What a delight it was to be chosen again to participate in this month’s Foodbuzz 24×24 event! We wanted to think of something we haven’t touched upon on our food blog and thought about providing a dim sum reference for those who are not familiar with this popular Chinese cuisine – or for those who eat it often but are not sure what they are eating!
Dim sum is a classic Cantonese breakfast or brunch where you can enjoy small portions of many different delicacies which usually comes pushed on carts or trays to your table. Dim sum is translated as “to touch the heart” and is inextricably linked to the Chinese tradition of “yum cha” or drinking tea. Traditional dim sum includes various types of steamed buns, dumplings, and rice noodle rolls that contains beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, or vegetables. This type of cuisine has become increasingly popular so we wanted to provide a guide to help those who want to know more about dim sum to understand the different types of dishes that are offered. We ventured to a couple restaurants to order the popular dim sum dishes to take home to photograph (and obviously to eat them) so that we can provide detailed descriptions of each item along with the Chinese name for your reference.
Please keep in mind that we were only able to capture the dim sum dishes that were offered at the restaurants we visited, so don’t limit yourself to our list. Feel free to experiment from the more common plates and choose something that may spark your interest. To find out where the good dim sum restaurants are, ask a local Chinese friend, a shopkeeper in Chinatown, or take a glance at the lines outside a dim sum restaurant during lunch hour on the weekends. This is usually a good indicator how popular the place is. Another good source is to do an online search on Yelp.com and type in dim sum in your area and read the reviews.
These are the dim sum carts that you will see being shuttled around the restaurants, stopping at the tables with eager eaters to showcase their dishes. If you see what you like, you point and they will place it on your table and stamp the card. When you want to request a certain dish, you can use the handy dandy guide below and ask them in your best Chinese accent.
Steamed Pork Dumplings (Siu Mai: pronounced Shu Mai) - This is probably one of the most popular dim sum dishes. These distinctive steamed dumplings are shaped like a basket with the filling sticking out over the top and filled with pork and topped with fish roe.
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gau: pronounced Har Gow) - This is a delicate steamed dumpling with whole or chopped-up shrimp filling. The transparency of the dumpling wrapper comes from using wheat starch in the dough.
Rice Noodle Rolls (Cheung Fan) - These are wide, thin, and slippery rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats such as shrimp or beef, but this is our favorite which is filled with BBQ pork. It is also served with a drizzle of sweetened soy sauce.
Sticky Rice (Lo Mai Gai): This dish is packaged in fragrant lotus leaves which consists of sticky rice, sausage, and mushrooms. This is a picture of it unwrapped and halved so you can see the filling.
Phoenix Talons aka Chicken Feet (Fung Jao) - These are chicken feet that are deep-fried, boiled, and marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed. This results in a texture that is light and fluffy, while moist and tender. Keep in mind you are eating them for their taste, not their meat - so long as you can overcome your disgust from eating chicken's feet!
Steamed BBQ Pork Buns (Char Siu Bao): These are Cantonese barbecue pork buns filled with barbecue flavored char siu pork. These fluffy buns are made from wheat flour and steamed so they are fresh and hot when served.
Baked BBQ Pork Bun (Char Siu Bao) - This is the other variation of the BBQ Pork Bun, except that it's baked instead of steamed and uses a different kind of dough. Also, its distinctive honey glaze gives it that nice shiny gleam.
Barbecued Pork Pastry (Char Siu So) - This BBQ Pork Pastry is made with flaky puff pastry dough. This has a sticky glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Although the filling (Char Siu) is similar to the ones above, the puff pastry dough is what makes it different in flavor and texture.
Spring Roll (Chun Guen): This classic spring roll is usually filled with various types of vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and woodear mushrooms. It's rolled in a thin flour paper and deep fried. It can be served with a side of Worcestershire sauce. (It's pronounced Ki-Chup if you want to ask for this sauce).
Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Goh: pronounced Law Bok Gow): This cake is made from mashed daikon radish mixed with bits of dried shrimp and pork sausage that are steamed and then cut into slices and pan fried. The texture is dense, moist and slightly creamy.
Here is a picture of the Turnip cake being fried to a golden color on the cart. It's made fresh! It has certainly become one of my new favorites!
Chinese Broccoli (Gai Lan) - This is not your usual dim sum meat dish - duh! However, it's become more popular in restaurants because people like to enjoy all the protein-heavy dishes with a balance of some steamed vegetables. I personally like to order this because it's light and refreshing. The chinese broccoli is served with a drizzle of oyster sauce.
Tofu Bean Curd Roll (Sin Jyut Gyun) - The tofu skin is dried and hydrated during the cooking process. The filling consists of bamboo shoots and pork.
Pork Spare Ribs (Pai Gwat) - This is pork spare ribs that is steamed with fermented black beans. It's juicy, tender, and delicious - one of our favorites!
Chinese Donut Noodle Wrap (Zhaliang: pronounced Jaa Loeng) - This is a large rice noodle that is steamed and then wrapped around a Chinese donut stick. The donut itself is not sweet like your typical American donuts. It's very mild in flavor and has a nice crunch. It is served with two sauces - sweet Hoisin sauce and a peanut sauce.
Fried Taro Dumplings (Wo Gok) - This is a newer addition to the dim sum family and it's getting to be more prevalent in the restaurants we go to. The dumpling skin is made of fried taro that is flaky and crispy. The filling is made of seasoned ground pork and mushrooms.
Egg Custard Tart (Dan tat) - This is composed of a flaky puff pastry dough with an egg custard filling and baked to perfection.
Mango Pudding (Mong Guo Bo Din) - A nice refreshing dessert that is a sweet mango-flavored pudding and typically served over evaporated milk.
Sesame Seed Balls (Jin Dui) - Balls of glutinous rice flour that is filled with yellow mung bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and then deep fried.
This is how a typical dim sum restaurant will serve the dishes - in metal steamers or small plates. It's a great place to go with a group of people so that you can share the different options together. Enjoying your tea is also a big part of this meal. Tip: There is a polite way to ask for the teapot to be refilled with fresh hot water: by lifting the lid off and letting it hang loose by the rim. And remember, always pour tea for your fellow guests before serving yourself.
And of course... what do the stamps on these letter boxes mean??? In a typical dim sum restaurant with carts, you are given a card for your table and every time the servers give you a dish of your choice, they will stamp the card in the appropriate box to keep track of your bill. Each restaurant varies in how much they charge, but a good rule of thumb is that the "A" boxes range from $1.50 - $2.50, "B" boxes are $2.50 - $3.50, and "C' are $3.50 - $5.00. If you are worried about the bill, just ask your server what each letter box cost.
We hope that you were able to find this Dim Sum 101 tutorial to be helpful in your search for great dim sum! It is a wonderful brunch option when you are sick of the usual egg & bacon meals. Dim sum allows you to pick a lot of different dishes and sample them with your fellow company, and it’s light so you won’t leave feeling heavy and bloated. Just take your time, enjoy the never-ending tea, and have fun with the various options at the restaurant (don’t forget the dessert!). We would love to hear your own dim sum experience (likes, dislikes, favorite restaurants, etc) so please do share! We are in no way experts at this cuisine so we are eager to learn more. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll see us posting recipes of home-made dim sum!