Dim sum for dummies

While the custom of eating dim sum had its origins in China, it’s now a style of eating that has spread across much of the world, with dim sum restaurants to be found in many cities. I’ve enjoyed eating dim sum since my youth in Perth, and have done so in a number of countries, including most recently in Hong Kong. In this post I outline in my ‘dim sum for dummies’ guide some of the information I’ve picked up along the way.

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The term ‘dim sum’ generally is used to describe a wide range of bite-sized dishes which you’d usually eat over a long brunch. These little dishes are usually baked, steamed or fried, and you drink tea as an accompaniment. The Poolboy and I love eating dim sum, and recently had two great dim sum meals in Hong Kong. It was while we were at these restaurants that I reflected on how many of the aspects of the dim sum experience are second nature to us, because we have a thriving Chinese cuisine culture in Australia. However, it may not be so familiar for readers in other parts of the world. So read on for what I’ve learned about dim sum.

Dim sum for dummies

The term ‘dim sum’ (點心) literally translates to ‘touch the heart’. I’m not sure what the relationship between the translation and the tiny dishes of food is? And in Chinese, people don’t say they are ‘Going out for dim sum’, they say they are ‘Going out for yum cha (飲茶)’ which translates to ‘Going out to drink tea’. It’s a bit like when Australians say, ‘meet you for coffee’, it doesn’t mean that you literally have to drink coffee, it describes the culture, scenario and timing of your meeting (i.e. a meeting between meals for a casual conversation in a cafe, where you may drink a coffee or tea or a soft drink etc. and you may eat a snack).


Traditionally (but not always) dim sum was served in the mornings as a brunch. However, nowadays, specialty dim sum restaurants often serve dim sum all day long, and sometimes even 24 hours a day. In some restaurants, dim sum may be on offer in the morning until early afternoon, and then they swap to an a la carte menu for the evening.

First things first – order your tea

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The first thing you do when you sit at the table is to order your tea. Generally, a tea cup will be put in front of each person and you’ll be charged for tea for everyone at the table (regardless of whether they drink the tea) unless you specify a number of people for tea. But tea is cheap, delicious and the perfect accompaniment to dim sum dishes, so why would you order any other beverages?  The types of tea on offer will vary from one establishment to the next. If in doubt, I say ‘jasmine tea’ and they always seem to have it.

Once the teapot arrives, whoever is pouring the tea should pour for all the others on the table, before pouring their own cup. Not only is it considerate manners, it’s a cultural tradition. And while the tea is being poured, the others should tap the table with fingers pointing towards the pourer (the middle and index fingers if you’re married, just index finger if single). There’s several stories about the origins of this tradition, but they basically boil down to the tapping mimicking bowing, and therefore it is a sign of respect to the pourer.

If you run out of tea or hot water (often they’ll bring you a second pot filled with hot water that can be used to water down tea which has been brewing for a while) you just flip the lid of the pot over, and a passing waitperson will see it and refill it.

Next – select your food

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Some restaurants pile dishes or steamers of dim sum onto trolleys which are pushed around the room, and as they pass your table you select anything that takes your fancy. At other places, there is a complete paper menu and pencil on your table. You simply read through it, and write the quantities required against any items you like the sound of (note: dish quantities NOT items). The menu will usually say how many individual items are in a dish – generally two, three or four pieces.

Whether you select from the trolley or via a menu, there will be some kind of blank paperwork left on your table, which is stamped or written on as waitstaff deliver each dim sum dish.

Dishes are typically divided into different categories which reflect the pricing rather than the size of a dish. So dishes in the “small” (小) category are the cheapest,  while “large” (大) and “special” (特) are the most expensive.

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If you’re ordering via pencil and form, wave it around in the air when you have finished, and it will be collected.

The best approach is to be reasonably adventurous and try things you haven’t had before. I often check out what people are having on other tables and point to them if they look good, so the waitstaff know to bring one of those.

Crockery and cutlery matters

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In front of you, you’ll find a teacup,  flat plate, a bowl and a set of chopsticks (on a chopsticks rest) and a serving spoon (in the bowl). Dim sum is traditionally eaten with chopsticks. If you really can’t manage chopsticks, you can ask for a fork.  The bowl sits on top of your flat plate, and the bowl is where you put your food. The flat plate is intended as a place for you to leave any bits (bones, garnishes etc) that you are not eating. The spoon is used to serve yourself from the dishes in the middle of the table.

Types of dim sum

There’s a huge range of dim sum, but generally they fall into five broad categories:

Steamed (e.g. Shumai and Shanghai soup dumplings)

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Buns (e.g. barbequed pork buns)

Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Fried and baked (e.g. deep fried wontons, spring rolls, pork pastry puffs, egg custard tarts)Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Noodles (filled rice noodle rolls)

Rice/wrapped items (e.g. steamed sticky rice, congee with pork).

Then there’s random dessert items thrown into the mix too – mango puddings, crispy taro dumplings, fried black sesame balls, egg custard tarts.

Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com

And of course, lurking somewhere in the menu may be possibly the most infamous of dim sum items…‘Phoenix Claws’ (braised chicken’s feet). Erm…no, thanks.

What? Dessert already?

The delivery of ordered dim sum items doesn’t follow the ‘savoury, then sweet’ routine that we’re used to. What we think of as ‘dessert’ items will be plonked down on the table at any point. It’s quite normal to have a shark’s fin dumpling, followed by an egg custard tart and then back to the turnip cakes.

Who gets the last tart?

As I said above, dishes come with different numbers of items. Some will have four in a serve, others two or three. So, say we’re having dim sum and there are four of us at the table, we’d generally order two of a dish that has two items, but one of a four. A three gets more tricky – if we all like that item, we order two. One item each, and two left over. In our experience, we’re more likely to be arguing about who isn’t going to have the last two than who is…as we’re usually so full of dim sum we can’t squeeze any extra in by that point. But apparently, the correct etiquette is to cut the remaining items into enough pieces for everyone. Or, if you only order one plate that comes in a three, you would cut those into pieces so all four can have some.

How you feel after dim sum

At Dim Dim Sum Specialty Store restaurant in Hong Kong, we ordered the ‘piggy custard buns’ which were the perfect description of how we felt at the end of the meal, as we had ordered so many tempting dishes.

Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com Dim sum for dummies: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Where we had dim sum in Hong Kong

DimDimSum Dim Sum Specialty Store
Address: Jordan: 21-23 Man Ying Street, Jordan, Kowloon (Tel: 27717766)
There’s also outlets in:
Mong Kok: 112 Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon (Tel: 23092300)
Wan Chai: 7 Tin Lok Lane, Wan Chai, HK (Tel: 28917677)
Shatin: Shop 108, 1/F, Citylink Plaza, Shatin (Tel: 22858149)
Facebook page: www.facebook.com/dimdimsum.hk.english
Huas Dim Sum
Address: 10 Jordan Road, Kowloon (Tel: 2388 7813)
Website: www.huashk.com

What do you know about dim sum? Any other tips or explanations to add? Have I got anything wrong?

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