What is Dim Sum? All You Ever Wanted to Know About Traditional Chinese Food
What is dim sum? All you ever wanted to know about traditional Chinese food
…but you didn’t know who to ask!
If you’ve been reading our articles and following our YouTube channel, you’ll know that Kevin and I like to make the most of our travels including food. This time we’re moving onto the topic of Dim Sum or Yum Cha! What is dim sum, you might wonder. This post is all about things you ever wanted to know about the traditional Chinese food Dim Sum but were too afraid to ask a friend or a work colleague or simply didn’t know who to ask.
For us, trying food of a country we’re visiting contributes to our overall experience. But I never really told you much about the food we eat every day, without leaving the UK and even leaving London. Ever heard or wondered what is Dim Sum?
If you’re fascinated about the Far East just as much as I am, you will find this very useful and perhaps it may be a good starting point for some of you. Let’s get started!
How I discovered Dim Sum
It wasn’t that long ago when I found out about it myself. Maybe 5-6 years ago when I went out to Chinatown in London. Back then, I felt quite clueless about where to go and what to eat (wonder if you feel the same way like me back then). So, naturally, my first question was: What is dim sum?
Luckily, finding information online these days is a lot easier and you can literally find anything you’re interested in, including the answer to my question on what is dim sum. I did some research but to be honest, I didn’t really get too far as the articles about dim sum weren’t too good.
All in all, a few years ago I only knew a few popular Japanese dishes (also partly thanks to my Japanese teacher and interest in the culture) and the typical Chinese takeaway dishes. So sad as I cannot tell you how much I had been missing out!
What is Dim Sum?
So, what is dim sum anyway and how do you eat it? I tried dim sum for the first time with very limited knowledge about it but I gradually improved when I started doing London meetups and even more when I met Kevin. Thanks to him, his lovely family, our trip to China and going travelling for the first, second and third time – all that contributed to having frequent contact with the traditional Chinese food.
The Concept of Chinese Dim Sum Explained
If you want to know what is dim sum, let’s covered the basics. Dim sum is a type of Chinese cuisine, especially popular in Chinese Cantonese cuisine that originated in the Southern China.
It’s a bite-size food, usually prepared on small plates and piled up bamboo steamer baskets that’s shared between the people at a table, a bit like being served several sharing platters throughout the course of the meal.
If you get invited to Yum Cha or Dim Sum, consider yourself lucky! You can be almost certain it’s going to be a big family get-together and most likely involves some form of celebration. Never, ever, turn it down as you will regret it. The food served at Dim Sum is mouth-watering to say the least!
Dim Sum or Yum Cha?
Remember that Dim Sum refers to a large variety of shareable dishes and not a single dish. It’s a name for meal. Historically, Dim Sum or Yum Cha is more of a morning or lunch time with some disputing that it was Dim Sum that was the natural predecessor to brunch. Ha! I wonder…
At dim sum, you can find anything from dumplings, steam buns, snacks, desserts and anything you can think of that is steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried, boiled etc.
Dim Sum or Yum Cha is the traditional Chinese food you won’t find in the typical Chinese takeaways known for serving you MSG and gluten-packed ready-made takeaway dinner in plastic lunch boxes for a fiver.
If I really had to compare it to the food you may be familiar with, it would be a very remote comparison to the Spanish tapas. Although it’s not really, but that’s probably the closest you can ever get to. Feel free to add a better comparison if you think this one is pretty lame, though.
Invited to a Dim Sum? Food Type and Understanding Chinese
Going back to answering what is dim sum, it’s a variety of steamed and fried food which ranges from steamed dumplings to steamed buns to chicken feet dim sum dishes. The vast majority is really tasty but not all so it’s good to know what’s on dim sum menu.
It helps if you speak Chinese, too but if you’re trying a dim sum restaurant in London, people of course will speak fluent English if they are BBC or British Born Chinese (not to confuse with the TV). Well, the Western Chinese dim sum restaurants will offer good dim sum too but they are usually not so authentic and can be a bit limited in choice I find. Expect more of a premium bill, too!
If you want to make the most of it, bring a bunch of friends along so you can order lots of smaller dishes and everyone can pick smaller quantity of anything that’s on the table. Personally – I freaking love it! My favourite about dim sum? Order as much as you like, there’s always someone with a bigger appetite that will clean up the table and you know THAT person.
