On a crisp Saturday morning, the Taiwanese-American Student Club made an outing down the El to Chinatown. There were only two items on the agenda: eating as much dim sum as possible and shopping for any must-have Asian groceries. Happy Chef was the restaurant of choice; the members of the group sat down at large, white round tables to order their eagerly anticipated lunch. Dim sum restaurants offer more than a meal; eating dim sum is a little journey of its own.
Why eat dim sum when you have all you can eat dining halls? First of all, eating dim sum is fun in itself to order and choose. Secondly, and most obviously, it tastes so damn amazing! There are so many choices that you can have the best of all the world’s cuisine. You can get whatever you want, be it spicy, fried, boiled, steamed, simmered, broiled, stir fry, roasted, or drenched in sauce. Since the dishes come in little portions, you can either get a lot of something you find delicious or choose to stuff yourself with a number of different, equally delicious appetizers. When your parents visit, you can take them to a dim sum restaurant and show them how cultured and skilled you are.
The History and Background
Dim sum is a Chinese form of cuisine whose name literally translates to “a little bit of heart” or “a little delicacy.” In other words, dim sum doesn’t consist of huge entrées, like pasta or steak. Customers are expected to try a little bit of everything they want, like having a series of small appetizers. Serving portions are usually around three to five pieces of each delicacy. Ingredients range from meat (beef, pork, chicken), seafood (crab, shrimp, clam), and fried goods to fruits (cantaloupe, oranges) and vegetables (bok choi, Chinese broccoli). There’s no standard form to the dishes. They range from porridge to pastries, dumplings and buns. Local restaurants frequently create their own unique specialties, so the dim sum catalog is ever-expanding, but most restaurants carry common staples.
How to Eat Dim Sum
Most dim sum newbies get confused during the ordering process. There are two ways to order your food and depending on the style, each restaurant generally sticks to one method or the other. The first and more traditional type of restaurant has the waiters push around two-tiered carts that have the dishes out on display. The customer is presented with an array of food sitting in a little circular tin or bamboo containers. They can pick and choose as much as they want. Other places, like Happy Chef, have a menu already set up on the table with a pencil for the customers to check off how many of each dish they want.
Since there are so many appetizers to create, dim sum is rarely home-cooked. Instead, visiting the restaurants on occasion gives families a chance to congregate together in a comfortable setting. On weekends, they can take breaks from their busy lives to bring family and friends together around one table.
Yum Cha, Cantonese for “tea drinking,” begins the meal. When sitting down for dim sum, it is respectful for the people who first get the teapot to serve everybody else at the table before pouring a cup for themselves. The tea beverage is a crucial part to the overall experience since it can help cleanse the palate between each dish and add a soothing drink that complements each appetizer. Oolong, jasmine, and chrysanthemum are some of the varieties of tea usually offered.
A little saucer is also placed on the table for customers. Some restaurants provide chili paste and Chinese hot mustard, while others give soy sauce with chili. If the restaurant is very dedicated, then it might supply extra dipping sauces for specialized dishes.
Top Ten Classic Dim Sum Dishes Everyone Should Try
(* = Vegetarian)
- Shumai: This is the ubiquitous appetizer that comes to everyone’s mind when dim sum is mentioned. The steamed dumpling is filled with pork with a dash of cabbage, mushrooms, shrimp or prawn.
- Char Siu Bao: The best ones have light, fluffy white buns that melt into sweet bliss when you bite into them. They surprise you with a chunk of smoky, drool-worthy barbecued pork slathered in sauce in the center.
- Savory (Salty) dumplings: This dumpling isn’t soft and chewy, like normal: the rice-flour is deep fried to a golden crunch on the outside and has delicious, salty meat inside.
- Spring Rolls: Spring rolls come with a special soy and vinegar blend that brings out the juicy taste of cabbage, carrot, pork and the crispy fried outer shell.
- Roasted Duck: The duck is sliced into medium-sized pieces with the skin still hot and the meat still steaming. The sauce it comes in is one of the best. It also has a tangy sweet and sour dip that comes as a side.
- Lotus Leaf Rice*: The moment you open the lotus leaf, the wonderful aroma wafts from the wrap, enticing you to eat the whole thing at once. The tea leaf smell is the most amazing part. The sticky rice has mushrooms and pork hidden inside, depending on the restaurant.
- Dumplings and Pot stickers: Try them all.
- Rice Noodle Roll*: This is fairly self-explanatory.
- Egg Tart*: This tart works well as a sweet dessert. It has a creamy, yellow center and a warm, baked, flaky exterior.
- Sesame Seed Balls*: This can be considered a dessert as well. Each ball of dough is deep fried on the outside and chewy and sweet, with a sesame seed cover.