What is Dim Sum?
The Chinese words 点心 (‘dian xin’ in Mandarin, and ‘dim sum’ in Cantonese) literally mean ‘a little bit of heart’, and refer to a meal consisting mostly of small servings of delicately-crafted morsels, typically accompanied by pots of steaming tea.
Why is it called ‘a little bit of heart’? Some believe it’s because dim sums are small and delicate, and require a bit of heart and patience to make. There’s also a legend that a general during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 AD) commanded his kitchen staff to ferry small dishes to his soldiers on the frontline, to symbolize his ‘heartfelt’ gratitude.
Although today dim sum is more closely associated with Hong Kong and the Cantonese-speaking regions of Southern China, there’s actually a longer documented history of it in the North. (Curiously, in the North it’s seen as food for the upper echelons, whereas in the South, it’s fare for commoners. Dim sum – the great equalizer!) Waves of Chinese migration have now brought dim sum to the rest of the world, where it’s fast gaining popularity for its sheer variety in taste, presentation and also innovation.
Yum Cha: the Dim Sum Ritual
Going to a restaurant for dim sum is a weekend ritual for many Chinese families. (Dim sum is almost exclusively a restaurant affair, because a big part of the fun is getting to sample a wide variety of dishes, which consequently makes it impractical for home cooks.)
At the restaurant, waitstaff (usually women) push around steam carts stacked with bamboo baskets or small porcelain platters, or containing vats of soup or stew. You wave to stop a passing cart, then point at what you’d like to try. The waitress then stamps the card that is issued to every table (just like the one below) to indicate the size of the dim sum you’ve chosen. At the end of your meal, the stamps will be totalled up and form the basis of your bill.
In Cantonese, going out for dim sum is also called “yum cha”, which literally means to “drink tea”, and refers to the pot of tea that is given to every table. Before you sit down, the waiter always asks you what kind of tea you’d like to accompany your meal. Popular teas are Jasmine Tea (香片 xiang pian in Mandarin and heung peen in Cantonese), Pu-erh Tea (普洱 pu’er in Mandarin and bo lay in Cantonese), and Chrysanthemum Tea（菊花 jü hua in Mandarin and kok fa in Cantonese).
The Kinds of Dim Sum
Dim sum can generally be categorized by how they are cooked: steamed (蒸), deep-fried or pan-fried（炸 or 煎), boiled (水煮) or baked (烘). (Not coincidentally, these categories form the basis for the four factions in Dim Sum Warriors.)
Although their possibilities are endless and chefs are innovating every day, the following are generally recognized as ‘must haves’ at any dim sum meal:
Shrimp Dumpling(虾饺 xiajiao in Mandarin or ha gow in Cantonese) – shrimp steamed in a dough wrapper
Pork Dumpling(烧卖 shaomai in Mandarin or siu my in Cantonese) – minced pork and shrimp steamed in a yellow wrapper made from flour and egg
Various Baos (包 bao in both Mandarin and Cantonese) – steamed buns with various fillings, such as (pictured, L-R:) roast pork, red bean and egg custard.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be introducing more dim sums, so please check back regularly to join us on this journey of culinary discovery!