Dim sum refers to a style of Cantonese food prepared as small bite-sized or individual portions of food traditionally served in small steamer baskets or on small plates.
Dim sum is also well known for the unique way it is served in some restaurants, whereby fully cooked and ready-to-serve dim sum dishes are carted around the restaurant for customers to choose their orders while seated at their tables.
Eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to “drink tea” (yum cha, 飲茶), as tea is typically served with dim sum.
Dim sum is usually linked with the older tradition from yum cha (tea tasting), which has its roots in travelers on the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest. Thus tea-houses were established along the roadside. Rural farmers, exhausted after working hard in the fields, would go to tea-houses for a relaxing afternoon of tea. At first, it was considered inappropriate to combine tea with food, because people believed it would lead to excessive weight gain. People later discovered that tea can aid in digestion, so tea-house owners began adding various snacks.
The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. In Hong Kong, and in most cities and towns in Guangdong province, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises. For many in southern China, yum cha is treated as a weekend family day. More traditional dim sum restaurants typically serve dim sum until mid-afternoon. However, in modern society it has become common place for restaurants to serve dim sum at dinner time, various dim sum items are even sold as takeaway for students and office workers on the go.
While dim sum (literally meaning: touch the heart) was originally not a main meal, only a snack, and therefore only meant to touch the heart, it is now a staple of Cantonese dining culture, especially in Hong Kong. Health officials have recently criticised the high amount of saturated fat and sodium in some dim sum dishes, warning that steamed dim sum should not automatically be assumed to be healthy. Health officials recommend balancing fatty dishes with boiled vegetables without sauce.
A traditional dim sum brunch includes various types of steamed buns such as cha siu baau, dumplings and rice noodle rolls (cheong fun), which contain a range of ingredients, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns and vegetarian options. Many dim sum restaurants also offer plates of steamed green vegetables, roasted meats, congee porridge and other soups. Dessert dim sum is also available and many places offer the customary egg tart.
Dim sum can be cooked by steaming and frying, among other methods. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party. Because of the small portions, people can try a wide variety of food.
Dim Sum Dishes
Dim sum brunch restaurants have a wide variety of dishes, usually several dozen. Among the standard fare of dim sum are the following:
- Dumplings (simplified Chinese: 饺子; traditional Chinese: 餃; pinyin: jiǎo zi; Cantonese Yale: gáau)
- Shrimp dumpling (蝦餃; xiā jiǎo; hā gáau): Steamed dumpling with shrimp filling.
- Teochew dumpling (潮州粉粿; cháozhōu fěnguǒ; Chìu jāu fán gwó): Steamed dumpling with peanuts, garlic, chives, pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms.
- Xiao long bao (饺子; 小笼包; xiǎolóngbāo; síu lùhng bāau): Dumplings are filled with meat or seafood and are famous for their flavour and rich broth inside.
- Guotie (鍋貼; guōtiē; wōtip): Pan-fried dumpling, usually with meat and cabbage filling.
- Shaomai (烧卖; 燒賣; shāomài; sīu máai): Steamed dumplings with pork and prawns. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.
- Taro dumpling (芋角; yù jiǎo; wuh gok): Deep fried dumpling made with mashed taro, stuffed with diced mushrooms, shrimp and pork.
- Haam Seui Gok (鹹水角; xiánshuǐ jiǎo; hàahm séui gok): Deep fried dumpling with pork and chopped vegetables. The wrapping is sweet and sticky, while the filling is slightly salty and savoury.
- Dumpling soup (灌湯餃; guàntāng jiǎo; guntōng gáau): Soup with one or two big dumplings.
- Rolls (Chinese: 捲; pinyin: juǎn; Cantonese Yale: gyún)
- Spring Rolls (春卷; 春捲; chūnjuǎn; chēun gyún): A deep fried roll consisting of various sliced vegetables (such as carrot, cabbage, mushroom and wood ear fungus) and sometimes meat.
- Tofu skin roll (腐皮捲; fǔpíjuǎn; fuh pèih gyún): A roll made of Tofu skin with various meat and sliced vegetables filling.
- Rice noodle roll (腸粉; chángfěn; chéungfán): Steamed rice noodles, rolled and filled with meats or vegetables inside but can be served plain. Popular fillings include beef, dough fritter, shrimp, and barbecued pork. Often served with a sweetened soy sauce.
- Bun (Chinese: 包子; pinyin: bāo zi; Cantonese Yale: bāau)
- Barbecued pork bun (叉燒包; chāshāo bāo; chāsīu bāau): Bun with barbecued pork filling. They can either be steamed to be white and fluffy or glazed and baked to golden. The baked variant are called (叉燒餐包; chāshāo cān bāo; chāsīu chāan bāau).
- Sweet cream buns (奶黃包; nǎihuáng bāo; náaih wòhng bāau): Steamed buns with milk custard filling.
