You all know what dim sum is, right? The original dim sum houses originated in Canton, and were a lot like diners: small, roadside establishments that served tea along with a bit of sustenance for weary travelers or rural workers. Just like Spanish tapas, which were originally simple accompaniments to glasses of sherry, these simple Cantonese tea snacks eventually became the main focus of the meal, though tea is, of course, still served. These days, in many parts of Southern mainland China, and in Hong Kong in particular, it's become a weekly ritual family meal, generally taken on weekend mornings.
Food comes served in steam table trolleys stacked high with bamboo or metal steamer baskets. They get pushed around the restaurant from table to table, and diners order by pointing at the dishes they want. Each table gets a card that's stamped with the number of dishes ordered (generally for a couple bucks apiece, though price can vary by dish), and you pay when you leave.
It's tough to find a better way to spend a Sunday morning than a table of friends and family, bottomless tea, lightning-fast (if a little rude) service, and a whole table full of tiny plates crammed with dumplings, steamed buns, and Chinese pastries. That you usually end up paying no more than a few bucks apiece at a dim sum restaurant (no matter how much you order, it seems) helps, of course.
Basic Dim Sum Etiquette
There's nothing too difficult about ordering and dining at a dim sum restaurant, but here are a few tips to clear up any confusion.
- Share! As with most small plates dining, the more people you have and the more dishes you order, the better the experience will be for everyone. Bring people, and be prepared to share.
- Start with tea. You should be given a pot of tea as soon as you first sit down. Most dim sum restaurants will have a few varieties of tea on hand and will probably get you a different type if you prefer it over their house tea. Check the tea before you pour to make sure it's steeped enough. When you empty the pot, turn the lid upside down or leave it ajar to let the waiter know you want a refill. To be extra polite, make sure to fill up other people's glasses before your own, and tap the table to thank someone for filling yours.
- Ordering. This is pretty simple: just let the food come to you. The server will generally offer you each one of the two or three dishes their cart is carrying. Just nod or say "yes" if you're in. Good rule of thumb: if you're not sure what it is, try it. Don't see your favorite dish in the dining room? Most large dim sum restaurants can bring you a fresh one straight from the kitchen—just ask for it. Make sure to keep your card out so the cart pusher can stamp it. If there's a buffet-style line at the restaurant, bring your card with you when you go there.
- Cart chasing. You see the steamed rice roll cart all the way on the other side of the dining room and you're afraid they're going to run out before they make their way over to you. What do you do? It's perfectly acceptable to get out of your seat and chase down the specific cart you're looking for. Just don't swoop in and steal the last one.
- Utensils. Chopsticks are the norm, but don't feel bad about asking for a fork if you need one. The basic rules of chopsticks apply: don't spear your food with them, and don't leave them sticking straight up in a bowl of rice when you're not using them. Instead, lay them horizontally on the edge of the plate.
- Want rice with that? Steamed white rice can be ordered upon request, and it's a good way to cleanse your palate between bites of strongly seasoned dim sum fare. Oh, and you can pour sauce on your rice if you want, but it's intended to be a plain, bland accompaniment.
- Do tip! It may seem unnatural since you're paying your bill at a separate cashier instead of at the table, but it's expected to leave a tip on the table for your server and the people pushing the trolleys if you had good service.
The cacophony and sensory overload of dim sum can be overwhelming—so many moving carts, impatient servers asking you whether you want their wares before you even know what they have to offer, the ever-present question in your head of wait, is that pork, or shrimp, or some weird animal part?—you need the acumen of a Wall Street trader to make the right choices. Unless you were lucky enough to grow up with friends or family members who have already been initiated to the fast-paced cult of dim sum, your best strategy was probably just to close your eyes and point.
Until now. With this handy guide, you can order 24 of the most common dim sum dishes like a pro, so that next time someone asks you "what's in this one?" you can give a better answer than the standard "just shut up and eat it."
Click through the slideshow above for images of each dish, or click on the links below to jump directly to that slide.
Har gau (steamed shrimp dumplings): Translucent shrimp dumplings with a wheat starch skin that's cut with tapioca to give it extra stretchiness and translucency. Pork, scallions, and bamboo shoots are often used to flavor it. These are one of the most difficult dumplings to make properly: the skin should be translucent yet sturdy, slightly chewy but not tough, with perfectly cooked, crisp shrimp inside.
