Become a dim sum restaurant expert with this beginner's guide on Cantonese cuisine. Find out about the cuisine's origin, the different delicious bites available & how to order from the menu!
What is Dim Sum?
In Chinese, the literal Dim Sum translation is to "touch the heart". The Chinese characters are 点心. It is a Cantonese food tradition of sitting down for bite-sized portions of food served in bamboo steamer baskets or on small plates.
Yum cha (饮茶) is also used interchangeably with the term dim sum. Yum cha (饮茶) in the Cantonese language, both literary and vernacular, literally means "drink tea", 饮 means "to drink", and 茶 means "tea".
The Chinese Way to Brunch
Locals traditionally eat dim sum during breakfast and lunchtime. It is served by restaurants usually up until 3 pm in most places. However, accommodating demand, most speciality restaurants in London Chinatown will operate until 4 pm or even 24 hours.
Coming in small portions, this is easy for family and friends to share at the table. You can also sample a variety of different plates in one sitting.
The first reference to dim sum was by a noble lady in the Tang Dynasty. She described the dishes as small snack plates between meals.
An ancient Chinese text records Lady Tang saying to her brother, "I am not ready yet. If you're hungry you can have some small plates."
This style of eating has existed since the Tang Dynasty.
Dim Sum Types
Generally, there are three main types; Fried, Steamed, and Sweet. Because of the different fillings, wrappers, and regional cooking methods, there are more than 2000 dishes. A master specializing in this type of Cantonese cuisine can spend years perfecting the cuisine and still not know how to make all the different dishes.
The typical dim sum menu will include a wide range of dumplings, steamed buns, and rice noodle rolls. These come in a variety of fillings such as prawns, chicken, and vegetables. We'll go over what to order from each category to order below.
Har Gow (蝦餃)
Har Gow is a type of steamed dumpling with shrimp. It is one of the most popular dim sum dishes to order in the steamed category. Har Gao is a crescent-shaped dumpling. Chefs make this translucent wrapper using starch and wheat flour. When steamed, the wrappers are smooth but have a stretchy exterior. The filling is a mixture of pork, shrimp, and bamboo shoots.
Siu Mai (燒賣)
This refers to a type of open-topped pork and shrimp dumpling. It is the second most popular dish after Har Gow. There are many variations of this type of steamed small plate but the most traditional Cantonese style Siu Mai has a filling of shrimp, ground, ginger, and mushroom. Siu Mai has a single pea, a bit of fish roe, or a cube of carrot garnished on top of it.
Xiao Long Bao (小笼包）
In the English language, Xiao Long Bao is otherwise known as soup dumplings. These chubby dumplings are filled with broth made from liquefied gelatin and chopped pork. Then, dim sum masters will crimp the top of the soup dumplings. They are sometimes also filled with crab meat instead.
Given the wide range of dishes available, first-time dim sum restaurant-goers for this type of Cantonese cuisine will usually just pick randomly or let a more experienced friend or family member order their dim sum.
Char Siu Bao (叉烧包)
Like Har Gow and Siu Mai, steamed barbecue pork buns are a must-try dish for anyone visiting a speciality restaurant for the first time. The sweet, barbecue pork filling is wrapped in white dough. Then, the buns are steamed before serving.
Cheung Fun (腸粉)
This refers to a steamed rice noodle roll with a variety of fillings. The standard options for these rice noodle rolls include barbecue pork, beef, shrimp, and scallops. You can also order plain Chueng fun, which would make this a good vegetarian option.
Fung Jau (鳳爪)
Chicken Feet also has the nickname Phoenix Claws. For a lot of foreigners, this is probably the most bizarre dish on the Cantonese dim sum menu. Firstly, the chefs will deep fry the chicken feet. Then, the chefs will braise and steam these until the meat is very soft. If you're feeling up for a mental challenge, try ordering chicken feet.
Lo Bak Gou (蘿蔔糕)
Turnip Cake is also called radish cake in English. This dim sum dish is especially popular during the Chinese New Year. Some restaurants will also serve turnip cake as a steamed dish. However, a lot of people prefer to have the fried version.
Ham Sui Gok (鹹水角)
This is a type of deep-fried glutinous rice dumpling. Its filling is a mixture of pork and chopped vegetables. This results in the wrapping being sweet and sticky, while the filling is slightly salty with a savoury twist.
Wu Gok (芋角)
Wu Gok is a type of deep-fried dim sum. In English, this is called taro root croquette. These have a crunchy mashed taro exterior with a stuffing made from diced mushrooms, shrimp, pork, and scallions.
Refers to steamed silky rice noodles, rolled around the fried dough, Youjagwai (油炸鬼). Typically doused in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or sesame paste and with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. It's heaven for any carb lover and even better it's also vegetarian!
Steamed Creamy Custard Bun (奶黄包)
This is a sweet-tasting steamed bun with a Chinese style custard filling. The main ingredients for this are eggs, milk, and flour.
Salted Egg Yolk Custard Buns (流沙包)
This is very similar to steamed creamy custard buns. However, the main ingredient includes salted egg and butter. This gives it a slightly sweet and salty and runny texture. Salted Egg Yolk Custard Buns is what makes the sweet plates from the three dim sum types to order from!
