When dining in a Chinese dim sum parlor, there’s a right way, and there’s a wrong way
by Siobhan Adcock and Genevieve Tsai, Epicurious
Clockwise from left: a table of dim sum dishes, pork buns, and deep-fried shrimp wrapped in bacon.
You could say dim sum is basically a snack served with tea…but that’s like saying Times Square is basically an intersection, or the Rockies are basically a pile of dirt. Visit a busy dim sum restaurant in your local Chinatown on a Saturday, and you’ll discover that this “snack” is foodie theater at its most enjoyable: a parade of metal carts trailing exquisite aromas, fragrant teapots steaming and lids clanging, patrons calling for their favorites, meal tickets being rubber-stamped in exchange for dishes, and the sound of the happiest question on earth (or one of them): “No one wants that last dumpling? Seriously?"
Dim sum is also called yum cha, which means “drink tea” in Cantonese, or dian xin in Mandarin (the direct translation: “touch the heart”). The meal is sort of like tapas on wheels: a savory and sweet variety of Cantonese dumplings, buns, and congees, all served from wheeled carts on small plates designed to encourage sampling and sharing. There’s debate about the “best” time of day for dim sum: In China, dim sum is served as early as 5 a.m., whereas here in the States, it tends to be more of a brunch-type affair, although some restaurants offer dim sum through the dinner hours. It’s also a question of argument whether a “proper” dim sum restaurant needs to offer a menu at all—many restaurants dispense with the formality of a printed menu, and instead encourage guests to choose from whatever’s on offer from the carts circulating the room.
Diving into dim sum can feel like navigating the world’s most delicious traffic jam: The carts! The crowds! The perhaps deliberately inexplicable rubber-stamping system! Below are a few helpful dos and don’ts to help you master the basics as well as some of the finer points of dim sum dining.
Don’t: Ask for coffee. Tea is at the heart of dim sum. You’re usually given three choices: pu’er (superstrong fermented black tea from Yunnan province), jasmine (hua cha in Mandarin), and chrysanthemum flower (ju hua in Mandarin), which is lightly sweetened and believed to help digestion.
Do: Leave the lid of the teapot ajar if you would like a refill.
Don’t: Pour yourself tea first. Always pour your companions’ cups before your own.
Do: Know how to show appreciation. If someone serves you tea, tap the table with your pointer and middle finger as a gesture of thanks.
Don’t: Expect spicy. The Cantonese—folks from Hong Kong and Guangdong province—own dim sum, so you’ll look in vain for fiery Sichuan food or Shanghainese soup dumplings. Cantonese food is all about the freshness of ingredients.
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Do: Feel free to ask for chili sauce if you’re hankering for some spice. Ask your waiter for some la jiu (in Cantonese) or lè jiao (in Mandarin).
Don’t: Lose track of your actual waiter—usually the person who takes your drink order after you are seated. Status is important to the Chinese, and there’s a strict hierarchy in proper dim sum palaces. Don’t bug the captains—the guys in suits—with requests for ice water.
Do: Leave a tip on your table. A standard 15 to 20 percent tip is customary; in most restaurants, tips are shared among waitstaff, including those pushing the carts.
Don’t: Fill up on rice. In fact, feel free to skip the rice altogether. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese don’t eat rice at every meal. (Actually, at traditional banquets, rice is served at the end—guests are meant to be so full from the preceding delicacies that they won’t be able to finish a humble bowl of rice.)
Do: Try to pace yourself. Dim sum is all about variety and sharing, but the dumplings and buns can be surprisingly filling.
Don’t: Save dessert for last. There’s no set order to eating dim sum, so go ahead and grab those egg tarts or sticky-rice sesame balls.
Do: Stick to your culinary comfort zone, shame-free—if you’re not adventurous enough for chicken feet, you don’t need to feel like a chicken.
Don’t: Ask for a window seat. Dim sum may be the one case in which the table close to the kitchen door is actually the most desirable seat in the house.
Do: Take note of the carts that come straight out of the kitchen. They’ll have the freshest tidbits, and don’t be shy about chasing down one of the cart ladies. Just bring your table’s tally card to have it stamped.
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FIVE TO TRY
Winsor Dim Sum Cafe
10 Tyler Street, Boston
A Beantown dim sum institution—except without carts! Don’t panic, just order from the tantalizing photo menu, and don’t be shy about asking a neighboring table what they’ve ordered if something looks great.
In New York City:
202 Centre Street (between Hester and Grand streets), Manhattan
In a city with more dim sum options than you can throw a chopstick at, Red Egg is dismissed by some as inauthentic for its loungey atmosphere, but the creativity and freshness of the dishes are impossible to ignore, and the dim sum menu is served all day until 11 p.m.
In Los Angeles:
Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant 3939 North Rosemead Boulevard, Rosemead 626-288-3939 Come early (before 10 a.m.) to beat the crowds at this much-lauded, elegant Cantonese seafood restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley. The prices are higher than your average divey dim sum joint, but you won’t hear anyone complaining who has a steamer pot of the translucent shrimp dumplings.
In San Francisco:
With the recent closing of the beloved Gold Mountain, the best bet for dim sum might be a cherry-picking walking tour of Chinatown’s many takeout-friendly dim sum joints: Wing Sing for dumplings (1125 Stockton Street, between Jackson Street and Pacific Avenue), Yong Kee for soups, noodles, and more dumplings (732 Jackson Street, between Jason Court and Ross Alley), and Good Mong Kok Bakery for buns and pastries (1039 Stockton Street, between Washington and Jackson streets).
Venture south to Kent’s Great Wall Mall, where the anchor restaurant, Imperial Garden Seafood, offers the quintessential cart-traffic-jam experience:
Imperial Garden Seafood Restaurant
18230 E. Valley Highway, Suite 116, Kent
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