What Does Dim Sum Mean
Now that you know what is dim sum, let’s move on to dim sum meaning. In case you’re not familiar with Cantonese Chinese, let me cover the basics for you. Mandarin Chinese is the Chinese that’s used by the vast majority of Chinese people in mainland China, Singapore , Taiwan and so on.
In a nutshell and with some oversimplification, Cantonese Chinese is used by the majority of Chinese people who live in Hong Kong and those that have been living in the Western countries for a few decades and even generations. You’ll often hear them speaking Cantonese in the Chinese dim sum restaurants, Chinese supermarkets and of course Chinatown.
Dim Sum Meaning
Dim sum menu includes fully cooked dishes along with Chinese tea hence why dim sum is often referred to as yum cha (飲茶) which literally translates to ‘drink tea’ in Cantonese. This phrase is also associated with ‘going for dim sum’ so it’s kind of interchangeable. Now you know it!
Yum Cha or Dim Sum is especially popular in Cantonese-speaking regions, that is Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau and in countries with significant Chinese communities.
The history of the Traditional Chinese Food Dim Sum
Love history? Now that you know what is dim sum and what does dim sum mean, I’m going to give you a little history class. I always thought it wasn’t my thing until I discovered that World History is way more fascinating that European history alone. Even better when you factor in food part! Right, let me tell you a little bit about the history of traditional Chinese food Dim Sum then.
Back in the day, Silk Road had a huge impact on the trade between Europe and Asia. And although it has lost its value, China is doing its best to revive it now. Why? This ancient route that linked two continents facilitated trade between Mediterranean and East China.
As you can imagine, it was quite a lengthy trip so a lot of traders would need to have a comfy stopover for a cup of tea or Yum Cha (literally meaning ‘drink tea’) which triggered the Tea Houses and the business around it. The basic Law of Supply and Demand!
Chinese Tea Houses Gave the Beginning to Chinese Dim Sum Houses
Ok, without going into too much detail on Economics, these tea stopovers were a great foundation for combining snacks with tea, like green tea which as you know now, aids digestion (if you’re not following my posts, I suggest you’d better start right now! Here’s more about the benefits of drinking matcha green tea, I’ve spent quite a while writing this post so you can use a shortcut and have it all ready for you).
The history of Yum Cha tradition goes back to Xianfeng Emperor in XIX century who called venues serving tea as ‘Yi Li Guan’ meaning 1 cent house (一厘馆). Essentially, these places were great for gossiping or ‘tea talk’ and eventually grew to form their own type of restaurant. With the gossiping part, I don’t think anything has changed!
That’s how the traditional Chinese food Dim Sum or Yum Cha started in a nutshell. Ever heard of the Opium Wars? This is so fascinating and happened around that time. One of the reasons why Brits drink their tea so much and Hong Kong was colonised by the British. After all, Dim Sum with tea is just as important for the Cantonese Chinese people as the Afternoon Tea for the British people – can’t wait to visit Hong Kong!
Dim Sum Restaurants Now
Fast forward a few centuries and Dim Sum is ever popular and going global. Dim Sum is considered a culinary art and Dim Sum chef is actually a very skilled profession. Surprised? After seeing hundreds of different dishes, all made with phenomenal precision and served at Dim Sum restaurants in London, China and elsewhere in the world, I’m not anymore.
Bear in mind that some places make Yum Cha ready for as early as 5 am and in some parts of China this usually happens after the elderly members of the community finish their morning exercise routine. What a spirit! I’m only half way through my sleep when they’re practising their tai chi and then enjoying their food…
Anyway, as you would expect, since it’s not a dinner type of food, traditional Dim Sum restaurants would stop serving it no later than 4 pm but in London Chinatown you will find many that serve Dim Sum all day long, just look for the notice on the Chinese restaurant display.
How to Eat Dim Sum
Well, first of all, watch what’s happening around you. When it comes to drinking tea at Dim Sum, make sure you pour tea for others first rather than starting with yourself. Well, that’s kind of self-explanatory as you would do it in any other culture. Someone will probably do it for you but if not, start with serving people sitting to your left side.
