There is scarcely anything better than sharing a variety of delicious bite-sized morsels, tastefully displayed on a trolley that is brought right to your table.

djeen duiDjeen Dui

Sometimes people think that dim sum is simply another name for dumplings, but there is so much more to dim sum than dumplings. More accurately, dim sum is a Chinese meal of small dishes, and it is best enjoyed with tea, and in the company of family and friends. In fact, Yum Cha is a meal where you have dim sum while sipping tea on the side.

Literally translated, dim sum means to “touch the heart”, while yum cha means “drink tea”. The custom originated in Guangzhou as snacks with tea offered to weary travelers at the end of the Silk Route. Over the years it has developed into a loud and happy dining experience, which could take place at any time of day. And it is so popular that dim sum restaurants and opportunities for yum cha can now be found all over the world.

roast pork bunsChar Siu Bao

Many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning, while traditionally the elderly gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises. It has become commonplace for restaurants to serve dim sum at dinner time, and various dim sum items are even sold as take-out for students and office workers on the go. For many in southern China, yum cha is treated as a weekend family day.

Dim sum can be made at home, but the process is labor-intensive, and a bit finicky. Sometimes at a big family get-together, the ladies will gather in the kitchen to prepare dumplings together and chat, while the other family members enjoy other forms of relaxation. However, for those craving dim sum without going out, nowadays they can be purchased frozen in the supermarket, and quickly steamed or microwaved at home.

deep fried dumplingDeep Fried Dumpling

More commonly, dim sum are enjoyed in a restaurant setting, often (but not always) as a brunch or late breakfast, surrounded by all the cheerfulness and loud friendly conversation that is part of a mealtime get-together in a Chinese restaurant (in China). The delicious dim sum that are served up could be fried, or steamed.

In many dim sum restaurants, a variety of dim sum will be brought around to the tables on trolleys, or even drift past on a constantly-moving conveyor belt, presented on little plates or in bamboo steamers. Diners make their choices, and generally share their plate around the table. Meanwhile, if this is a Yum Cha meal, the tea pots on the table are constantly refilled. It is customary for each diner to fill the cups of others at the table, with simple signs made by tapping or waving of a finger or two indicating “yes, please”, “thanks”, or “no, thanks” making it unnecessary to make oneself heard.

The selection of dim sum may include various steamed buns such as cha siu bao (a steamed bun filled with barbecue pork), dumplings wrapped in rice or wheat, or rice noodle rolls, all of which may contain a range of fillings such as beef, chicken, pork, prawns, and vegetarian options.

ngau cheungNgau Cheung

Recommended: With so many possible wonderful choices, your first dim sum experience could be somewhat overwhelming, so hopefully you will have someone more experienced alongside to help you. (After all, enjoying dim sum is not something you do alone!)
For your dim sum meal you will want to look at several kinds of steamed buns such as char siu bao (roast pork buns), deep fried dumpling such as hahm sui gohk (glutinous rice dumplings), rice noodle rolls like ngau cheung (beef noodle rolls) and then desserts like djeen dui (fried sesame balls). For your best first experience try to arrive early before the big crowds, survey the scene to observe what is available, and then pace yourself to make sure you enjoy a wide variety from the menu.

By Ruth Wickham
Chief Editor & Writer