The Chinese answer to meals on wheels, dim sum isn’t just a brunch – it’s an adventure. A dim sum repast consists of appetizer-size portions of food, picked from rolling carts as they pass from table to table. The selection is enormous, ranging from dumplings to roast meats to sweet buns, to more challenging delicacies like duck feet; purportedly, more than a thousand varieties of dim sum dishes exist, although a typical dim sum restaurant serves just 50 to 100.
Dim Sum has its origins more than 2,000 years ago in southern China, where, according to Jack Tang, dim sum chef at New York’s HSF Dim Sum Restaurant, wives would prepare the appetizing morsels for their husbands as a small token of their love. Thus the name: in Cantonese, dim means “a little bit,” and sum means “heart,” making dim sum “a little bit of heart.”
When inviting a platonic friend to eat dim sum, however, you might say “Let’s go yum cha,” which literally means going to drink tea. But don’t expect quiet brunchtime conversation; the atmosphere is loud, rowdy, and family-style. Get there early to avoid waiting and to get the freshest food (no later than 11 a.m.). Go in a crowd, to improve the dish selection and avoid sharing a table, a common experience for pairs and trios. Six or eight people is best, since dim sum dishes tend to come in units of three or four items per plate.
Most dim sum dishes are eaten with chopsticks, although buns, tarts, and egg rolls can be eaten with your hands. Feel free to place a small amount of hot sauce or mustard on your plate for dipping purposes (you can also ask for soy sauce or chilli oil, though purists will frown at you). If you must have rice, order fried rice rather than white. And the only proper beverage to drink with your meal is tea: most large dim sum sumptuaries will have at least two varieties – regular black tea and sweet jasmine tea. Above all, relax – to do a proper yum cha, you’ll need at least two hours.
Rule number one
Rule number one: Be ready to point. Sometimes servers will pause at each table and show off each dish as they pass. Other times, they’ll steamroll on by, shouting the name of the item (in Chinese, of course). In this case, advises HSF manager Eddie Yee, you should just stop them and point at your selection. “The hardest part of dim sum,” says Yee, “is finding out what you want.” Figure on ordering about two to five dishes per person in your party, depending on your crowd’s appetite. Typical dishes like har gow, shiu mai, and other dumplings range in cost from $1.50 to $2.50 per order. More elaborate dishes like lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice or cold jellyfish are higher priced – $3.50 and up. For the meek of appetite, the two most popular (and nonthreatening) dim sum dishes are har gow (shrimp dumplings) and shiu mai (open-topped pork and cabbage dumplings). But don’t be afraid to pick things you don’t recognise. Part of the experience is the excitement of discovery; if you stick to meaty, fatty old standards – dumplings, spare ribs, and the like – your dim sum experience will be heavy and nutrionally appalling. Many dim sum dishes are steamed and made of healthy ingredients like shrimp, Chinese cabbage, and tofu. Most Westerners like the deep-fried dishes, such as fried wonton, observes Chef Tang. It’s your loss.
Some popular dim sumptuaries
cha won ton – fried wonton made of pork or beef
ja hyee keem – fried clab claw
churn gyoon – spring roll
daan tut – egg custard tart
shiu mai – open-topped meat dumpling made of pork or pork and beef
har gow – shrimp dumpling
ji ma eun – sesame balls filled with lotus or bean paste
ngor my guy – sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf
law bak go – white turnip cake
yuu daan – fish balls
tofu fa – tofu in honey
hung yun – almond tofu
fung jao – chicken feet
ap gurk – duck feet
ngaw jhap – beef tripe
hoi gi pei – cold jellyfish
gwo tieh – fried pork dumpling
churn gyoon – deep-fried pork, shrimp, and vegetable spring roll
cha siu pao – roast pork bun, toasty-brown baked, or fluffy-white steamed
ching jing pie gwot – spare ribs, steamed in black bean and pepper sauce, a must-order for meat eaters
haw fun – steamed canelloni-style rice noodle containing beef, roast pork, shrimp, or other fillings
song chao ngor mai fon – steamed, glutinous rice containing pork, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other tasty surprises
tofu pei – steamed, wrapped bean curd sheet containing pork or pork and beef
yuu daan – steamed, white balls of minced and pounded fish
tofu fa – light, cool tofu curds in a sweet, syrupy honey sauce
hung yun – almond tofu, a white almond-flavoured gelatin usually served with a spoonful of fruit cocktail in syrup
Taken from EASTERN STANDARD TIME: A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture from Astro Boy to Zen Buddhism, with permission. © Metro East Publications, Inc., 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books. ISBN 0-395-76341-X.