When pouring a tea from the teapot to a tea cup, don’t fill it right to the top as this is considered rude. Instead, follow the 80% rule when filling up the cup. I don’t know the nitty gritty of the finger tapping but you can read more about it.
As for food, you are meant to use chopsticks. Start your training now if you’re not comfortable enough. Joking, if you look like me you will probably be forgiven but it just looks better on you and shows your respect for the culture.
You can grab a pair of chopsticks from most larger supermarkets, definitely all Asian supermarkets and if you’re out of luck, try Amazon, they have quite a few options if you want to buy chopsticks, from wooden to plastic to silver ones, thinner at the bottom to more round ones.
Although I’ve been using chopsticks for the past few years now, I still sometimes feel that my chopsticks grabbing skills aren’t as good as they should be. So, to avoid embarrassment when picking out your steamed buns, dumplings or prawns in rice flower that aren’t exactly easy to move to your plate, try a few tricks at home, like picking single grains of rice or spaghetti noodles.
Joking! I’m sure you will be fine. Plus, there may be a few spoons around the table anyway. As for the dishes, they often come with a variety of sauces, like soy sauce for you dip your steamed or fried food in. Out of courtesy, dip your food in the sauce first and then bite, it’s just common courtesy.
As you can imagine, you wouldn’t really want to eat someone’s saliva dipped in the same sauce, would you?
Dim sum vs Dim Sim
Is Dim sum and Dim Sim the same thing? Frankly speaking, no. Dim Sum or Yum Cha is what I’ve just described, a meal served during morning to early afternoon hours which consists of several shareable dishes, served on small plates and bamboo steamers along with tea. This I hope, you know already.
On the other hand, Dim Sim is a single dish that looks like part of Dim Sum’s cylinder-shaped, pork meat and vegetable stuffed open face dumplings wrapped in a pastry called Siu Mai.
Whilst Siu Mai and Dim Sim may look almost the same to you, they have different ingredients. Dim Sim is a very popular dish in Australia (I think it originates from there, too) and come with various fillings like pork and cabbage which can be steamed or fried. So Dim Sum and Dim Sim are too different things.
Dim Sum Menu – Chinese Characters or English?
This part is super exciting to me. I’m sure you want to know what’s on the Dim Sum menu. Half of the time I don’t know myself! Especially if you go to a place where the menu is all in Chinese. Even with my Japanese Kanji characters knowledge (and it’s pretty poor, I’m afraid) I would struggle bad.
Luckily, many Western places have Dim Sum Menu in English as well but not if you go to the good Dim Sum restaurant catering mainly towards Chinese people. Oh well, just tag a few Chinese friends along. Or get invited to a Dim Sum restaurant and this will all be ordered for you.
However, if you feel you want to venture out on your own, there are a few dishes on the Dim Sum Menu that you shouldn’t miss out on. They are good to order whether it’s Dim Sum brunch or Dim Sum dinner as the menu usually stays the same, especially if it’s a restaurant serving All Day Sim Sum.
Best Dim Sum Dishes
Right, I’m not a chef and I’m certainly not Chinese so I can only tell you what I like. Remember, it’s a very subjective opinion but since Kevin and I like to refer ourselves as foodies because we do try an awful lot of various dishes, I would like to think that I can tell what’s good and what’s not.
Here’s my personal favourite dim sum dishes list:
Har Gow (蝦餃) – Chinese Shrimp Dumplings
Har Gow are Chinese Steamed Dumplings with Prawns, served on the bamboo steamer baskets. They are nothing less but heavenly and I totally recommend them. Har Gow are wrapped in a thin and translucent rice skin and have a mild flavour.
I don’t really pay too much attention to it but apparently Dim Sum chefs are judged on them so next time you choose a Dim Sum restaurant, order Har Gow and see if these dumplings have at least seven (or more) pleats imprinted on them to form a beautiful shape.
Don’t forget to dip them in soy sauce.
Siu Mai, Shumai or Siew Mai (烧卖) – Open-faced steamed pork dumplings
Siu Mai is one of my favourite Dim Sum dishes and I could have them every day. With my Slavic heritage, you can imagine that I get my cravings for dumplings and these ones are delicious.
There are different writing variations for Siu Mai so you may encounter Siew Mai or Shumai but they are all the same. Siu Mai is a dish consisting of open-face steamed dumplings filled with minced pork and prawns and often other ingredients seasoning, beautifully wrapped up in wonton sheets.
