Curious to know what is dim sum? You’re in luck; today we are exploring the intricate details of what makes up this classic Chinese cuisine.
It may have been around for centuries, but the unique flavors and textures of dim sum remain unparalleled. Whether you’re looking for a delicious snack or a full-course meal, understanding what goes into creating this cultural dish will help satisfy your appetite in no time.
So join us as we unpack the ingredients that make up one of China’s oldest culinary traditions: What is Dim Sum?
What Is Dim Sum?
Dim sum is a classic Chinese culinary delight that has garnered global recognition and appreciation.
The term “dim sum” literally translates to “touch the heart” in English, indicating the small, bite-sized portions designed to be shared.
This culinary tradition typically includes a variety of dumplings, buns, rolls, and other treats, all steamed to perfection. Served in bamboo baskets, dim sum can contain various fillings, from shrimp and pork to vegetables and sweet custards.
Often enjoyed with tea in a social setting, dim sum holds a significant place in Chinese traditions and plays a crucial role in social engagements.
What Makes Dim Sum So Special?
Dim sum is a unique culinary delight that originated from China. It’s special due to its exquisite craftsmanship, with each piece intricately handmade.
The variety of dim sum, ranging from savory dumplings to sweet pastries, offers a gastronomic adventure. Moreover, it’s not just a meal but a social tradition, typically enjoyed in communal ‘yum cha’ (tea tasting) sessions.
The shared experience of choosing from roaming food carts further enhances its charm.
When Is Dim Sum Traditionally Eaten?
Dim sum is traditionally eaten during the morning to early afternoon, typically served from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The tradition originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who would often enjoy these bite-sized dishes with their morning tea. This practice, known as “yum cha” (which translates to “drink tea”), was a way for people to relax and socialize.
While dim sum has adapted over the years to be savored at any time, it is traditionally most commonly consumed during the morning and early afternoon hours.
What Is the Etiquette When Eating Dim Sum?
Eating dim sum is not just about the food; it’s also about the shared experience and following certain customs and dim sum etiquette. Here are some key points to remember:
- Sharing is Caring: Dim sum dishes are meant to be shared among everyone at the table. It’s common to order a variety of dishes and share them with your companions.
- Tea Etiquette: Pouring tea for others before filling your own cup is considered polite. If someone pours tea for you, tap two fingers (your index and middle finger) on the table as a silent “thank you”. This custom is known as ‘finger kowtow’.
- Using Chopsticks: Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice as it resembles incense sticks used for ancestral worship and is considered bad luck. Also, don’t use your chopsticks to move dishes around or search for specific pieces in a communal dish.
- Ordering Food: In traditional dim sum restaurants, servers push carts filled with various dim sum dishes around the dining room. You can point out which dishes you’d like to try as they pass by your table. In some modern restaurants, you might be given a menu to order from.
- Noise is Normal: Chinese restaurants are often bustling and noisy. Don’t feel obligated to whisper or keep your voice down.
- Don’t Over-order: While it’s tempting to try everything on the menu, it’s frowned upon to waste food. Start with a few dishes and order more as needed.
- Paying the Bill: Traditionally, fighting over the bill is common among Chinese diners, as it’s seen as a sign of generosity.
Remember, these rules are not strict, and the most important thing is to enjoy your Chinese meal and the company you’re with.
Where Can I Find Dim Sum Restaurants?
Hong Kong is the epicenter of dim sum, but its influence has spread far and wide, especially to the United States. Here, you can find many dim sum restaurants, each bringing a slice of Hong Kong’s culinary tradition to the table.
Whether it’s Good Luck Dim Sum in San Francisco, Tim Ho Wan (the world’s most inexpensive Michelin-starred restaurant), or the popular Din Tai Fung in San Diego, these establishments are often led by many dim sum chefs who have mastered the art of this unique Cantonese cuisine.
So, if you’re craving a taste of Hong Kong, these dim sum restaurants across the U.S. are sure to satisfy your palate.
How Should I Order Dim Sum?
Ordering dim sum can be a unique and exciting experience, especially if it’s your first time. Follow these steps to enjoy dim sum dining experience:
- Seating: When you arrive at the restaurant, the host will guide you to your table. Dim sum is typically a communal meal, so you might share a large round table with other diners.
- Tea Selection: After you’ve settled in, the first thing you’ll do is choose a type of tea. Tea is an essential part of the dim sum experience, used to cleanse the palate between different types of dishes.
