
“What do you want to order?”
“I don’t know. You’re the local, order your favourite dish.”
Then came the chicken feet. Being a good sport, I gnawed away at the foot. I never quite managed to get any meat off it, but I don’t think that’s the point. If you’re feeling adventurous, you should try these.
Dim sum has its origins in drinking tea. This means the tea is just as important as the food. This will typically be the first point of conversation with the server and refills will happen throughout your meal. Chinese tea has a very intricate history that deserves an article all on its own. For now, simply be aware that no dim sum experience is complete without tea.
Dim sum used to be available only in the mornings, but with its rise in popularity and westernization, the dim sum hour has been pushed further and further into the night. Elderly groups meeting for sunrise tai chi can often be spotted enjoying post class dim sum at 6am! If you’re not in the mood to down barbecue pork bun in the early morning, many dim sum spots now serve until 3pm or later.
Dim sum service usually breaks down to two parts: cart service, or paper menu service. For cart service, a member of staff will wheel around a cart piled with a variety of dim sum dishes. Get vocal, use your pointing finger, and discover what you like. For paper menu service, a pencil will be provided on the table and you simply tick off the items you want. Politely wave your menu and someone will come by to retrieve it.
A dim sum experience can be a truly enjoyable one, especially when you have good company. Share your food, pour tea for your friends and have fun trying something new. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to order dim sum online!