Dim sum refers to the light snacks, lunches or brunches eaten with tea during Chinese dining. It is Cantonese of origin. These snacks often take the form of buns or of steamed or fried dumplings (much like potstickers, except potstickers are not Cantonese). In China, there is an entire culture and experience associated with drinking tea and enjoying dim sum. In Chinese it is known as “yum cha.”
The practice of yum cha began many centuries ago, when travelers on the Silk Road would stop at teahouses for rest and refreshment. Since then, drinking tea and partaking in dim sum has become an important staple of Chinese culture around the world. In modern-day China, dim sum is often sold to-go, from shops or from street carts. Chinese families may also make and serve dim sum for special occasions or for Sunday morning brunch. In the Western Hemisphere, many Chinese restaurants have taken to selling dim sum until the early afternoon. Dim sum literally means “touch the heart,” and the Chinese swear that it will do just that, which makes it kind of like a comfort food.
Types of Dim Sum
There are a wide variety of dishes that fall into the category of “dim sum.” Basically, any Cantonese dish that was traditionally served as a snack or breakfast during yum cha tea hour is considered dim sum. These dishes come in the following forms:
Spare ribs are a classic Chinese dim sum dish ("gow").
- Buns (“bau”)
- Pastries (“sou”) or dough balls
- Fried squid
- Spare ribs
- Puddings or porridge
- Tofu pieces
There are a plentitude of dim sum dishes that fall within these categories. Many of them can be made easily at home, while others involve intricate recipes, time-consuming marinades or skilled handwork to perfect the flavor and texture. >>Dim Sum Dish Guide
Dim Sum Cooking & Preparation
Professional Cantonese chefs swear by handmade dim sum, especially when it comes to the dumplings. They believe that machine-made dumplings suffer from uneven fillings, loose wrapping and badly textured dumpling skins. Furthermore, a machine will never be able to pleat the edges of the dumpling as intricately as a real chef.
There are a variety of cooking methods that are used to create dim sum, including the following:
- Steaming. Most dumplings, buns and a variety of other dim sum dishes are steamed in a bamboo steamer. In most Chinese restaurants, the steamers are placed on top of a round metal surface that has holes in it to let the steam through. At home, the steamer can simply be placed on top of a wok that is slightly larger in diameter than the steamer and is filled with a few inches of water.
- Baking. Many dim sum pastries are baked to bring out a flaky texture. However, most of the buns are steamed instead, because the steaming will create a lighter, fluffier biscuit.
- Pan Frying. Cakes, including taro cake and water chestnut cake, are usually fried in a frying pan full of oil. This will give them a crunchy taste on the outside and a soft interior. They are usually not deep fried because they would fall apart more easily.
- Deep Frying. Squid, spring rolls, chicken feet, dough balls and some dumplings are deep fried in a wok or a deep fryer. It is especially important to deep fry battered foods, such as fried calamari. Chicken feet and dumplings are not battered but require deep frying to become crispy and light.
- Stir Frying. Many of the fillings for dumplings, buns and rolls are stir-fried to enhance the flavor and cook the ingredients. These fillings include, but are not limited to, Chinese black mushrooms, beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, garlic, chives, cabbage and carrots. However, none of the dishes are “stir fries” per se.
Most dumplings, buns and a variety of other dim sum dishes are steamed in a . In most Chinese restaurants, the steamers are placed on top of a round metal surface that has holes in it to let the steam through. At home, the steamer can simply be placed on top of a wok that is slightly larger in diameter than the steamer and is filled with a few inches of water.
Other important processes in preparing dim sum include marinating, boiling (of chicken feet) and dicing. However, the wrapping of a dim sum dumpling is one of the most important talents of a professional dim sum chef, and how well the dumpling has been formed usually indicates the competence and skill level of the chef. It must be tight, but not too tight, and the pleating must be beautiful while also providing a functional seal.
Ordering Dim Sum at a Restaurant
Because each piece of dim sum is small, dim sum is usually ordered in quantity. Often, the diner will receive a sheet of paper where they will check off which dishes and how many pieces they want. As with sushi, a diner is expected to order several pieces of dim sum so that they can sample the different flavors.
In line with the history and culture of yum cha, it is appropriate to order tea to drink with dim sum. When deciding what teas to serve, or what teas to order with your dim sum, choose among these popular, traditional yum cha teas:
- Dragon well tea, a type of green tea
- Oolong tea
- Bolay tea, a dark red tea
- Chrysanthemum tea
When someone pours your tea during yum cha or while eating dim sum, it is polite to tap the index and middle finger to the table as a sign of respect and thanks.
Serving Dim Sum
Dim sum dumplings and wraps are usually served in small steamer baskets known as dim sum steamers – the same baskets in which they are cooked. Generally, they are served with three or four pieces per dish, and are shared around the table, family-style. If many pieces are ordered, a larger dim sum steamer might be used. Fried or baked dishes are usually served on a plate or tray.
At many restaurants, dim sum is brought to the table on a dim sum cart. The cart has a built in steamer and is topped with holes that are the perfect size to lay a dim sum steamer basket on top. The cart will keep pre-cooked dim sum hot until it is brought to the table. A dim sum cart is especially useful for busy Chinese restaurants that may need to pre-make their dim sum before it is ordered.
Dim Sum Pricing
While in China, dim sum is traditionally sold according to the number and size of the dishes left on the table after the meal, this usually does not go over well in America, where many patrons are not Chinese. Since dim sum is usually served family-style, it is often priced according to the size of the dish and the amount of dishes ordered. Prices should be clearly listed on the menu so that diners know exactly what they are getting for their money.
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