If you love Chinese food, or really any kind of snacks, then the prospect of going to an honest-to-goodness dim sum restaurant in China has to make you giddy with anticipation.

Tea houses and noodle shops were the original fast-food places, dating back to the days of the Silk Road. Then as now, restaurateurs had the challenges of getting the most profit out of their ingredients, and attracting business throughout the day. The little dishes we recognize today as classics all started with cooks being creative with leftover bits of meat and dough and under-utilized woks and steamers.

Small snacks were just the right thing to offer between mealtimes and in the morning, and the concept caught on quickly. Competition among restaurants and travelers’ tales helped spread recipes and established favorites, especially in the southern provinces where this kind of cooking became an art form, as did the Cantonese social custom of yum cha (drinking tea).

The dim sum menu is ever-changing as new ingredients are discovered, cultures and chefs meet and exchange ideas, and cooking technology changes. Who knows what tomorrow’s favorites will be?

Photo by Charles Haynes via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Charles Haynes via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Going to the restaurant

Before your trip, be certain to pick up the picture book by Grace Lin, Dim Sum for Everyone. It’s a kids’ favorite - and for grownups actually a thorough primer to the foods and environment in a traditional restaurant.

Dim Sum is often available weekday mornings (sometimes at a discount), and of course for weekend brunches. In Guangzhou and Hong Kong the weekend dim sum is family tradition, and restaurants get very crowded. Hotel offerings may be well-publicized but often very expensive - ask around for where local folks go instead.

The characters you want to look for when walking around are:

點心

“Dim Sum” in Cantonese, or diǎn xin (deeun-SHIN) in Mandarin (Literally, “touch heart”). The characters shown are ‘traditional’ style, as that’s what they still use in Hong Kong, where Dim Sum culture is strongest, and also because that’s the style that Chinese migrants used in restaurants everywhere they settled.

Seating in these restaurants is usually around big round tables, with lazy-susans in the middle to make it easier to share dishes. Tables are meant to hold a big party, and the bigger the group the more fun you’ll have. The more dishes you can try the better the chance you’ll find something you absolutely love.

Photo by Mack Male via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Mack Male via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

The ordering process typically goes one of two ways:

  • When seated, your party will get a blank bill. Servers will roll carts past your table, each cart with a different dish (or related group of dishes) fresh from the kitchen. If you’d like it, motion yes, and the server will mark your bill after setting the basket on the table.

  • Some restaurants (especially in Hong Kong) will have bilingual menus where you mark your own choices after being seated. Your party’s food will not come all at once, but there will be a steady stream of plates and baskets delivered from the kitchen.

It’s very easy with the menu method to not order enough; serving sizes are small compared to American expectations, usually just three pieces of a dish - so getting three or four different dishes per person still won’t be enough to satiate a hearty appetite. The pick-from-the-cart method probably does result in more food being eaten...

When your party is finished, wave your server down to tally the bill; they won’t bring it to you when they sense you’re done. (After all, the longer you sit, the more you’ll be tempted to grab just one more thing.)

Kinds of dishes you’ll see at a Dim Sum restaurant

  • Buns

Pineapple buns, custard buns, honey-glazed buns

  • Rice

Fried rice wrapped in lotus leaf 

Zongzi with various fillings 

Steamed chicken in rice casseroles

  • Soups

Birds’ nest, abalone, congee

Poached fish, seafood, and chicken in broth

  • Steamed

Dumplings, shumai, jiaozi, and bao

Braised meats, spare ribs

Steamed seafood

Steamed flour rolls with various fillings

  • Fried

Spring rolls, turnip and taro cakes

Scallion pancakes

Pan-fried dumplings

Chicken feet

Deep-fried glutinous rice balls with fililngs

Battered, deep-fried meat and seafood

  • Cute

Pastry, buns, and rice-flour wrappers can be twisted, cut, stuffed, glazed, and cooked to resemble cartoon animals and pieces of dessert or candy.

  • Desserts

Egg tarts and mango pudding 

Thousand-layer cake, sponge cake 

Bean curd buddings, red-bean soups and fillings

Glutinous rice in coconut cream

Photo by Darius Dunlap via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Photo by Darius Dunlap via Flickr, CC 2.0 license

Dim Sum back at home

Look for Chinese restaurants in major cities who specialize in dim sum. Read online reviews and food writers’ recommendations. Buffet-style places - and any shop with a Western-food menu - are not likely to give an authentic experience.

Asian supermarkets - in addition to frozen jiaozi and bao, plus shumai and bread buns - also often have trays of assorted other dim sum dishes you can stir-fry or steam at home. While these are prepared primarily for the foodservice trade, there’s no reason you can’t invite family and friends over for brunch once you know your way around a wok and set of steam baskets.