Chiu-chao fan guo (steamed dumpling with pork, shrimp, and peanuts): A crunchy, fresh-tasting mix of shrimp, pork, and peanuts, often flavored with cilantro and crisp chunks of jicama. These are awesome if you're looking for a unique textural experience in your dumplings.
Siu mai (open-topped steamed pork or shrimp dumplings): Open-topped steamed pork and/or shrimp dumplings made with a wheat flour wrapper, they often come topped with fish roe or grated carrot, or occasionally a single pea.
Haam sui gau: Deep-fried glutinous rice dumpling with pork.
Jiu cai bau: Fried wheat starch skin dumplings with chives.
Wu gok (taro dumplings): Crispy, wispy, slightly sweet fried purple taro surrounding a center of savory pork filling, wu gok are a study in contrasts.
Cha siu bao (steamed barbecue pork-stuffed buns): The classic steamed yeasted buns stuffed with Chinese-style barbecue pork (cha siu). The dough has a soft, dense crumb similar to American sandwich bread, while the filling is savory and sweet.
Cha siu bao (baked barbecue pork-stuffed buns): The same as the steamed version, these ones are rounded, baked, and painted with a shiny glaze.
Cha siu sou (flaky barbecue pork-stuffed pastry): Sou is Chinese puff pastry with a flaky, slightly sweet flavor. They come stuffed with all kinds of things, but we like the pork-flavored ones best.
Cheong fan (rolled rice noodles): One of our favorite dishes, fresh steamed rice noodles are rolled around a variety of fillings, most commonly beef, shrimp, or pork. They come drizzled with a sweet soy sauce.
Zhaliang (fried, noodle-wrapped crullers): An interesting variant on cheong fan, in this version, the slippery steamed rice noodles are wrapped around crispy, savory fried crullers flavored with soy, sesame, or hoisin sauce. Get'em fresh and eat'em fast to maximize that crisp/slippery/tender contrast.
Pei guen (fried tofu skin roll): Tofu skin—the thin layer of coagulated soy proteins that forms on top of the vats used for heating soy milk in tofu production—is used to wrap various ingredients, such as shrimp or chicken before being deep-fried.
Pei guen (steamed): The same as the fried version, but steamed instead of fried, and the ones you're more likely to see on dim sum carts. These often come flavored with bamboo shoots.
Other Vegetable-Heavy (But Not Vegetarian) Dishes
Lo baak gou (turnip cake): Shredded daikon radish is mixed with rice flour and flavored with ham, sausage, shrimp, or other vegetables before being pressed into cakes and fried. They're called turnip cakes, but are technically made with radish.
Taro cake: Like the Lo baak gou, but made with starchy taro. Soft and somewhat chewy on the inside, it gets a crisp crust from frying.
Lo mai gai (steamed glutinous rice): One of the more filling dishes on a dim sum menu, it's made by steaming sticky rice flavored with chicken, mushrooms, Chinese sausage, and/or scallions in a lotus leaf, though you'll often find it wrapped in a banana leaf instead.
Other Meat-Based Dishes
Fung zao (fried steamed chicken feet): Also known as "phoenix talons," these are made by deep frying chicken feet until they become puffy and inflated, then are stewed in a sweet and savory sauce flavored with fermented soy beans. They have a unique, spongy, tender texture.
Ngao yuk kau (meatballs): Steamed beef meatballs served with simmered tofu skin, they're often flavored with Worcestershire sauce.
Pai gwut (steamed ribs): Small sections of pork rib—usually no larger than 1/2-inch—that are coated in starch then steamed with fermented soy beans until they get a moist, slippery texture. They've got bones, so careful when you bite down!
Daan taat (egg custard tart): Classic Hong Kong style egg tarts, they're similar to Portuguese egg custard tarts, but with a stronger egg flavor. The crust can be flaky or shortbread-like.
Jin deui (fried glutinous rice balls): Made from glutinous rice powder, these balls have the stretchy, chewy texture of Japanese mochi (which is essentially identical). They get coated with sesame seeds and deep-fried until they puff, and are then piped with a sweet filling like lotus paste or red bean paste.
Do fu fa (tofu pudding): Soft, silken tofu served with either a ginger or plain sugar syrup.
Ma lai go (Malaysian sponge cake) A soft, eggy, steamed sponge cake that comes from Malaysia.
Lai wong bau (cutard-filled buns): Standard bau dough stuffed with an eggy milk custard and steamed.