Egg Tarts (蛋挞)
It's a snack that made its way to China via Portuguese Macau. It is essentially a derivative of English custard. In addition, these flaky egg tarts are one of the four kings of the cuisine.
Here is a fun fact. Har Gow, Siu Mai, Char Siu Bao, and Egg tarts are considered the classic dishes of Cantonese cuisine. They are collectively known as The Four Heavenly Kings! 粤式点心四大天王: 蝦餃、燒賣、叉烧包和蛋挞.
Osmanthus Cake (桂花糕)
A traditional sweet-scented Chinese jelly made with glutinous rice flour, honey sweet-scented osmanthus, and rock sugar. It is one of the more traditional plates to try from Cantonese cuisine.
Mango Pudding (芒果布甸)
A sweet, rich mango-flavoured pudding that usually comes with large chunks of fresh mango. Evaporated milk is served on top of this dessert.
Jeen Dui (煎堆)
Jeen Dui or Jian Dui translates to a fried pile in Chinese. These fried sesame balls are a type of fried dough dessert. Covered in sesame seeds, the balls have a sweet paste filling made from either red bean or lotus seed. Crunchy exterior with a chewy consistency while the filling is sticky and sweet.
How To Order Dim Sum?
In parts of Asia and the States, the waiters will come up to the table with mobile carts filled with small plates of food. Diners will be able to order directly from the cart. In the UK, you will usually order these small plates in London's Chinatown with an order sheet. You will be able to pick which items you want and how many portions you want of each item. In general, each dish has 3-4 pieces and is between £2 - £5.
Most restaurants will hand you an order sheet that is in English and Chinese. Some restaurants will also have a menu with images next to each item to help you order. Once you have finished filling the order sheet, hand this to the waiter. All that is left for you is to wait for the delicious bite-sized pillows of joy to come to your table!
If you run out of tea or hot water for your table, move the teapot lid aside and the waiter will come and give you a refill.
Given the wide range of dishes available, first-time restaurant-goers for this type of Cantonese cuisine will usually just pick randomly or let a more experienced friend or family member order.
Best Teas to Enjoy with Dim Sum
Ordering tea before food is common. There are usually five choices to choose from; Bo lei (Black Tea), Chrysanthemum, Tieguanyin or Oolong, and Jasmine Tea. Another way of referring to Cantonese cuisine is Yum Cha or Tan Cha, 嘆茶. The term literally means to enjoy tea.
When someone pours you tea, tap your index finger and middle finger to say thank you. The two fingers are meant to represent a bow and a silent thank you when you are mid-conversation. This gesture comes from a story that supposedly originates from the Qing Dynasty.
Legend has it that this Cantonese cuisine etiquette comes from Emperor Qianlong. The Emperor once disguised himself as a commoner whilst out in a teahouse with his advisors. During the outing, Qianlong poured tea for his subordinates. To not give away the emperor's identity, his subordinates tapped their fingers on the table to represent a bow.
Bo Lei (Black Tea)
Bo Lei or Bo Lay, also known as Pu'er is a bold flavoured, fermented black tea. It originates from Yunnan China and is great to enjoy with deep-fried dim sum plates.
In Cantonese, chrysanthemum tea is called gook fa. Made from brewing chrysanthemum flowers, this tea is subtly sweet and a great caffeine-free option.
Tieguanyin (Oolong Tea)
Tieguanyin, is a type of oolong tea that originates from Fujian, China. It has a slightly floral flavour with a sweet finish and velvety texture.
Jasmine tea is called Xiang pian in traditional Chinese tea houses. It is the most common type of tea you will find at Chinese restaurants. It is usually made from dried jasmine flowers and green tea. The blend has a mellow taste accompanied by a flowery aroma.
Dim Sum Etiquette
As much as it is a cuisine, dim sum is a social activity in Hong Kong, Guangdong and wider China. It is about gathering with friends and family while sharing some small plates. Here are some dos and don't when you're enjoying the Cantonese brunch.
- Pouring Tea
Always pour tea for someone else before pouring it for yourself. This is a sign of respect towards your companions.
- Sharing Utensils
Use serving utensils or sharing chopsticks provided by the restaurant. These are used to pick up food from a dish and should never touch the mouth of the user. If there are no sharing utensils available, you can turn your chopsticks around to pick up food.
- One Piece At A Time
Try to resist the temptation of finishing an entire plate by yourself. Take one piece and return the plate to the centre of the table to share with your companions.
- Eat with Chopsticks
Most dishes in Asian cuisine is designed to be eaten with chopsticks. If you're new to this, you can ask for training chopsticks to start off!
- Lay Your Chopsticks on the Plate
It is considered rude to leave chopsticks in the middle of your food. Always remember to rest your chopsticks parallel to each other on your plate or bowl.
- Offer the last piece
Always offer the last piece of dim sum to your companions before taking it.
- Offer to Pay
It is considered polite to offer to pay - with a good attempt to pay. Oftentimes, friends will split the bill or treat you to a meal.
Now you have all this knowledge, order your new favourite dishes with confidence on your next outing! Find out where to find the Best Dim Sum Restaurant in China Town next!