- Ordering: Dim sum dishes are usually displayed on carts that servers push around the restaurant. When a cart comes to your table, simply point to the dishes you want. Some restaurants, especially larger ones or those in more Westernized areas, may give you a menu or checklist to order from instead.
- Serving Size: Dim sum dishes are typically small, meant to be shared among the table. Most come in portions of three or four pieces.
- Variety: Try to order a variety of dishes – some steamed, some fried, some with meat, some with vegetables, etc. This way, you get to experience a range of flavors and textures.
- Etiquette: It’s common to use your chopsticks to take food from the shared plates and place it on your personal plate. Also, remember to refill others’ tea cups before your own as a sign of respect.
- Payment: In many traditional dim sum restaurants, the server will stamp your bill with the price of each dish as you order it. When you’re ready to pay, just bring this bill to the cashier.
Remember, every dim sum restaurant might operate a bit differently, but these general steps should help you navigate most situations. Enjoy your meal!
What Is a Typical Dim Sum Menu?
A typical dim sum menu is a delightful collection of small, bite-sized dishes, usually served on small plates or in steamer baskets. Here are some dim sum items you would commonly find:
- Har Gow (Xiā jiǎo – 虾饺): These are shrimp dumplings with a translucent wrapper and are one of the best dim sum dishes.
- Siu Mai (Shāomai – 烧卖): These are open-topped Chinese dumplings typically filled with pork and shrimp.
- Fung Zao (Fèng zhǎo – 鳯爪): This is one of the traditional dishes, made up of marinated chicken feet in a black bean sauce.
- Xiao Long Bao: These are soup dumplings that burst with flavorful broth when you bite into them.
- Rice Noodle Roll (Cheung Fun): These are soft, steamed rice noodle rolls that can be filled with various ingredients, such as beef, shrimp, or barbecue pork.
- Char Siu Bao: These are fluffy, steamed buns filled with barbecued pork.
- Bo Loh Bao: Also known as pineapple buns, these sweet pastries do not actually contain pineapple but are named for the pattern on the sugar-crusted top that resembles the fruit’s exterior.
Remember, part of the fun of dim sum is trying different dishes, so don’t hesitate to order something new!
What Are Some Popular Fillings for Dim Sum Dishes?
Dim Sum dishes are known for their wide variety of fillings. Here are some popular choices:
- Shrimp (Har Gow): Shrimp is a popular filling, especially for Har Gow, a type of steamed dumpling with a translucent skin.
- Pork (Siu Mai): Pork is often used in Siu Mai, an open-topped dumpling. It’s also common in other dishes like Char Siu Bao, a fluffy bun filled with barbecue pork.
- Beef: Beef or minced beef is often used in Rice Noodle Rolls (Cheung Fun).
- Turnip Cake: A savory delight in the world of dim sum, turnip cake (also known as radish cake or lo bak go) is a beloved treat that’s not actually sweet. Instead, it’s crafted from grated turnip, rice flour, and a mix of umami-rich ingredients like Chinese sausage, dried shrimp, and mushrooms.
- Chicken: Chicken can be found in various forms in dim sum, including steamed chicken feet (Fung Zao), and in filled buns or dumplings.
- Vegetables: Many dim sum dishes feature vegetables, either alone or mixed with meats. Common vegetables include bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and water chestnuts.
- Seafood: Apart from shrimp, other seafood like scallops and crab meat can be found in certain dim sum dishes.
- Sweet Fillings: Some dim sum dishes are sweet rather than savory. For example, custard buns (Lai Wong Bao) are filled with a sweet egg custard filling, while sesame balls (Jian Dui) are typically filled with sweet red bean paste.
These are just a few examples. The beauty of dim sum is its diversity and the endless combinations of flavors it offers.
What Types of Sauces Are Used in Dim Sum Dishes?
Dim Sum dishes are served with a variety of delicious sauces that enhance the flavors of the bite-sized offerings. Here are some of the most common ones:
- Soy Sauce: This is a must-have sauce for many dim sum dishes, especially dumplings and rice rolls.
- Chili Oil or Sauce: For those who like a bit of heat, chili oil or sauce adds a kick to any dim sum dish.
- Hoisin Sauce: This is a sweet and tangy sauce, used as a glaze for meat dishes or as a dipping sauce for buns and dumplings.
