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Dim Sum, a Beginner’s Guide to the Cantonese Cuisine

Dim Sum, a Beginner’s Guide to the Cantonese Cuisine

Become a dim sum restaurant expert with this beginner’s guide on the Cantonese cuisine. Find out about the cuisine’s origin, the different delicious bites available & how to order from the menu!

 

What is Dim Sum?

The literal Dim Sum translation in Chinese 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. 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

It is traditionally eaten during breakfast and lunchtime. This is usually up until 3 pm in most places. Accommodating for demand, most speciality restaurants in London Chinatown will serve 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.

 

lady-tang-history-cantonese-restaurant
A Noble Lady of the Tang Dynasty

The first reference to the dishes as small snack plates between meals by a noble lady.

「唐鄭為江淮留侯,家人備夫人晨饌,夫人謂其弟曰:『治妝未畢,我未及餐,爾且可點心。』」

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.

 

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.

 

dim-sum-cantonese-restaurant-order-form
A typical menu or order form to fill out when visiting a Cantonese restaurant.

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!

 

Insider Tip: 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.

 

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 specialising 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.

 

best-dim-sum-restaurant-dishes
An assortment of the best Cantonese small plates to order from a restaurant.

 

The Steamed

 

Har Gow (蝦餃)

Har Gow is a type of steamed dumpling with shrimp. It is one of the most popular dishes to order in the steamed category. Har Gao is a crescent-shaped dumpling. This translucent wrapper is made from 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 plates 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.

 

cantonese-restaurant-steamed-dish
Traditional steamed plates at a typical restaurant specialising in the Chinese brunch.

 

Xiao Long Bao (小笼包)

In English, Xiao Long Bao is otherwise known as soup dumplings. These chubby dumplings are filled with broth made from liquefied gelatin and chopped pork. Crimped on the top, the soup dumplings are sometimes filled with crab meat instead.

 

best-dim-sum-xiao-long-bao-soup-dumpling
Soup Dumplings filled with a delicious broth and a pork mixture.

 

Char Siu Bao (叉烧包)

Like Har Gow and Siu Mai, steamed barbequed pork buns are a must-try dish for anyone visiting a speciality restaurant for the first time. The sweet barbecued pork filling is wrapped in white dough. Then, the buns are steamed before serving.

 

Chueng Fun (腸粉)

This refers to steamed rice noodle roll with a variety of fillings. The standard options for these rice noodle rolls include barbecued 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 cuisine 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.

 

The Fried

 

Lo Bak Gou (蘿蔔糕)

Turnip Cake is also called radish cake in English. This 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.

 

best-dim-sum-london-fried-turnip-cake
Fried Turnip Cake from some of the best restaurants in Chinatown, London.

 

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 to be 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 taro root croquette. These have a crunchy mashed taro exterior with a stuffing made from diced mushrooms, shrimp, pork and scallions.

 

fried-dim-sum-dish
Fried wu gok dish.

 

Zhaliang (炸兩)

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!

 

The Sweet

 

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!

 

sweet-custard-bun-chinatown
Delicious salted egg yolk custard bun with a runny centre.

 

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.

 

The Four Heavenly Kings
Har Gow, Siu Mai, Char Siu Bao and Egg tarts are considered the classic dishes of the cantonese cuisine.

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 the 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.

 

Tea

Ordering tea before food is common. There are usually five choices to choose from; Bo lei (Black Tea), Tieguanyin, Chrysanthemum, Oolong, and Jasmine Tea. Another way of referring to the Cantonese cuisine is Yum Cha or Tan Cha, 嘆茶. The term literally means to enjoy tea.

 

yum-cha-enjoy-tea
To yum cha, or tan cha is to enjoy tea.
Insider Tip: 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.

 

A Widely Believed Dim Sum Origin Story
Legend has it that this Cantonese cuisine etiquette comes from the 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.

 

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!

 

Co-written by Chloe Wong, London based Instagram Influencer and Author of Travelling Pink. Travelling in Pink is a travel blog focusing on all things travel-related, social issues and eco travelling.

 

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