Dim sum is a traditional Chinese style of meal with a characteristic presentation. It takes the form of several small dishes, each with a different food, rather than one large plate with a single main course. The roots of dim sum are relatively recent- it arose in the late 1800s near Hong Kong, in tearooms that had previously been involved in serving opium. The original meaning of “dim sum” in Mandarin is “to eat something small” in literal terms, which when interpreted more poetically as a meal of many small servings is quite descriptive.
The modern version of dim sum appeared in the middle of the 20th century in Hong Kong. Nowadays, it has become quite popular both in China and countries with Chinese immigrants, such as the United States. Dishes can be categorized by their cooking method. For example, a common category of dim sum dish is steamed dumplings, which can hold a meat, usually pork or shrimp, and vegetable fillings. Many variations on the basic theme of “wrapping of dough containing mixed fillings” exist, and every dim sum restaurant should have plenty of options. Other dishes are pan-fried- a simple example is the potsticker, which is very similar to the steamed dumpling, but is pan-fried with the fillings rather than steamed, giving it a crispy crust. Still other dishes might be baked or deep-fried. All are generally small bite-sized portions, often some variant on wrapped fillings or a cake. Dim sum also includes sweet offerings, like mango pudding and custard tarts, to finish the meal.
As for how to actually order dim sum, a little research is a big help before jumping into fine dining in Hong Kong. The way dim sum works appears informal compared to other sit-down restaurants. The diners sit down at a table and wait- usually, tea is served. Servers push carts full of dishes around the dining room, and the diner needs to point to a dish he or she wishes to eat when the cart comes near. It can be chaotic to newcomers, especially if they don’t know the dishes. Each cart will be loaded with a few different varieties and carry several plates or bowls of each variety. Most dim sum restaurants allow guests to ask for a dish that isn’t on an active cart, and often a diner will get up to catch a cart they like on the opposite side of the room.
The server will hand the selected dish to the diner, who eats it with chopsticks. The food is quite good, despite its humble origins. The best dim sum in Hong Kong is at Mott 32, which has an extensive menu and great service. If you haven’t tried it before, dim sum can be a really fun way to eat and experience new dishes. The variety of food makes dim sum the best way to try out a lot of unfamiliar food without spending too much money. It’s a unique Chinese way to enjoy some new tastes!
Enjoy more about dim sum and read: Getting to Know Your Dim Sum!
Written by: Lea Andersen