OK, all you dim sum virgins out there! I thought it’d be fun to give you a primer about enjoying this traditional brunch meal of Chinese families all over the world. (This primer is also a good refresher for some of you regular dim sum hounds.) You can find dim sum, which roughly translates to “little bits of heart,” in any major city. Growing up in Honolulu, my family went to get dim sum every weekend. And in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are several excellent Chinese restaurants specializing in dim sum (the most notable is Koi Palace in Daly City).
As the Single Guy Chef, I actually rarely go out for dim sum. I eat dim sum only when my mom comes to visit me. Dim sum is best enjoyed with a big group, so it’s not something I do often by myself. So if you’re hankering for some dim sum, then call up your friends. A nice size group, in my opinion, is four to six people. That way you all can try a nice assortment of dishes but it’s not that big of a group that you end up waiting for a long time for a table.
Getting a table
The first challenge of dim sum is getting seated. If you go to a popular tea house, you’ll be greeted by a mass of hungry people waiting at the door and kids chasing each other around the corner. The peak times for dim sum is between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. My mom always say never go too early because the kitchen may not have geared up with all the varieties and you end up with just the basic choices. When you arrive, make a beeline to the host stand. Tell him or her the number of people in your party and be sure to get a number. Then get comfortable because you may end up waiting between 20 to 45 minutes, depending on how popular your dim sum spot is. Listen carefully because the host will often only announce the number once or twice before going to the next guests. (They’ll also say the number in both Cantonese and English.)
Pick a tea
When you get your table, the very first thing your host will ask you is the type of tea you’d like to drink. He’ll often ask you this even before you’re seated, so you should have an idea before hand so that your host doesn’t get frustrated waiting for you to decide. Tea is an integral part of your meal because the theory of dim sum is to enjoy small dishes with a soothing pot of tea. It’s a time when you talk with friends and relax with tea and tasty morsels.
The most common tea available is bo lay, a black tea that has a mix of oolong. This is often dark so it’s only best if you’re a big coffee drinker/caffeine freak. I often go with jasmine tea, which doesn’t get as dark during the course of your meal and has a nice fragrance. Another tea I often get is chrysanthemum (pronounced gook fa in Cantonese) because it’s a white tea that’s very light.
How it works
Ordering dim sum is a real contact sport. The best dim sum diners are the ones who can flag down a server and get the dishes they want. At most dim sum tea houses, dim sum is served in one of three ways: 1) from carts that servers push around the dining room, 2) from trays that servers carry around from table to table, or 3) from a menu at your table where you check the items you’d like to eat.
You’ll be charged per plate and the price is determined by the size of your plate. If you’re ordering from carts or trays, the server will mark your tab at the table. At the end of your meal, your host will tally the marks to give you a grand total.
Here’s a rundown of some of the common dim sum dishes so you’ll have a better idea of what you’re eating! I’ve grouped them by preparation styles.
The carts with the bamboo steamers stacked high like towers hold a variety of dishes, most of them meat and pork. One cart typically has siu mai (pork and shrimp wrapped with egg-like skin), har gow (diced shrimp wrapped in a translucent, white sticky rice skin), meat balls (typically resting on spinach or tofu sheets), spare ribs (tiny chops of ribs marinated with black beans, sometimes slightly spicy), and other dumplings like Shanghai style dumplings. Another cart will typically have a lot of the steamed buns, typically char siu (roasted sweet pork) or chicken. One cart will have more the specialty steamed items, such as chicken feet (yes, some people like chewing on the sauce and marrow of the feet) and seafood wrapped in tofu sheets.
One of my favorite steamed dish is called lo mai gai, a sticky rice creation filled with minced chicken and other ingredients steamed in a lotus leaf. Some restaurants will have two version, the traditional steam version and the dryer sticky rice version where it’s served covered by an upside down clear bowl. (That’s called lo mai fan, and looks like fried rice.)
Fry it up
Fried at your spot
Keep it frying
You’ll see an assortment of fried dishes, including sometimes fried calamari or fried shrimp. I typically avoid these just because they’re so fried, but if you like fried food, then go for the fried calamari, which is often good if fresh.
One cart may be filled with a lot of dishes that look almost like appetizers. These are often stuffed green bell pepper or mushrooms, or an eggplant dish.
May be an entrée
Fun with cheong fun
The cart with small oval shaped plates, often enclosed by a tin cover, are the cheong fun, which is wide rice noodle that’s stuffed with either shrimp, char siu (roasted sweet pork), or ground beef. Because it’s primarily rice noodle, it can taste bland, which is why the server will douse the plate with a soy sauce and sesame oil sauce. If you don’t like it too salty, ask the server to use just a little bit of sauce.
What’s for dessert
A separate dessert-like dish is called do-fu fa (translated mean tofu flower) and that’s just basically the finest, silkiest fresh tofu you’ve ever tasted. The tofu is so soft and light, and it’s served with a tablespoon of ginger sugar water. This is best eaten warm. (This dessert takes a lot of work so not every dim sum house will offer this.)
Some people believe that since you don’t really have one waiter serving you, it’s not as important to tip as high. But I believe that all the servers deserve something, so if they’ve been generally nice, I will still tip them between 18 to 20 percent like what I would do at other restaurants. Imagine how much fun it is pushing those steaming carts all day? :)