They are pretty enough just to stare at them so wait till you taste them! If you like sesame oil and soy sauce, have them by your side for dipping Siu Mai.
Snow Pea Leaves Dumplings (韭菜餃)
I know, I know, you’re going to tell me I’m obsessed with dumplings! Well, I am – they are irresistible because of their taste and cute shape. Try Snow Pea Dumplings and you will know what I mean. Snow Pea Leaves Dumplings resemble Har Gow as they are also quite transparent.
I can’t get over their translucent rice wrapping – it’s very different from the Polish dumplings as you can see exactly what a dumpling is filled with. In fact, different types of dumplings can be seen in many cuisines across the globe. I’m not sure if Gao Choi Gao is the same dish but if you need the Chinese name, that’s the closest match.
Or even better, try the 18-fold steamed soup dumplings called xiaolong bao. They are insanely good and burst in your mouth! You can read more about xiaolong bao or xiao long bao (小籠包 both forms are correct) here if you haven’t tried them yet!
Lo Ma Gai or Nor Mai Gai (糯米雞) – Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf
OMG! Don’t get me started on the sticky rice! It’s the badass of all dim sum dishes and you can often see it served outside the dim sum menu. Shame on you if you haven’t tried it if you thought it didn’t look appealing or had enough flavour.
But you’re forgiven when you try it once you’ve read this article (till the end, that means!). It’s a mixture of glutinous rice, chicken, Chinese sausage, Chinese black mushrooms and occasionally you might find shrimp or salted egg, all wrapped up in the dried lotus leaf and steamed.
Honestly? It’s so tasty! But there’s one ingredient that makes it so good and it is Chinese pork sausage! I may not be a food connoisseur but I can guarantee you that you’ll love it. Why? If you like jamón serrano, jamón iberico, fuet or chorizo, and personally I don’t know anyone who doesn’t, Chinese sausage called lap cheong (look for the sign 腊肠) will blow your mind!
Har Cheung (蝦腸) – Prawn Rice Noodle Roll
Another signature dim sum dish which you’ll fall for inevitably. Rice noodle roll is sometimes referred to as steamed rice roll but essentially, it’s the same dish which looks like the Western rolled pancakes!
However, they have savoury taste. These rice noodles are usually quite slippery so bear that in mind when you’re reaching out for one at a table of over 10 people! Although you can pick different filling, like char siu pork, beef, chicken with bitter melon or other veggies, prawn rice noodle rolls have no equal, especially when dipped in the sweet soy sauce it comes with!
On that note, if you want another good variation, try dried shrimp scallion noodle rolls or chung fah har mai cheung in Chinese, they’re really yummy too.
I don’t take pictures of food when there’s a group of 10-15 at each table, it’s just quite rude. Instead, I prefer to enjoy the company and the conversation so the pictures I took myself are usually rushed and aren’t exactly the best! I suggest you do the same. Aside from that, here are a few more dim sum dishes I’m sure you will really enjoy.
Other Dim Sum Dishes worth trying
There are a few more dim sum dishes I think you should give a go like Shanghai dumplings, fried taro croquette (wu gok 芋角), or steamed pork tripe, all of them will delight your palate. The last one, steamed beef tripe which has quite a similar taste to the Polish beef tripe soup called flaki or flaczki. No wonder I love Chinese food so much – I have found some culinary similarities which I’m planning to share with you soon.
Lastly, if you are brave, try chicken feet with black bean sauce or marinated in rice vinegar served cold. Right, I think this is really going to test your tolerance towards different foods! My first impression was: yuck! Never trying it again because of its unusual and totally unexpected chewy and crispy texture but I gave into it, eventually!
Dim Sum Desserts
Time for desserts. There are a few you might like which I find delicious. Coconut mousse (椰汁糕) is one of them, thanks to its mildly sweetened, jellylike texture. If I was to name my favourite, it would be steamed cream custard buns and its deep-fried version, crispy cream custard buns. I simply can’t get enough of them and I urge you to try them!
Did I mention anything about the egg custard tarts? If you’ve been to Portugal and tried famous pastel de nata in Lisbon, then you’d know that Portuguese and Cantonese cuisine have something in common, too.
