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Dim Sum Guide

The Ultimate Guide to Dim Sum

Are you new to dim sum? Curious about the ins and outs, the dos and don’ts of dim sum? You’ve come to the right place. We'll teach you how to yum cha* like an expert!

* ("yum cha" is the usual Cantonese way of saying "to eat dim sum". See? You’re learning already!)

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What is Dim Sum ( 點心)?

Dim Sum is a style of southern Chinese cuisine from the Guangdong province where dishes consist of small individual portions of food typically served in small steamer baskets or small plates. Due to the size of the small bite-sized items, dim sum is naturally a social meal where everyone is sharing and trying out different items together. Usually eaten as brunch or lunch, an important and necessary part of dim sum is the tea. In fact, Cantonese speakers (the Guangdong province used to be called Canton) do not say that they are going to eat dim sum, but instead say that they are going to "yum cha" (飲茶) (drink tea). Tea is an absolutely vital part of the dim sum meal and also helps to cut through the fat and grease.

Assortment of Dim Sum Items Look at all those choices!
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How to order Dim Sum

To start off, it's important to know that most traditional dim sum establishments only serve dim sum during the brunch and lunch hours. Places that serve dim sum at other hours definitely do exist, but they may be rare in some locations.

When you first arrive at a dim sum establishment, there should be a front desk area where a staff member will greet you and ask how many people your party has. If the tables are all full, they will either give you a slip of paper with a number on it, a wireless beeper, or will just ask you to wait. If you have a small party of people and are willing to share a large table with other people as opposed to having an entire smaller table to yourselves, you can let the staff member know and this usually results in a shorter wait time. The Chinese word for this would be "daap toi" (搭枱). Once space is available, they will call you up and bring you to a table. If the place uses traditional push-carts (more on this later), they'll also provide a stamp card, which is used to track how many dishes you order. The card will be stamped each time you order a dish. Here's what a stamp card might look like:

Stamp Card An example of a stamp card.

At this point, they'll also ask you what tea you want.

For a list of teas that may be available, you can find them here.

In addition to a teapot with the tea you have chosen, some places may also bring an extra teapot with just hot water. You can use this to refill the main teapot whenever you run out or you would like to dilute the tea so it isn’t as strong. Additionally, if you find yourself eating dim sum in Hong Kong or Macau, you may find that some establishments will also place a shallow bucket along with your plates, cups, and utensils. It’s typically a customary tradition to use the bucket to rinse the plates, cups, and utensils with the hot water from the extra teapot as a supplementary cleaning step. Afterwards, a staff member will take the bucket away for you. Ultimately, this extra cleaning step is optional and in modern times, is probably unnecessary, but it can be fun to do nonetheless if you’re new to it!

Places with Push-Carts:

Historically, many places used to use push-carts, where the carts are filled in the kitchen with various food items and pushed around the restaurant for diners to select from. There’s just nothing quite like having an entire cart filled with food rolled over to you for you to pick from!

Although this method has a certain rustic and nostalgic charm to it, it is now an outdated practice in most Chinese territories and most big name establishments that come from a Chinese territory. However, push-carts are still quite common in the many overseas Chinese communities that exist around the world.

With push-carts, you can either wait at your table until a cart comes to you or if you don't want to wait, you can walk right over to a cart. If you do decide to venture over to a cart, remember to bring your stamp card! And don’t worry if you don’t know what each dish is called, you can just point to the ones you want.

After you've finished your meal, simply hold up your stamp card and ask a staff member to write up your bill. If you want to use Chinese, you can ask them to "maai daan" (埋單). They will then write the total cost of the meal onto your card which you would later bring to the register to pay. If you have any food that you haven't finished and you would like to bring them home, you can ask them for a take out box at this moment. If you want to ask in Chinese, that would be "daa baau" (打包). Lastly, if you are in a country where tipping is customary, tips can be left on the table as cash or you can add it onto your bill when paying with a credit card at the register.

Places with Menu Slips:

Now for the more modern places that do not use push-carts, they will provide a menu slip that lists all of their dim sum items instead of a stamp card. These menu slips may sometimes include picture and sometimes may not. Fortunately, Dim Sum Guide has got you covered! We’ve cataloged a wide variety of dim sum dishes in our visual glossary so you can be informed and prepared. A full list can be found here or you can navigate by category with the left menu.

