One of China's most beloved imports, dim sum are tiny presents for the mouth and the eyes. These petite dumplings come complete with their own mythology; Asian foods expert Thy Tran helps unravel the secrets of dim sum and shares her own short list of these classic Cantonese treats.
On weekends, Chinese families around the world flock to dim sum restaurants to savor a never-ending stream of tea, bite-sized delights, and lively conversation. The phrase dim sum refers to a “point on the heart” or something that touches “the heart’s delight” -a perfect name for that elation of seeing your favorite dumplings appear by your table. The sheer variety of dishes and a leisurely pace make dim sum the perfect choice for brunch. For those unfamiliar with the experience--cavernous dining rooms packed wall to wall, the sing-song call of dim sum servers, the din of conversation, the chaos of dishes, the rattle of carts--entering a dim sum restaurant can be an overload of the senses. Remembering a few basic tips can ease the confusion and guide you through one of the greatest culinary traditions in the world.
The ideal time to arrive for dim sum is between 10:30 AM and 11:30 AM, early enough to miss the discouraging lines but late enough to catch the better dishes that the chefs save for peak crowds. If you forget to reserve a table for Saturday or Sunday, be prepared to wait at least an hour. Insiders know the best tables are the ones closest to the kitchen. That table far in the corner may have a great view, but whatever dumplings eventually make their way to you there will probably be well cooled.
The Cantonese call dim sum yum cha, or “drinking tea”. The teahouses of southern China refined the art of serving dumplings, pastries, and other small dishes with a leisurely pot of tea. Despite an emphasis on the abundance and variety of food, tea is still the most important facet of dim sum. A hot, strong brew will clear the palate and keep the conversation flowing.
Before you even settle into your seat, the server will ask what kind of tea the table would like. If you hesitate, you’ll be delegated a pot of clean and fragrant jasmine tea, good for clearing the palate and a well-rounded match for intensely flavored, spicy foods.
For more flavor, though, try one of the varieties traditionally served with dim sum. The Cantonese especially love bo lei, also known as pu erh, for its robust flavor and ability to aid digestion. A golden infusion of chrysanthemum blossoms, or guk fah, helps clear the palate. Many diners like to blend chrysanthemum with bo lei to make another dim sum favorite, guk bo. Try light and fresh lung ching, or Dragon Well, one of China’s premier green teas. A faintly bitter oolong, soi sin, is the double-espresso version of wake-up tea, especially good for early morning dim sum.
While you’re keeping an eye on the never-ending parade of food, also check that everyone’s cup brims with hot tea. As a rule of thumb, no one should have to ask for a refill. As a sign of respect, always pour for others before yourself. In a bustling restaurant, with servers rushed and conversations layered, two polite but silent signals have developed. Opening or turning over the lid of your teapot conveys that your table needs more tea, while tapping four fingers on the table says thank you without interrupting.
Enjoying dim sum
The key to dim sum is pacing. Dim sum was designed to be a relaxing meal, as meandering and exploratory as the conversation itself. Keep in mind that old saying about your eyes being bigger than your stomach. Too many dishes hurriedly gathered on the table leads only to cold dumplings, blurred tastes, and wasted food. Try to vary the texture and flavors: contrast crisp spring rolls and spicy shrimp with silky rice noodle sheets and mild, custard-like taro cakes.
Feel free to point at the desired dishes or to ask for a peek at the dumplings beneath steamer lids and plate covers. If the chicken feet are not for you, simply smile and shake your head. If, on the other hand, you can spot the spareribs from across the room, you won’t be out of order sauntering up the aisle to lay claim to your share. You can also order from the menu. Ordering dim sum directly counts as cheating for some and heresy for others. But if you’re keeping track of the minutes, this will guarantee a timely exit. Other Ã la carte items, such as braised noodles or stir-fried greens, can help balance the meal and fill the occasional stretches between carts.
Since pork and shrimp play starring roles in many dishes, vegetarians should seek houses that carry a repertoire of vegetarian dim sum. Let the staff know you’d like non-meat dishes diverted to your table or order from the menu.
At the table you will usually find cruets of soy sauce, vinegar and hot sauce. Strictly speaking, additional flavoring is discouraged since diners and chefs alike assume good food does not require any embellishment. Nowadays, just about everyone reaches for a condiment or two. Many dim sum dishes are subtle in their seasonings, so do use a light hand with the sauces and dips. The merest touch of soy sauce and hot oil will complement most dumplings while a dash of vinegar will cut through grease and heavier flavors.
A selection of dim sum
The Chinese have developed over 2000 dishes for dim sum, while chefs in cities far-flung continue to innovate. A popular teahouse may tempt you with nearly 100 different treats on a busy day. Steamed spare ribs with black beans, braised chicken feet, and fried turnip cakes are traditional favorites, but newer dishes like seaweed salad, bacon-wrapped shrimp, and soft-shell crab claim a loyal following as well. For the uninitiated or the easily overwhelmed, here’s a very basic list of some classic dumplings and other dim sum offered by most teahouses.
Shrimp dumplings (har gau)Tender, semi-translucent dough pleated in a distinctive half-moon shape around a shrimp filling and then steamed. Dedicated dim sum diners judge a teahouse by the quality of its har gau.
Pork dumplings (siu mai) Small, round steamed dumplings with a juicy, gingery pork and shrimp filling peeking though the gathers of a thin wrapper. Another benchmark for dim sum teahouses.
Potstickers (wor tip or gau ji)These familiar steamed and pan-seared appetizers are heartier than most other dim sum dumplings. They have a thicker dough enclosing a pork and shrimp filling.
Chive dumplings (gau choi gau)Flat and round, with a chewy dough thin enough to reveal a delicate green color on top and seared to a crisp on the other side. One variation includes scallops.
Steamed buns with roast pork (char siu bau)Soft, fluffy white rolls filled with morsels of sweet, red-glazed roast pork.
Baked buns with roast pork (guk char siu bau)Roast pork enclosed in a yeasted dough and baked golden brown.
Curried beef crescents (gah li au so)Miniature turnovers with extremely flaky dough and a curried beef filling reveals culinary influences from afar.
Stuffed mushrooms (bok far)Mushroom caps filled with shrimp and bamboo shoots then steamed. Bok far means “a hundred flowers” for the mounded caps resemble open blossoms.
Spring rolls (chun geun)These flaky-crisp, finger-length rolls were the inspiration behind mega-sized American-style egg roll as well as the Vietnamese favorite of the same name. A filling of pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts is rolled a thin wrapper and then fried until golden brown.
Rice pearl balls (jun jui kau) Rolling small spheres of seasoned ground pork in uncooked kernels of glutinous rice before steaming them creates these pearly rice “dumplings”.
Lotus leaf rice packets (law mai gai)During steaming, the leaves of the lotus plant infuse their delicate flavor and aroma into a filling of glutinous rice studded with a variety of ingredients including chicken, roast pork, Chinese sausage, peanuts, and black mushrooms.Â
Custard tarts (don tot) Tender egg custard baked in a flaky crust, these delicate little sweets are a perfect ending with tea.
Citysearch San Francisco, June 1999