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 brunch restaurants have a wide variety of dishes, usually several dozen. Among the standard fare of dim sum are the following:
- Gao, or Dumpling : Jiao zi is a standard in most tea-houses. They are made of ingredients wrapped in a translucent rice flour or wheat starch skin, and are different from jiaozi found in other parts of China. Though common, steamed rice-flour skins are quite difficult to make. Thus, it is a good demonstration of the chef’s artistry to make these translucent dumplings. There are also dumplings with vegetarian ingredients, such as tofu and pickled cabbage.
- Har gow (shrimp dumplings) (蝦餃 ) – a delicate steamed dumpling with whole or chopped-up shrimp filling and thin wheat starch skin.
- Teochew-style dumplings (潮州粉果 ) – a dumpling said to have originated from the Chaozhou (Teochew) prefecture of eastern Guangdong province, it contains peanuts, garlic, chives, pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms in a thick dumpling wrapper made from glutinous rice flour or Tang flour. It is usually served with a small dish of chilli oil.
- Guotie (pot stickers) (鍋貼) – Northern Chinese style of dumpling (steamed and then pan-fried jiaozi), usually with meat and cabbage filling. Note that although potstickers are sometimes served in dim sum restaurants, they are not considered traditional Cantonese dim sum.
- Shaomai (燒賣 ) – small steamed dumplings with either pork, prawns or both inside a thin wheat flour wrapper. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.
- Haam Seoi Gaau (鹹水餃 , salt-water (i.e. savoury) stuffed-dumpling, alternatively 鹹水角 ) – deep fried oval-shaped dumpling made with rice-flour and filled with pork and chopped vegetables. The rice-flour surrounding is sweet and sticky, while the inside is slightly salty.
- Dumpling soup (灌湯餃> ) – soup with one or two big dumplings.
- Baozi – baked or steamed, these fluffy buns made from wheat flour are filled with food items ranging from meat to vegetables to sweet bean pastes.
- Char siu baau (叉燒包 ) – the most popular bun with a Cantonese barbecued pork filling. It can be either steamed to be fluffy and white or baked with a light sugar glaze to produce a smooth golden-brown crust.
- Shanghai steamed buns (上海小籠包 ) – these dumplings are filled with meat or seafood and are famous for their flavour and rich broth inside. These dumplings are originally Shanghainese so they are not considered traditional Cantonese dim sum. They are typically sold with pork as a filling.
- Mantou (饅頭 ) – plain steamed bun like cha siu baau without filling stuff.
- Phoenix claws (鳳爪 ) – these are chicken feet, deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed. This results in a texture that is light and fluffy (due to the frying), while moist and tender. Fung zau are typically dark red in color. One may also sometimes find plain steamed chicken feet served with a vinegar dipping sauce. This version is known as “White Cloud Phoenix Claws” (白雲鳳爪 ).
- Steamed meatball (牛肉球 ) – finely ground beef is shaped into balls and then steamed with preserved orange peel and served on top of a thin bean-curd skin.
- Spare ribs – in the west, it is mostly known as spare ribs collectively. In the east, it is Char siu when roasted red, or (排骨 ) when roasted black. It is typically steamed with douchi or fermented black beans and sometimes sliced chilli.
- Lotus leaf rice (糯米雞 ) – glutinous rice is wrapped in a lotus leaf into a triangular or rectangular shape. It contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, crispy water chestnut, and meat (usually pork and chicken). These ingredients are steamed with the rice and although the leaf is not eaten, its flavour is infused during the steaming. Lo mai gai is a kind of rice dumpling. A similar but lighter variant is known as “Pearl Chicken” (珍珠雞 ).
- Congee (粥 ) – thick, sticky rice porridge served with different savoury items. The porridge one will see most often is “Duck Egg and Pork Porridge” (皮蛋瘦肉粥 )
- Sou (酥 ) – a type of flaky pastry. Char siu is one of the most common ingredient used in dim sum style sou. Another common pastry seen in restaurants are called “Salty Pastry” (鹹水角 ) which is made with flour and seasoned pork.
- Taro dumpling (芋角 ) – this is made with mashed taro, stuffed with diced shiitake mushrooms, shrimp and pork, deep-fried in crispy batter.
- Crispy fried squid (魷魚鬚) – similar to fried calamari, the battered squid is deep-fried. A variation of this dish may be prepared with a salt and pepper mix. In some dim sum restaurants, octopus is used instead of squid.
- Rolls (捲 )
- Egg roll (春捲 ) – a roll consisting of various types of vegetables — such as sliced carrot, cabbage, mushroom and wood ear fungus — and sometimes meat are rolled inside a thin flour skin and deep fried.
- Rice noodle rolls or coeng fan (腸粉 ) – these are wide rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats or vegetables inside but can be served without any filling. Rice noodle rolls are fried after they are steamed and then sprinkled with sesame seeds. Popular fillings include beef, dough fritter, shrimp, and barbecued pork. Often topped with a sweetened soy sauce.
- Tofu skin roll (腐皮捲 ) – a roll made of tofu skin
- Cakes (糕 )
- Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕 ): cakes are made from mashed daikon radish mixed with bits of dried shrimp and pork sausage that are steamed and then cut into slices and pan-fried.
- Taro cake (芋頭糕 ): cakes made of taro.
- Water chestnut cake (馬蹄糕 ): cakes made of crispy water chestnut. It is mostly see-through and clear. Some restaurants also serve a variation of water chestnut cake made with bamboo juice.
- Chien chang go (千層糕 ): “Thousand-layer cake”, a dim sum dessert made up of many layers of sweet egg dough.
- Egg tart (蛋撻 ): composed of a base made from either a flaky puff pastry type dough or a type of non-flaky cookie dough with an egg custard filling, which is then baked. Some high class restaurants put bird’s nest on top of the custard. In other places egg tarts can be made of a crust and a filling of egg whites or a crust with egg yolks. Egg tarts now come in a variety of different flavours, taro, coffee, and strawberry for example. 葡撻 (po taat) is a Portuguese styled egg custard, common in Hong Kong, with origins in Macau, and has a layer of burnt sugar on the surface.
- Jin deui or Matuan (煎堆 or 麻糰): Especially popular at Chinese New Year, a chewy dough filled with red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and deep fried.
- Dou fu fa (豆腐花): A dessert consisting of silky tofu served with a sweet ginger or jasmine flavoured syrup.
- Mango pudding (芒果布甸 ): A sweet, rich mango-flavoured pudding usually with large chunks of fresh mango; often served with a topping of evaporated milk.
- Sweet cream buns (奶皇包 ): Steamed buns with milk custard filling.
- Malay Steamed Sponge Cake (馬拉糕 ): A very soft steamed sponge cake flavoured with molasses.
- Longan Tofu: almond-flavoured tofu served with longans, usually cold.
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.
Refer also to Yum Cha
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 Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Australia, 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.