With the slip in hand, you would simply fill it out to indicate which food items you want, hand it back to a staff member, and the kitchen will then prepare them for you on the spot. Everything else would be standard restaurant procedure. So as you can see, this more normal process loses some of the charm that comes with the traditional way of serving dim sum with push-carts.

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How are the food items priced?

Prices for each dish depends on what size category they are. Each dim sum establishment will usually categorize the food items differently. Note that the size category isn't as simple as how large the dish is. It also depends on the ingredients used in a particular dish with more expensive ingredients resulting in a larger size category.

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Rules and Customs

While very formal high end dim sum establishments do exist, most dim sum establishments are usually fairly casual, lively, and social. As a result, there aren't too many concrete rules to follow. As long as you use common sense, are polite, and don't play with your food and utensils, you'll do just fine. The most important aspect is to have fun with your friends and family. It is a social meal after all!

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All about Tea

As described previously, tea is an absolutely vital part of dim sum and the Cantonese don’t say they are going to eat dim sum. They say they are going to "yum cha" (飲茶) (drink tea). You can’t go yum cha (drink tea) without, y’know, drinking tea! Although hot tea is almost mandatory, there may be some places that serve cold tea in hot weather.

The de facto most common type of tea at dim sum is probably bou lei tea with its deep and complex flavor, though this is likely more so for the older generations. If you prefer a lighter tea, two other popular choices would be jasmine tea and chrysanthemum tea.

Bou-Lei Tea Jasmine Tea Chrysanthemum Tea
Three popular choices of teas for dim sum.

For a list of teas that may be available, you can find them here.

Tea is chosen when you’re initially brought to your table. When pouring tea, it’s polite to fill your companions’ cups before filling your own cup. Additionally, be sure not to fill the cup all the way up to the brim as this makes it difficult to pick the cup up without spilling tea all over the place.

A customary Cantonese gesture of saying thanks when someone else is pouring tea for you is to lightly tap the table with either two fingers or two knuckles. This is also extremely useful if your mouth is full with food. One theory that is often circulated is that this custom originates from the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The story goes like this:

Legend has it that the Qianlong Emperor once visited a teahouse with his servants while disguised as a commoner. Once seated, the emperor poured tea for his servants to maintain the disguise. All of his servants understood the incredible honor that was receiving tea from the emperor and wanted to kneel down in respect and gratitude but could not do so without breaking his cover. As a result, they instead tapped the table with bent fingers to signify kneeling.

Although historical evidence does not support this legend, it’s still fun to think about. Another theory says that this custom came about from banquets of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Guests had to take turns singing songs for each round of drinks and everyone else would create a beat for the singer by tapping their fingers on their tables. This theory suggests that the finger tapping survived as tapping for receiving tea.

Anyways, going back to dim sum, If you ever need to have your teapot refilled, simply leave the lid ajar. Staff members know to be on the lookout for this and will refill your teapot when they have a chance. See the picture below for reference.

A teapot with the lid ajar A teapot with the lid ajar.

There’s actually a story that goes with this teapot lid custom as well! There are several variations to it, but here’s one.

One cold day in winter, a rich nobleman went dining at a teahouse along with his pet bird in a cage. While eating, he noticed there was a cold draft coming in from a window and thought that his bird was cold. He took an empty teapot, placed his bird inside of it to shield it from the wind, and placed the lid on top to prevent it from flying away. A waiter walked by and without warning, filled the teapot with hot tea. The scalding water killed the bird and the restaurant was sued for an exorbitant amount by the nobleman. Ever since then, the teahouse decided that all customers must leave the teapot lids ajar if they want tea to be refilled to prevent this from happening again.

Another variation replaces the rich nobleman with a corrupt criminal who uses the dead bird in order to scam the restaurant for compensation. Either way, there’s somehow always a bird involved!

Lastly, if tea isn’t your thing, don’t worry! Feel free to order water and other drinks as well. Depending on the place, other options might include soda, beer, bubble tea, etc. Keep in mind you need to pay extra for these.