Fried and steamed sesame balls are very good, too. If you like mochi or coconut balls, you will really enjoy snacking on them. Just remember not to have too much of it as unlike the Western desserts, East Asian desserts are made with glutinous rice flour and you honestly don’t need much to fill you up.
Dim Sum Chinatown – Should You Go On Your Own?
If you’re up for Dim Sum, try Dim Sum in Chinatown as it caters towards Chinese. The trouble is, it might take a while if the place is good. If you can get over it, that’s fine. I don’t know anything about the Dim Sum in Chinatown in the US but there are quite a few good Dim Sum Restaurants in London Chinatown and elsewhere in London and luckily you can try dim sum without speaking Chinese although it might help a friend what they recommend.
However, now that I’ve listed the dishes which I’m quite comfortable you’d like too, there’s no need. Just prepare the names beforehand so there’s no surprise.
How to Order Dim Sum
Right, time for some decision-making! Wondering how to order dim sum? There are two main ways of ordering dim sum at a dim sum restaurant. One, more traditional, is ordering food from the carts which will pass you table. It’s still very common in places like Hong Kong but places in the West have adopted the more modern approach with the checklist.
In the more typical dim sum restaurants catering towards Chinese clientele it’s very typical to be given a checklist which is usually in Chinese only. So how do you order dim sum dishes in that case? Ask a waiter or a waitress for a checklist with dishes in English or need be, a menu with pictures so you can decide based on that. Simple!
But, honestly, bring someone along if you can, it’s more fun and you won’t feel excluded if you’re in the authentic dim sum restaurant that caters mainly Chinese people. This, however, won’t be a problem if you go to more luxurious restaurant like Hutong in Shard, London – that’s if the bill is the last thing on your list to worry about!
How to Make Dim Sum
You must be thinking how to make dim sum and if it’s easy to do it. Although I’m not an expert, I can tell you one thing I know. Making dim sum iss not easy! I can cook some Western and Eastern dishes and honestly, Western food is so much easier to prepare.
Unless you are really committed to and are passionate about mastering your cooking skills, I would not recommend you to learn how to make dim sum. This probably explains why dim sum restaurants in London are always busy.
Since dim sum is not limited to a single dish but to a wide variety of dishes, you can start with the single dim sum dishes. Why not go to the Asian supermarket, ideally Chinese supermarket and pick what you need from there? What you need is a dim sum steamer, preferably a 2-tier bamboo steamer. You should be able to get it from the Asian supermarket and if you don’t, try Amazon for dim sum steamers.
Trying Dim Sum in London
London is an ideal place when it comes to food and I totally recommend that anyone who wants to try dim sum to try dim sum in London. The most obvious place would be dim sum restaurants in Chinatown in London but if you feel intimidated by how busy it is, then there are a few other places.
Some high-end restaurants advertise themselves as restaurants selling best dim sum in London. Whilst the quality of food is often very good, I cannot tell you whether they are actually the best since some dim sum restaurants in London may cater towards Western taste buds and their menu may not have the same dim sum dishes. However, trying dim sum in London Chinatown means you are not going to stay there the whole day as money is to be made there!
If you’re thinking of trying it for the first time and combining it with a special occasion, try Hakkasan, Yauatcha, Min Jiang or Hutong. First, they offer top-notch customer service, two, the views are amazing and three, the food tastes really good.
Cantonese Dim Sum vs Japanese Dim Sum
Did you know that you can have a Japanese Dim Sum too? They are quite popular in Japan! If you happen to go, you should check out our posts about Japan, some places are just insane. Anyway, there are some differences between Cantonese style Dim Sum and Japanese Dim Sum. Now that I’ve listed the Chinese Dim Sum dishes before, let’s more to the Japanese Dim Sum dishes.
Ready to Answer What is Dim Sum? Final Notes
I feel that after reading this article you feel a little more comfortable with the concept of dim sum and if anyone asks you what is dim sum, you will give them a history and cooking lesson – just kidding, there’s a lot more to it but I think we’ve covered the basics of dim sum.
Make sure to save this page somewhere handy for when you’re in a dim sum restaurant next. It will be very useful when it comes to ordering food from the Chinese dim sum menu! And most importantly, remember to say Sec Fan (食飯) at a dinner table before you start diving into your dim sum dishes.
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