Broadening Your Palate: What Is Dim Sum?

Everywhere you look, there is a Chinese restaurant. Over 45,000 Chinese restaurants operate across America.

Yet each of these restaurants is distinct. One distinction is how they serve dim sum. Each serves its own variety of dishes, and each has a unique way of serving those dishes.

What are those dishes? How do restaurants serve dim sum? Where did dim sum come from, and how did it get to be so popular?

Answer those questions and you can enrich your taste in Chinese cuisine. Here is your quick guide.

What Is Dim Sum?

Dim sum is a Chinese meal made of individual small plates. It is similar to tapas, which is a meal from Spain that comprises several small dishes.

Dim sum is a communal meal. The plates are supposed to be shared amongst several people. It is usually eaten during brunch hours, but you can make a lunch out of it.

Restaurants serve plates when they’re ready. The traditional drink for all plates is tea, though you can drink water or alcohol.

History of Dim Sum

Dim sum emerged from Guangzhou, a city located in southern China. In the tenth century, Guangzhou was a major financial hub. Travelers came through the city and engaged in business meetings at teahouses.

Since they were conducting business, they preferred small meals that they could share with their clients. Teahouses began serving snacks and small-portion meals alongside tea. These were first called yum cha, which means “drink tea.”

The term, “dim sum,” translates to “touching heart.” This refers to how small the food is. The term overtook yum cha in popularity, though some people in China still use yum cha to refer to small meals served with tea.

Dim sum took some time to spread throughout China. Restaurants that specialized in dim sum did not emerge until the nineteenth century.

As Westerners began to enter China, dim sum dishes became more Western. In turn, Chinese immigrants to the United States brought dim sum with them. Dishes incorporated Western ingredients like ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, encouraging Americans to try them out.

Types of Dim Sum

Since dim sum is designed for sharing and tasting a variety of foods, there are many types of dim sum. The most common dish is dumplings.

Jiaozi are among the most popular dumplings in the world. They contain ground meat and vegetables wrapped in thinly rolled dough. Chefs can steam or pan-fry them, then they serve them with a black vinegar sauce.

Xiaolongbao are steamed dumplings with aspic in them. As they are cooked, the aspic melts into the broth. In a Chinese-American restaurant, they are often called “soup dumplings.”

Buns are similar to dumplings, but they have a yeast-leavened wrapping. Barbecued pork buns contain shredded pork, usually with a little sauce.

Rolls are another popular dish. Spring rolls contain sliced vegetables inside of a deep-fried wrapper. Rice noodle rolls are thin rolls filled with meat and vegetables and then steamed.

There are many different meat options. Spare ribs are steamed pork ribs with chilies and garlic. Deep-fried squid is similar to calamari, but it contains more spices and salt.

If you want a sweet option, you can order a sweet bun. Common cakes include water chestnut cakes, which are small puddings made with water chestnuts.

Some restaurants specialize in fusion dim sum. They serve buns with ground beef or pumpkin. Others serve American dishes like French fries and chicken wings.

You can prepare most dim sum dishes at home.

Dim Sum Tea

In a traditional dim sum meal, the tea is just as important as the food. Most restaurants have several different teas to choose from.

Green tea is a light drink made from unprocessed leaves. The tea tastes grassy, but it does not overpower the food. If you want a stronger drink, you can order oolong or black tea.

Oolong is partially oxidated, while black is fully oxidated. Oxidation makes the drink taste sweeter and bolder. You can order a blended drink that combines green and black tea leaves.

Green, oolong, and black tea contain caffeine. If you want to avoid caffeine, you can drink chrysanthemum tea made from pure chrysanthemum flowers.

Ordering Dim Sum

Most American restaurants will provide you with a menu. You tell the waiter what dishes you want, and they bring them to you when you are ready.

In restaurants in China, the ordering process functions differently. Waiters come by with carts and ask you if you want a particular dish. If you do, they will serve you.

Tea is usually served before food. A waiter may leave a pot of tea on the table, allowing you to pour yourself a glass.

Dim sum is intended to be leisurely. A meal is a social experience that takes hours to unfold. Take advantage of the communal atmosphere to relax and order food when you are ready.

The Essentials of Dim Sum

Dim sum has become one of the most popular ways to eat Chinese food. It emerged from Guangzhou in the tenth century. It promoted a communal experience by providing short dishes that could be shared at a table.

Most dim sum dishes are small, like dumplings. You may find fusion or American dishes at an American restaurant. You should also drink tea alongside your food.

A meal can take place over a few hours. Enjoy the experience of sharing dishes with friends and being served tableside.

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