- Pineapple bun (菠蘿包; bōluó bāo; bōlòh bāau): literally means Pine apple bread. It’s a pineapple skin-like bread, usually tastes sweet.
- Cake (Chinese: 糕; pinyin: gāo; Cantonese Yale: gōu)
- Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕; luóbo gāo; lòh baahk gōu): puddings made from shredded white radish, mixed with bits of dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and mushroom. They are steamed, then cut into slices and pan-fried.
- Taro cake (芋頭糕; yùtou gāo; wuh táu gōu): puddings made of taro.
- Water chestnut cake (馬蹄糕; mǎtí gāo; máh tàih gōu): puddings made of crispy water chestnut. Some restaurants also serve a variation made with bamboo juice.
- Steamed meatball (牛肉丸; niúròu wán; ngàuh yuhk yún): Steamed meatballs served on top of a thin bean-curd skin.
- Phoenix claws (鳳爪; fèngzhuǎ; fuhng jáau): Deep fried, boiled and then steamed chicken feet with douchi. A plain steamed version is known as “White Cloud Phoenix Claws” (白雲鳳爪; báiyún fèngzhuǎ; baahk wàhn fuhng jáau).
- Spare ribs (排骨; páigǔ; pàaih gwāt): Steamed pork spare ribs with douchi and sometimes garlic and chili.
- Lotus leaf rice (糯米雞; nuòmǐ jī; noh máih gāi): Glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. Typically contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, and meat (usually pork and chicken). A lighter variant is known as “Pearl Chicken” (珍珠雞; zhēnzhū jī; jānjyū gāi).
- Chinese sticky rice (糯米飯; nuòmǐ fàn; noh máih faahn): Stir fried (or steamed) glutinous rice with savoury Chinese sausage, soy sauce steeped mushrooms, sweet spring onions, and sometimes chicken meat marinated with a mixture of spices including Five-spice powder.
- Deep fried squid (魷魚鬚; yóuyúxū; yàuh yùh sōu): Similar to fried calamari, the battered squid is deep-fried.
- Congee (粥; zhōu; jūk): Rice porridge such as the “Preserved Egg and Pork Porridge” (皮蛋瘦肉粥; pídàn shòuròu zhōu; pèihdáan sauyuhk jūk)
- Egg tart (Chinese: 蛋撻; pinyin: dàntǎ; Cantonese Yale: daahn tāat): Baked tart with egg custard filling.
- Tofu pudding (豆腐花; dòufuhuā; dauh fuh fā): Soft tofu served with a sweet ginger or jasmine flavored syrup.
- Sesame ball (煎堆; jiānduī; jīn dēui): Deep fried chewy dough with red bean paste filling, coated in sesame seeds.
- Thousand-layer cake (千層糕; qiāncéng gāo; chīnchàhng gōu): A dessert made up of many layers of sweet egg dough.
- Malay sponge cake (馬拉糕; mǎlā gāo; máhlāai gōu): Steamed sponge cake flavoured with molasses.
- White sugar sponge cake:(白糖糕; báitáng gāo; baahk tòng gōu): Steamed sponge cake made with white sugar.
- Coconut pudding (椰汁糕; yēzhī gāo; yèh jāp gōu): Light and spongy but creamy puddings made with coconut milk, with a thin clear jelly layer made with coconut water on top.
- Mango pudding (芒果布甸; mángguǒ bùdiàn; mōnggwó boudīn): A sweet, rich mango-flavoured pudding usually with large chunks of fresh mango; often served with a topping of evaporated milk.
The drinking of tea is as important to dim sum as the food. The type of tea to serve on the table is typically one of the first things the server asks dining customers. Several types of tea are served during dim sum :
Chrysanthemum tea – Chrysanthemum tea does not actually contain any tea leaves. Instead it is a flower-based tisane made from chrysanthemum flowers of the species Chrysanthemum morifolium or Chrysanthemum indicum, which are most popular in East Asia. To prepare the tea, chrysanthemum flowers (usually dried) are steeped in hot water (usually 90 to 95 °C (194 to 203 °F) after cooling from a boil) in either a teapot, cup, or glass. However, Chrysanthemum flowers are often paired with Pu-erh tea, and this is often referred to as guk pou or guk bou (菊普).
Green tea – Freshly picked leaves only go through heating and drying processes, but do not undergo fermentation. This enables the leaves to keep their original green color and retain most natural substances like polyphenols and chlorophyll contained within the leaves. This kind of tea is produced all over China and is the most popular category of tea. Representative varieties include Dragon Well (Long Jing) and Biluochun from Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces respectively.
Oolong tea – The tea leaves are partially fermented, imparting to them the characteristics of both green and black teas. Its taste is more similar to green tea than black tea, but has a less “grassy” flavour than green tea. The three major oolong-tea producing areas are on the southeast coast of China e.g. Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan.
