I’ve been going to dim sum restaurants for as long as I can remember – most were unassuming on the outside, with menus and daily specials plastered on the windows and an “Open” sign that never seemed to stop flickering. For almost every day of summer break, my sister and I would walk with our grandmother to our usual restaurant, smile and wave hello to the same waitresses, and catch up with the regulars. But if relatives were visiting from out of town, my parents would make reservations at upscale dim sum restaurants – those had enough tables to fill a ballroom, complemented with covered chairs and expensive china. Nevertheless, the comforting cacophony of clinking teacups, rolling steamer carts, and everyday conversation always remained the same.
Dim sum means “touch the heart”
What exactly is dim sum? The phrase “dim sum” actually refers to a variety of small-portion Chinese dishes that are eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner (small dishes that are meant to “touch the heart”, but not sate one’s appetite). These dishes are commonly associated with Cantonese cuisine and with an older tradition known as “yum cha”, literally meaning to drink tea. Yum cha generally refers to the morning/early afternoon practice of going out to eat dim sum and drinking tea (both are equally important!). And as with any food ritual, proper etiquette is deeply ingrained in the practice of yum cha. Upon reading an article on the rules of yum cha, I was pleased to see how many I’d simply picked up from years and years of (delicious) practice.
But more on the food: dim sum restaurants offer a wide range of textures and flavors in their dishes! Steamed, deep-fried, or baked dishes are very common in dim sum. For example, you’ll often see stacks of bamboo steamers carrying various dishes on push carts moving throughout the dim sum restaurant (it’s always exhilarating to see which dish will be revealed at the table). There’s no set order to which dim sum dishes must be eaten, so feel free to interchange between sweet and savory dishes regularly. Some (very) general categories of dishes might include filled steamed rice noodle rolls, steamed buns, deep-fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, along with numerous meat and vegetable dishes. I’ve listed some of my go-to yum cha orders below:
What are some dim sum dishes?
- Clay pot rice (w/ spareribs or chicken)
- This dish appears to be simple (rice, soy sauce, some protein, and vegetables), but steaming the rice in a clay pot gives the dish its signature crispy bottom. The flavorful rice complements almost every other dish on this list, and thus is a great way to start off the meal (if it arrives in that order, of course!).
- Link to a recipe: Hong Kong Style Clay Pot Rice Bowl
- Bean curd (tofu skin) roll
- These are generally filled with pork, and sliced vegetables (carrot, mushroom, bamboo shoots). Finally, they’re steamed with a delicious umami sauce. Always make sure to get the server to cut these in half to make for an easier eating experience.
- Link to a recipe: Beancurd Skin Roll (腐皮捲)
- Filled eggplant
- This delicious dish pairs amazingly with rice – steamed Chinese eggplant with a shrimp and pork filling. Top it off with a sauce made from oyster sauce, sugar, soy sauce, and garlic.
- Link to a recipe: Chinese Stuffed Eggplant
- Plain steamed rice rolls (or get one with a filling!)
- These are usually served with several types of sauces – sweet soy sauce to cover, along with hoisin sauce and sesame sauce on the side. Common types of filling include beef, shrimp, Chinese doughnut (or youtiao), and mushroom.
- Link to a recipe: Homemade Cheung Fun (Steamed Rice Noodle Rolls)
- Taro dumpling
- Finally, a deep-fried dish! The taro dumpling has an outer shell made of taro (the outside of which becomes very light and crisp), and usually filled with ground pork. Again, ask the server to cut these in half so you can share some with your friends/family.
- Link to a recipe: The Best Taro Root Dumplings Recipe
- Char siu bao (BBQ pork bun)
- Steamed, fluffy buns (bao) filled with diced Cantonese-style barbecue pork (char siu). These can also be baked and glazed (but the steamed version is more traditional for dim sum).
- Link to a recipe: Steamed BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao) Recipe
- Egg tart
- This is the only sweet dish that I order during yum cha (although we often order multiple plates of them). While there are a lot of variations of egg custard tarts all over the world, Hong Kong-style egg tarts (or dan tat in Cantonese) are the most common version found in dim sum restaurants. Each plate usually comes with three egg tarts, so order more if you’re dining with a larger group!
- Link to a recipe: Hong Kong Egg Tarts (Chinese Dim Sum/Pastry)
- Siumaai (or Shumai)
- This dish consists of steamed dumplings filled with seasoned ground pork, chopped shrimp, Chinese black mushroom, and green onion. Finally, they’re topped with crab roe, truffle (if you’re fancy), or mushroom.
- Link to a recipe: Cantonese Shumai (Siu Mai, 燒賣)
- Phoenix claws
- This is a very common dim sum dish found in dim sum restaurants, consisting of steamed chicken feet and marinated in a delicious sauce flavored with douchi (Chinese fermented soybeans). I particularly love the imaginative name and the eating experience is half the fun of the dish!
- Link to a recipe: Phoenix Claws (Chicken Feet) – 鳳爪
With these recommendations, go forth and yum cha!