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The Essential Dishes

Every dim sum establishment will serve different dishes. Some may even have special variations or entirely new dishes they invent. However, regardless of which dim sum establishment you go to, you should definitely be able to find the following items as they are, by far, the most common and most popular. You might even go as far to say that dim sum isn’t quite dim sum, in the traditional sense, without at least some of these dishes.

Assortment of Popular Dim Sum Items

For a full list of the most popular dishes, click here.

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Ordering Extras

Most dim sum establishments don’t actually just serve dim sum, but also serve larger entrée sized dishes as well and some of these dishes should be available to order during dim sum. It's often common to order a dish of vegetables or stir fried noodles or stir fried rice to supplement the dim sum. Additionally, it is probably best to order these early in the meal since they take a little bit of time to cook.

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Chinese names & Pronounciation

As you’ve now learned, dim sum comes from the Guangdong province, which used to be called Canton, and the people there speak Cantonese. If you're in a Cantonese speaking territory, you'll obviously see Cantonese being used. If you're in a Mandarin speaking territory, you'll obviously see Mandarin being used. For overseas locations away from Chinese territories, many chinese communities traditionally emigrated from Guangdong, so as a result, many dim sum establishments, especially in North America, should understand Cantonese. Although the current immigration trend is from Mandarin speaking Chinese territories, Cantonese should still be understood in many places.

Cantonese:

While there are many pronunciation systems for Cantonese, one of the most popular forms of Cantonese pronunciation is called jyutping and that is what we use and show here. After looking around our visual glossary, you may find yourself asking, “what do those numbers behind each word mean?” Those represent the tone that the word is spoken in, whether that be a low, medium, high, rising, or falling tone. If you don’t know what tone corresponds to which number, don’t worry about it! We also include voice recordings for each word so you can simply learn the tone by listening to the recordings.

Mandarin:

For Mandarin, the official pronunciation system is called pinyin and that is also shown for all of our dishes in our glossary. Voice recordings are also offered in Mandarin as well.

Assortment of Popular Dim Sum Items An example pronunciation table.

If you want to try ordering in Chinese, but don’t know whether to use Cantonese or Mandarin, we would suggest trying Cantonese first and, if that doesn't work, to then try Mandarin second. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a specific dish and want to ask a staff member about it, simply showing the Chinese name for a dish will work no matter what kind of Chinese they speak.

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What does the name Dim Sum ( 點心) mean?

Dim Sum (點心) is defined as the name of this type of Chinese cuisine or as "small snacks". It's as simple as that. There are some sources that suggest that dim sum can technically mean "to touch the heart", but this is most likely just a product of marketing and wishful thinking. This may be a little similar to how the Chinese word "crisis" is often forcibly interpreted as a combination of "danger" and "opportunity". There’s even a wikipedia article about it here.

Another interesting place to look at is the official Hong Kong tourism website for dim sum here. They have the page available in many different languages and all of them mention a variation of "to touch the heart", except for the Traditional and Simplified Chinese versions of the page. Instead, the two Chinese versions of the page say something along the lines of "Within dim sum lies the spirit of a voracious eater". Hm...

Screenshot The relevant section in English. Screenshot The relevant section in Chinese.

The usage of the word, "dim" (點), in general Chinese can include "to touch", but it is not really used in that manner often in Cantonese and is especially rare in a dining context. "Dim" (點), as a verb in Cantonese and while in a dining context, usually means to select from a range of choices, "dim coi" (點菜). While still in a dining context, you may also hear "dim" (點) used in additional ways. One way is in "dim zoeng" (點將) which means to dip into a sauce. Another way is in "dim fo" (點火) which means to light a fire.

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Next Steps

Now that you know the ins and outs of dim sum, feel free to explore the other parts of the site to further learn about the many different food items that dim sum has to offer. It's probably best to familiarize yourself with some of the food items before dining, but if you're reading this while eating dim sum, that is perfectly fine as well!

A Visual Glossary for Dim Sum

Check out the visual glossary of dim sum dishes here!

Bon Appétit!

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© Dim Sum Guide 2020