xoFood: A Beginner's Guide to Dim Sum

Phoenix Claws don’t grow on trees.
Publish date:
January 18, 2015
xoFood, weekend, eating out, Dim Sum, Social Eating

If you’ve never had dim sum before, I’m not going to yell at you. I can’t judge anyone for lack of interest or knowledge in any food because up until two years ago, I hadn’t even eaten a slice of raw tomato. But when my adult taste buds finally came in (still waiting on my boobs, though), I took them out for a spin.

I discovered that food is great, it’s wonderful — it’s DELICIOUS. I learned that I should try something before eschewing it. I realized I love eggs on everything, including baked potatoes. I haven’t unlocked gourmand status or anything, but my eyes no glaze over when I hear things like “emulsified.”

I also finally learned that meals can be activities in and of themselves, and not just 20-minute pauses between work duties and sleep stages. Dim sum quickly became one of my favorite food-related outings: it’s part meal, part show, and all kinds of amazing. So if you haven’t taken this particular journey yet, I’m here to talk you through it.

First, a few morsels of history (well, background): dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) is a Cantonese style of small-plate cooking similar to tapas or meze. But while tapas and meze can be eaten throughout the day, dim sum is more of a late morning/early afternoon activity. In fact, dim sum is the food that’s served for yum cha, which means “drink tea” in Cantonese.

Because “tea” is literally in the name, yum cha is often compared to high tea or afternoon tea traditions observed the world over. But it’s so much more. A whole culinary culture has been built around the concepts of yum cha and dim sum, from menus to roadside tea houses. What started off as a respite for the road-weary has turned into a more boisterous gathering for family and friends. Folks in southern China even set aside part of the weekend for yum cha.

The dim sum gatherings we have stateside are slightly more abbreviated (and influenced by the Hong Kong versions from the 1950s), but you’re still going to be settling in for some time when you sit down for this meal. The idea of eating and drinking for hours midday is probably conjuring visions of brunch for you, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. But dim sum’s way more interactive of a meal. So let’s get started.

NB: Having dim sum really is more fun with people. I’m not ordering you to insta-grow a family or anything, but you should definitely consider sitting down with few friends for your dim sum meal because just look at the menu:

That’s the menu from the place I dined at recently with my younger sister, who was having dim sum for the first time. She didn’t hyperventilate or anything, but she did let me order for her. (FYI: I’ll be referring to our meal from time-to-time as a point of reference.)

The menu’s a good starting point, especially if there are actual captions for the pictures. But you might have more fun throwing caution to the wind, albeit briefly, and letting yourself be wooed by the servers and carts. Once known as a’sam (Cantonese for “aunties”), these “vendors” wheel carts stacked with steamed, grilled, and fried temptations from table to table for both the vegetarian and omnivorous among us.

What exactly are they pushing around in those carts? For starters, there are your standard dumplings (gao), which are mostly steamed but sometimes pan-fried. The ones that look like little blossoms are shumai. The dumplings you’ll have will be of the pork, beef, chicken, and/or veggie (yes, even tofu) varieties. You can sometimes get them deep-fried (bless the Midwest), and on that day, we did.

Stepping up a bit in scale, we have buns (bao or bau or baozi). I convinced my dining companion to try the char siu bau or BBQ pork buns. She loved them — no surprise there, because BBQ pork buns are among the most popular dim sum dishes. But if pork’s not your thing, there are usually seafood and/or plain options, too.

If you still want to eat things wrapped in things, try the rice noodle rolls (sometimes referred to as “crepes”). The chef takes a wide rice noodle, places meat or veggies therein, wraps it, and then cuts it up into bite-size bits. You won’t get to see this dish prepared (this isn’t sushi), but it’ll arrived steamed to perfection and probably with hoisin sauce. We had the beef crepes and they were very tasty.

By this point, I’ve usually moved onto sticky (or glutinous) rice, and my last dim sum meal was no exception. I’m pretty sure you’ll like it, too. Lo mai gai is usually wrapped in lotus leaves that infuse the meats and rice within with a not-quite smoky flavor. We hit the carnivore jackpot that day because we unwrapped ours to reveal dried shrimp, chicken, and pork sausage along with the rice, egg yolk, and scallions.

Now that you’re acclimated but not stuffed, consider trying something that might be outside your comfort zone, like the Phoenix Claws (chicken feet) or a taro cake. If you’re still feeling hungry, you can probably score congee (sticky rice porridge with egg) or some crispy fried octopus (it’s used in place of squid in dim sum restaurants).

Putting the “cha” in “yum cha” is the tea served throughout the meal. I’ve really only had green tea accompany my food, but there are dim sum spots that serve oolong and even chrysanthemum tea.

If you've got room for it, there’s dessert. The most common pastry is the egg custard tart, but you might also have the option of fruit puddings. We had the toasted sesame balls stuffed with bean paste because I love sweet/savory combos. Oh, and if you like bean paste, it might also be available in the buns/bao.

I know I referenced brunch and drinking earlier, but there isn’t much booze consumed at most dim sum meals. Tea and water will usually suffice, though we did observe a few twentysomethings having some Tsingtao beers last time. But I really don’t think you’re going to miss it.

Now for the fine print: There will be anywhere from two to six of any item served. It varies from place to place (as does cost), but you can expect the pricier items to arrive in smaller numbers (I mean, Phoenix Claws don’t grow on trees). For example, our dumpling and bao plates had three a piece and the rolls/crepes numbered six (because they were cut up). I’m in the Midwest, but everything was between $3 to $8 a plate. (Relax, you’re going to be splitting everything including the bill, remember?)

Between the two of us, my sister and I had five different “plates” and a pot of tea. We didn’t get to sit and luxuriate as much as we would have liked, but we had a great conversation about Mr. Belvedere. I hope this has been enough of a primer to get you primed for yum cha, because who knows what you’ll eat and discuss when you gather for dim sum?