This post will serve to be a helpful guide for the adventurous, yet amateur dim sum diners.
What is dim sum (點心)? Dim sum, at least the form that has diffused most successfully worldwide, is most prominent in the Guangdong region of China. The phrase itself, literally means “a bit of the heart” and refers to the assortment of steamed tapas-reminiscent hor-d’oeuvres served for brunch. These typically bite-sized items can be practically anything. Though there are classics, time and the desire for restaurants to stand out have produced a wide range of dim sum from dainty steamed dumplings of chives and shrimp or meat or custard filled bun miniatures to hearty bowls of beef innards or deep fried squid tentacles. A recurrent theme in dim sum; however, is meat, and going for dim sum is quite vegetarian-unfriendly. The act of going for dim sum, if you were Cantonese, is called yum cha (飲茶) – literally “drink tea” – as tea is the traditional companion to the dim sum dishes.
When you first sit down, the first thing ordered should be tea. There typically isn’t a menu for the tea, as the implication is that you already know what type of teas are available and which you want. Here is a handy list. After the tea arrives at your table, there is really no real protocol to what you “order” next. Traditionally, the food will come to you, and you merely have to point and pick what you want; however, many places now employ a tick-it-off ordering system, where you check off what you want on a paper menu.
As the bamboo steamer “baskets” descend upon your table from middle-aged women pushing food-filled aluminum carts (or otherwise), you’re bound to encounter some pretty bizarre looking things. And these lead to questions…What is this? What is that? These queries are difficult for your Chinese friends to answer regardless of their proficiency in your language. There is so much to be lost in translation that it’s really not worth the effort, especially if you’re going to forget it the next time you try it. So to make things easier for you and for them, below are bare-bones descriptions of a few common things you’ll encounter “at dim sum.”
HA GAO* (蝦餃)
Main ingredient(s): shrimp
The classic translucent shrimp dumpling.
SUI MAI* (燒賣)
Main ingredient(s): shrimp, pork, shitake mushrooms (冬菇)
A classic dumpling where the pork, mushrooms and shrimp are blended to form the filling.
CHEUNG FUN* (腸粉)
Main ingredient(s): rice paper, shrimp, barbecue pork, beef or shitake mushrooms (冬菇)
Rice paper rolls with assorted filling; dressed with soy sauce.
CHA SUI BAO* (叉燒包)
Main ingredient(s): barbecue pork
A bun filled with barbecue pork, a favourite amongst amateur dim sum adventurers and veterans alike.
LO BAK GOH* (蘿蔔糕)
Main ingredient(s): turnip, dried shrimp
A turnip cake. NOT vegetarian – it is speckled with meat.
FUNG JOW* (鳳爪)
Main ingredient(s): chicken feet
You basically just tease the skin off the bones with your teeth.
TSUN JIU GAI* (珍珠雞)
Main ingredient(s): glutinous rice
Glutinous rice with assorted flavouring ingredients, typically wrapped in a bamboo leaf.
TSA LEUNG* (炸兩)
Main ingredient(s): rice paper, Chinese doughnut (油炸鬼)
Similar to cheung fun, except the filling is a Chinese doughnut.
DAN TAT* (蛋撻)
Main ingredient(s): egg, sugar, pastry
A dessert item.
Main ingredient(s): rice, water, assorted flavouring ingredients: pork, preserved egg, chicken, shitake mushrooms (冬菇), peanuts, green onions, ginger
Watery rice (congee) flavoured with pretty much anything. What type of flavour will be made explicit in its name: [ingredient from which it lends its flavour] JUK. Eg. chicken JUK
This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope this proves useful in disambiguating some of the more common dim sum out there.
*the phonetic ‘translations’ given here are subject to variation