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Beginner's guide to dim sum

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 2
Dim Sum spread

Dim sum is one of the great traditions of Chinese cuisine. It started off as a Cantonese (part of Southern China) custom which is linked to its tradition of "yum cha" (drinking tea). Over several centuries, the dim sum culinary tradition has evolved to its current state. Nowadays, people partake in dim sum as a simple snack or meal from early morning to mid afternoon. While the tradition of serving dim sum used to be from push carts being ferried around the shop or restaurant, many have since replaced it with a self-service system whereby the customer would use a pencil to mark off menu items and the number of orders. However, the tradition of serving dim sum in steamer baskets is still maintained as the latter, together with the steaming technique, help to preserve the flavour and nutritional properties of the food.
Besides the culinary delights, the dim sum experience is usually shared with family members or friends, with everyone enjoying the dishes and lively conversations with one another in a boisterous restaurant. 

Dim Sum Cart

The dim sum serving sizes are usually small, comprising three or four pieces in one dish. The usual way of ordering dim sum is to order a variety of dishes which could be shared by several people. Due to the bite-sized portions of each dish, customers, particularly first-timers to the dim sum experience, are encouraged to try a variety of the dim sum dishes. Some have even likened the dim sum experience to a mini-imperial dining affair as one could sample small portions of different dishes throughout the meal.

Given the oily nature of the dishes, it is recommended that one drinks tea, such as pu-er tea, to help rinse all the grease from the food out of the system. Drinking tea also aids digestion, blood circulation and lowers cholesterol levels.

Dim sum must be eaten when it is fresh, and is usually eaten hot with a lot of sauce .These can be soy sauce, chilli sauce or XO sauce. 

Chinese tea

Some popular dishes are as follows. (The list is not exhaustive and does not do justice to the wonderful variety of dishes available in a dim sum restaurant.)

(1) Har Gao (Shrimp Dumpling)

The dumpling is filled with shrimp, cooked pork fat, bamboo shoots, scallions, cornstarch, sesame oil, soy sauce or oyster sauce, sugar and other seasonings. The pouch-shaped dumpling is then steamed in a bamboo basket until the skim turns translucent. The fairly plump shrimp is carefully cooked so that it does not end up overcooked. Before eating, it is usually dipped in soy sauce or red/black vinegar. 

Har Gao
Credit: http://singapuradailyphoto.blogspot.com/2007/12/boon-lay-raja-seafood-and-sharksfin.html

(2) Siu Mai (steamed pork and mushroom dumpling)

Its fillings consist mainly of ground pork, chopped shrimp, Chinese black mushroom, shallots and giner, with seasoning of soy sauce, sesame oil and chicken stock. There are several variations of siu mai, depending on the locality. (The Cantonese version is the most well-known and commonly served in many Chinese restaurants.) The skin covering is made of egg and lye water dough. The centre of the dumpling is garnished with an orange dot, usually made of crab roe or diced carrot. It can also be eaten with a touch of soy sauce or black vinegar.

Siu Mai

(3) Char Siu Bao (Bun with pork filling)

The buns are usually filled with tender, sweet and slowly-roasted pork. The dough of the steamed bun makes use of both yeast and baking powder as leavening, which gives the bun the texture of fine soft bread. The white puffy skin should be soft and fluffy. If the buns are left in the dim sum cart for too long, the skin would turn soggy. The pork filling is usually diced and then mixed with oyster sauce, sesame seed oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and cornstarch. 

Char Siu Bao

(4) Lo Baak Gou (Turnip Cake)

The dish is made of shredded Chinese radish and plain rich flour. Corn starch is also used to help bind the cake together. Besides these key ingredients, dried shrimp, dried mushroom, shredded carrots and Chinese sausage are also added to spice up the dish. (These are usually stir-fried first before being added to the radish/flour mixture.) The combined mixtured is steamed for about 40-60 minutes until it solidifies into a gelatinous mass. The dish is usually cut into squared-shaped pieces before serving. The cake has a think crunchy layer on the outside, while it remains soft on the inside. 

Turnip Cake

(5) Phoenix Claws (Fried chicken feet)

The chicken feet are first marinated in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, wine and maltose sugar. Then they are fried in oil to give a crispy crunchy taste to the outside layer. After that, they are boiled before being stewed in sauce flavoured with bean paste, sugar, black fermented beans or abalone sauce. Usually, the soft bones and skins of the chicken feet are chewed on, while the hard bones are left aside. 

Chicken Feet

(6) Lo Mai Gai (Steamed glutinous rice with chicken in lotus leaf wrap)

The dish contains glutinous rice filled with chicken, Chinese mushrooms, pork, a tiny quail egg, scallions and dried shrimp.  The seasoning for the rice consists of shallot oil, sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar and white pepper. After that, the rice ball is wrapped in a dried lotus leaf before being steamed. 

Lo Mai Gai

(7) Fried spring rolls

The dish consists of pork or chicken breast meat cut into thin strips. Together with shrimp bits, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, carrots, mushrooms and scallions, it is then mixed with soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and sugar. The mixture is then left to marinate for 20 minutes, before being stir-fried. After that, the fillings are placed in spring roll wrappers, before being deep fried. The dish is served hot to maintain its flavour and aroma.

Fried spring rolls

(8) Egg custard tarts

This popular treat is a stalwart of the dim sum scene. The soft, quivering custard sits within its flaky pastry shell made from a combination of sugar, flour, egg, water and lard which give it a rich golden appearance. Some restaurants have also introduced alternative flavours such as taro and coffee, as well as egg tarts with different kinds of crust. 

Egg tarts



Dec 11, 2011 1:04pm
Super feature, great photos.
Dec 18, 2011 2:08am
What a delightful feature about having "Yum Cha", which is what they call it in Hong Kong, where I used to live until the late 1970s. Yum Cha means to drink tea, which is what you do as all the trays and trolleys of food are paraded by you. I now live in Sydney Australia, where the better Chinese restaurants have great Yum Cha. The local Aussie refer to the dishes as "dim sims" for some strange reason, just as they call noodle soup "long soup" and noodles with Wun Tun (dumplings) get called "long and short soup". Languages sure can be funny sometimes!
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