Bo-Lei tea (Cantonese) or Pu-erh tea (Mandarin) – The tea has undergone years of fermentation, giving them a unique earthy flavour. This variety of tea is usually compressed into different shapes like bricks, discs and bowls.
Scented teas – There can be various mixtures of flowers with green tea, black tea or oolong tea. Flowers used include jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, grapefruit flower, sweet-scented osmanthus and rose. There are strict rules about the proportion of flowers to tea. Jasmine tea is the most popular type of scented tea, and is often the most popular type of tea served at yum cha establishments.
The above teas are produced in most of China. Chinese tea bushes (Camellia sinensis) are cultivated in the mountain areas of tropical and subtropical regions or wherever there is a proper climate, sufficient humidity, adequate sunshine and fertile soil. Chinese tea is classified in many ways, e.g., quality, method of preparation or place of production. The main processing methods include fermentation (oxidation), heating, drying and addition of other ingredients like flowers, herbs or fruits. These help to develop the special flavour of the raw tea leaves.
Various preparation methods mean that different teas contain different bioactive substances. For example, green tea undergoes limited processing so it retains a relatively high content of natural ingredients, meaning that green tea has stronger anti-aging, anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties. Oolong tea, which is partially fermented, is quite potent at breaking down protein and fat, which aids weight loss. Red tea that has undergone the full fermentation process has lost 90% of its polyphenols but retains its high caffeine content.
Restaurants and pricing
One aspect unique to dim sum is its method of serving in specialized dim sum brunch restaurants or tea-houses. Here, dishes are pushed around the restaurant in steam-heated carts, with servers offering the dishes to customers. Pricing of dishes at these types of restaurants may vary, but traditionally the dishes are classified as “small”, “medium”, “large”, or “special” (a menu item not typically considered dim sum fare, such as a plate of chow mein). For example, a basket of dumplings may be considered a small dish, while a bowl of congee or plate of lo mai gai may be considered a large dish. Dishes are then priced accordingly by size, with orders typically recorded with a rubber stamp onto a bill card that remains on the table. Servers in some restaurants use distinctive stamps, so that sales statistics for each server can be recorded.
Another way of pricing the food consumed is to use the number and colour of the dishes left on the patron’s table as a guide, similar to the method used in some Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Some newer restaurants offer a “conveyor belt dim sum” format, similar to the conveyor belt sushi eating places.
Other Chinese restaurants may not offer dim sum on moving platforms, and instead take orders and serve a la carte, in a manner similar to a Spanish tapas restaurant. Prices of each dim sum dish may then vary depending on the actual dish ordered.
There are common tea-drinking and eating practices or etiquette that Chinese people commonly recognize and use. These are practiced not only during dim sum meals but during other types of Chinese meals as well.
It is customary to pour tea for others before filling one’s own cup during a meal. When pouring tea for people on one’s left side, the right hand should be used to hold the teapot and vice versa. A common custom among the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index finger (if you are single), or by tapping both the index and middle finger (if you are married), which symbolises the gesture of bowing.
This custom is said to be analogous to the ritual of bowing to someone in appreciation. The origin of this gesture is described anecdotally: an unidentified Emperor went to yum cha with his friends, outside the palace; not wanting to attract attention to himself, the Emperor was disguised. While at yum cha, the Emperor poured his companion some tea, which was a great honour. The companion, not wanting to give away the Emperor’s identity in public by bowing, instead tapped his index and middle finger on the table as a sign of appreciation.
Given the number of times tea is poured in a meal, the tapping is a time-saver in loud restaurants or lively company, as an individual being served might be speaking to someone else or have food in their mouth. If a diner does not wish a refill being offered at that time, the fingers are used to “wave off” or politely decline more tea. This does not preclude taking more fresh hot tea at a later time during the meal.
Leaving the lid balanced on the side of the tea pot is a common way of attracting a server’s attention, and indicates a silent request that the tea pot be refilled.
Certain kinds of instant dim sum have come onto the market in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. People can enjoy snacks after a 3-minute defrosting and reheating of the instant dim sum in a microwave oven.
In many cities, “street dim sum” is sold from mobile street carts, and usually consists of dumplings or meatballs steamed in a large container, but served on a bamboo skewer. The customer can dip the whole skewer into a sauce bowl and then eat while standing or walking.
Dim sum can be purchased from major grocery stores in most countries with a Chinese population. These dim sum can be easily cooked by steaming or microwaving. Major grocery stores in Australia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, United States, and Canada have a variety of frozen or fresh dim sum stocked at the shelves. These include dumplings, siu maai, bao, cheong fun, lo bak go and steamed spare ribs.
In Singapore, as well as other countries, dim sum can also be purchased from convenience stores, coffee shops and other eateries. There is also halal certified dim sum available (with chicken taking the place of pork) which is also very popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.