- Oyster Sauce: A thick, dark sauce made from oysters, it’s often used in cooking but can also be served as a dipping sauce.
- Black Bean Sauce: This is a flavorful sauce made from fermented black beans, garlic, and light soy sauce. It’s commonly used in dishes like chicken feet.
- Sweet Plum Sauce: This is a sweet and slightly sour sauce that’s often served with spring rolls and other fried foods.
- XO Sauce: A gourmet condiment made from dried seafood, chili peppers, and garlic, XO sauce is a luxurious addition to dim sum dishes.
- Ginger Scallion Sauce: A bright, tangy sauce that pairs especially well with seafood dishes.
Remember, the right sauce can elevate your dim sum experience, so don’t be afraid to experiment and find your favorite combination!
What Types of Tea Are Typically Served With Dim Sum?
Dim Sum is traditionally served with tea, and there are several types that are commonly offered. Here’s a list of some popular ones:
- Chrysanthemum Tea (菊花茶): This is a sweet floral tea that is often served with or without actual chrysanthemum flowers in the pot. It has a light, refreshing taste that helps balance out the heaviness of fried or rich foods.
- Pu-erh Tea (普洱茶): Pu-erh is a type of fermented tea from Yunnan Province in China. It has an earthy flavor and is believed to help with digestion, making it a popular choice for dim sum.
- Jasmine Tea (茉莉花茶): This is a fragrant green tea scented with jasmine flowers. Its light, floral flavor complements the variety of tastes in dim sum dishes.
- Oolong Tea (乌龙茶): Oolong tea is partially fermented, with a flavor that falls somewhere between green tea and black tea. Its robust flavor stands up well to stronger tasting dishes.
- Green Tea (绿茶): Green tea is unfermented and has a light, fresh flavor. It’s a good palate cleanser during a dim sum meal.
- Black Tea (红茶): Known as “red tea” in China, black tea is fully fermented, giving it a darker color and stronger flavor.
When you’re having dim sum, the choice of tea can greatly enhance your meal. Don’t hesitate to try different types to see which one you prefer!
Are There Any Sweet Dim Sum Dishes?
Yes, there are several sweet Dim Sum dishes. These desserts are usually served at the end of a Dim Sum meal and are just as varied and flavorful as their savory counterparts. Here are a few examples:
- Egg Custard Tart (Dan Tat): These tarts have flaky pastry crust, filled with egg custard. They’re bite-sized and perfect for ending a meal.
- Sweet Cream Buns (Nai Wong Bao): Steamed bun filled with a sweet cream or custard. They’re often called ‘milk buns’ due to their milky flavor and white appearance.
- Sesame Balls (Jian Dui): These are deep-fried glutinous rice balls coated in sesame seeds, filled with sweet red bean paste. They have a chewy texture with a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.
- Mango Pudding: This is a popular dessert made with fresh mangoes and gelatin. It’s often served chilled with evaporated milk.
- Steamed Sponge Cake (Ma Lai Gao): This is a light, fluffy steamed cake that’s often sweetened with brown sugar and flavored with Chinese dried dates.
- Tofu Pudding (Douhua): This soft tofu dessert is served with a sweet syrup and can be garnished with things like fruit or nuts.
- Red Bean Soup: A sweet soup made with azuki beans, it’s often served warm and may include additions like sago pearls or lotus seeds.
- Glutinous Rice Balls: A sweet dim sum dish made with glutinous rice flour, these delightful balls are often filled with sweet black sesame or red bean paste. They’re typically served warm in a ginger-infused syrup, offering a delightful contrast between the chewy exterior and the soft, sweet filling.
These sweet treats are a delightful way to finish off your Dim Sum experience!
So, What Is Dim Sum?
So, what is dim sum? It’s a culinary tradition originating from southern China, is much more than just a meal. It’s a unique dining experience that combines the pleasure of sharing bite-sized dishes with the comfort of morning tea.
From Har Gow to Siu Mai, and Char Siu Bao to Xiao Long Bao, the variety on a typical dim sum menu is sure to satisfy every palate.
Dim sum menus are a symphony of flavors and textures, an invitation to explore diverse ingredients wrapped in tradition and culture. And when you ask again, “what is dim sum?” remember it’s also an opportunity to engage with communal dining etiquette, from selecting tea to refilling others’ cups before your own.
In essence, dim sum is not just about food, but also about respect, sharing, and community.