What is Dim Sum?

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Hong Kong Dim Sum

Custard Filled Hong Kong Style Dim Sum at a Xiamen Restaurant

Dim Sum has a long history in China that dates back to the Silk Road. This tea centered meal has spread from Southastern China to the world. As a tea drinker, this is a culinary tradition from China that is just as important as British high tea. Every serious tea drinker should go to Dim Sum at least once in their life.

Dim Sum Origins

Since the Song Dynasty (960-1127 C.E.), Dim Sum has been served in Southeastern China in the Provence of Guangdong, which is home to Hong Kong and the Cantonese people. It is common to find Dim Sum referred to as Cantonese cuisine. Originating in the tea houses along the Silk Road, Dim Sum is a series of small dishes of food served with a never ending pot of tea. It was up to the traveler to pick and choose what they wanted from the menu. In China, Dim Sum is typically served all day. In the US, you may find it served as brunch, lunch or dinner.

The Dim Sum menu is vast and overwhelming. However, it is an amazing array of flavors and textures that reflect not only the Cantonese people but food cultures through out China. There are dumplings filled with seafood, meat or vegetables. Congee, rice porridge, mixed with vegetables and pork. Rice buns filled with barbecued pork, stir fried seafood or vegetables. Dragon claws, or fried chicken feet, is another Cantonese delicacy. There are plates of stir fried meat or vegetables in various sauces. One of our favorite plates is the rice noodle rolls filled with sweet potato or taro. The roll is made by wrapping the rice noodles around the food and dropping it into a fryer, which gives a crispy texture to the outside and a soft inside. There are also sweets in the form of pastries and rice buns filled with sweet egg custard. This is a multi-course meal, so you don’t have to order everything at once. That gives you time to digest and decide on what is next to try. Keep in mind, the serving portions are small so you can order and try a lot of different things.

Much like high tea, Dim Sum has its own etiquette that should be followed.

Cantonese Dim Sum

Cantonese Style Dim Sum at one of the oldest garden style restaurants in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China

Dim Sum Etiquette

One starts Dim Sum by ordering the tea. Traditionally it would oolong tea in Guangdong but even they now offer all types. In Guangdong, the first pot is used to wash the dishes. To an American, this is rather odd as the dishes come out clean and often shrink wrapped in plastic to confirm cleanliness. However, you watch many a table unwrap the dishes and pour hot oolong tea over them into a bin that is taken away by staff.

If you sit to the left of the tea pot, it is your job to serve the guests at the table tea and to turn up the lid on the tea pot when it gets empty. That indicates to the staff that they need to bring more water. Always pour the other guests tea first, then pour your own cup.

Keep your chopsticks to yourself. Each dish is to be shared with the table, so it comes with serving spoons or chopsticks and your have your own chopsticks. So there are a fair number of utensils to keep straight. Just remember if the chopsticks went in your mouth, they do not get used to take food off the serving plate.

Most of the authentic dishes are best served warm and don’t reheat well, so skip the doggie bag.

Dim Sum is an amazing meal with tea that is worth the effort to find here in the states. As a tea drinker, you will find it is just as social an experience as high tea but with a lot more food choices.

 

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