A Guide to Dim Sum

A Guide to Dim Sum (点心)

Dim sum, popular now throughout the world, are a feast of delight in London, being served from street markets, to small and dimly lit Chinese restaurants in Chinatown right through to more glamorous establishments, some of which hold coveted Michelin stars.

Historically, dim sum originated in the Cantonese-speaking areas of China and were definitely from humble beginnings and have risen to the ‘trendy’ items now consumed in restaurants and also frequently served at business lunches and office parties, such is their popularity. Wander through Gerrard Street, London W1, and you may even feel transported back to China, as this area known as Chinatown, is packed with restaurants, Chinese supermarkets, gift shops and bakers, and is the centre for the Chinese New Year celebrations in February every year.This may be where you experience the ambiance of this old world country, with dragon and lion parades,  but venture further to some of the celebrity restaurants, such as Hakkasan, and you will find dim sum elevated to a whole new level of taste and expertise.

Dim Sum

 

What is Dim Sum?

Literally, dim sum is ‘food from the heart’, so you may as well ask ‘how long is a piece of string?’, as dim sum varies from region to region, but it is a culinary tradition that started thousands of years ago, when merchants and travellers along the Silk Road needed rest, respite and light meals to enable them to continue their travels. Due to this amount of ‘traffic’, tea houses sprung up all along the route, serving tea and dim sum from the early hours of the morning through until lunchtime. This ‘meal replacement’ became known as ‘yum cha’ on which modern day dim sum is based. Dim sum is now served right through until the evening, due to its huge popularity, but some London restaurants still keep to serving only until late afternoon. The inexplicable link with tea still continues; most Chinese nationals believe that the combination aids digestion and staves off hunger to continue your journey. Of course, there isn’t much of a journey from your office desk to the local dim sum restaurant these days!

Nobody has managed to count the amount of delicious ‘dims’ available on the market, but last estimate was around 2,000 varieties, some traditional, and some not so traditional in terms of what dim sum is all about and what most people think they are going to get (think deep fried chicken feet, if you can!). The ethos behind dim sum is much like a bunch of friends or family getting together to share and chat – a little like tapas in Spain, or antipasti in Italy. Most dim sum is pastry or dumpling based, or tiny stuffed ‘buns’ – but you will find small ribs served, and of course – chicken feet!  Desserts don’t escape the menu either, although there are usually only one or two available.

How to Eat Dim Sum

Like most Chinese ways of doing things, there are general rules and etiquette to follow, almost ceremonial style. Quite often there is no menu, but in restaurants that do put their selection of dim sum on the menu, they are served on small sharing plates – much more effective though is the more traditional method of carts stacked high with steamer baskets (you must have seen the bamboo variety) that are glided very carefully between the restaurant tables and replenished when necessary. You pick what you want simply by pointing! Then everyone dives in and takes bites of everything available.

Very traditional restaurants will serve you tea first – you then have an endless procession of replacement teapots when you have run out. A word of advice however – turn the lid upside down when you need more tea, otherwise the waiter/waitress will not disturb you and replenish your tea!

When the cart arrives at your table – point and nod  to indicate your choice. If you cannot fathom out what a particular dish is, ask to try it before ordering – this is quite acceptable!  Try to eat with chopsticks, but you can ask for a spoon if you actually are ham-fisted and want to make sure the food ends up in your mouth and not in your lap.

Some restaurants use a card system so they can keep up with what you have ordered and stamp it accordingly (usually in very busy restaurants, but not in the higher class eateries). Or it may be served buffet-style where you go up to a long table full of heated containers from which the food is served. Whichever way, hopefully these hints will allow you to act like a professional dim sum eater! Generally speaking, about 4 dishes per person will suffice to get a good variety of steamed, grilled and fried dishes between the table participants. Finally, do not be afraid to order rice if you want it – dim sum is not normally served with rice as an accompaniment, but the kitchen will have it ready to hand – dim sum can be heavily seasoned or spiced, so you may need something a little more ‘bland’ if your palate is not used to it.

Dim Sum Dishes

We cannot possibly name every single dim sum dish on the planet, but there are quite a few that are traditionally served in most restaurants, and the unusual ones such as ‘phoenix feet’ – if you can find a phoenix foot in London, please direct us to it – must be worth a fortune! They are of course, chicken feet! Almost all of the dishes are very palatable, but some may not be to Western tastes, possibly tasting a little rubbery, or sinewy to our delicate mouths, and far from the standard and classic ‘westernised’ dishes that we have come to love from the local takeaway. However, here is our best guide to what you are likely to discover!

Name of Dish In English Name of Dish In Chinese Cooking Method Description of dish
Shrimp Dumplings Har gow Steamed Fresh shrimp, mixed with chopped bamboo shoots, carefully wrapped in layers of wrappers – the king of dim sum, and believed to show the chefs dexterity!
Pork Dumpling Siu mai Steamed Mainly chopped pork, mixed with shrimp and spices, and wrapped in a wheat wrapper. Can come served individually, or actually skewered on to a bamboo stick and accompanied with dipping sauce.
Barbecue Pork Buns Cha siu bao Steamed A semi-sweet bun, encasing barbecued shredded pork – absolutely delicious and most popular with Westerners!
Chicken Feet Phoenix talons Braised, then sometimes deep fried The inevitable chicken feet – marinated in a sweet black bean sauce – actually quite palatable!
Rice Paper Rolls Cheung fun Steamed Made with thin sheets of rice noodles, they can be plain and coated with sesame seeds, or contain vegetables or meat, all wrapped up inside the parcel. They are soft and slippery, so beware when eating with chopsticks!
Shanghai soup dumplings Mandarin: ‘xiao long bao’ / Cantonese: ‘siu lung bao’ Steamed A legendary Chinese dumpling, very similar to pork dumplings, but it is the broth that makes this dish – deep, rich and intensely flavoured. The broth is served very hot, so poke a little hole in the top of the dumpling to let the steam escape!
Chicken & vegetable buns ‘gai bao’ Steamed Fluffy little buns, usually filled with chicken and mushroom, vegetables and savoury herbs
Custard buns ‘lai wong bao’ One of the very few dessert style dim sum. Glossy buns,filled with very sweet custard – these are  heart attack material due to the amount of butter, cream and eggs etc!
Taro croquettes ‘wu gok’ Deep Fried Another version of a pork dish (pork dishes are popular in dim sum!), these are more oval shaped morsels with vegetables, all encased in a taro-paste pastry, and when deep fried, come out lovely and light and crispy.
Potstickers ‘wo tip’ Pan Fry/Steam More dumplings! Very thin pastry enclosed either meat or seafood and vegetables, with a pretty folded over style of presentation (for the English amongst you, similar to mini Cornish pasties!) They are initially pan-fried then steamed using water in the same pan with a lid over the top. They are called potstickers because that is what they do – stick to the pot before crisping up!
Sesame prawn toast ‘ha to si’ Deep Fried Minced prawns or shrimp, packed onto bread, sprinkled with sesame seeds and deep fried. Well known dish in Chinese restaurants.
Barbecued pork puffs ‘char siu sou’ Puff pastry which can be filled with pork, sometimes lightly curried beef or even venison.
Congee ‘jook’ Boiled Almost porridge like in consistency, this is a very popular breakfast dimsum and can be served plain or with vegetables, meat or fish.
Sticky rice, wrapped in lotus leaves ‘lo mai gai’ Cooked then steamed Almost a meal in itself, sticky rice is wrapped with chicken or pork and vegetables and wrapped in a dried lotus leaf – you must remove the leaf before eating, as it is not palatable, but imparts a lot of flavour to the dish.

 

Dim Sum is not as hard to make as you think – It can be great fun trying your own varieties.  If oy live or are travelling to London  – Here is a great Dim Sum Cooking Class to book yourself into.

 

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