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Dim Sum Guide and Menu

Dim sum restaurants have always been associated with noise, so don't be dissuaded by the boisterous throngs of locals gathered around large round tables. At one time big metal carts filled with bamboo baskets were pushed around the restaurant by ladies who would shout out the names of the dishes and stamp a mark onto a table's check when it ordered a basket of this or that. This is still the typical dim sum experience outside of China, but in Hong Kong most restaurants require you to order off a form, creating a more sedate and efficient dining experience. Thankfully, many places offer English-translated order forms or menus, although you should ask your waiter about daily specials that might not appear in translation, as those are often some of the most exciting dim sum options. And never forget that most basic principle of Hong Kong ordering: simply point to something you see at a nearby table.

Although dim sum comes in small portions, it's still intended for sharing between three or four people. When all is said and done, a group can expect to try about 10 or 12 dishes, but don't order more than one of any single item. Most dim sum restaurants prepare between 15 and 100 varieties of the more than 2,000 kinds of dim sum in the Cantonese repertoire, daily. These can be dumplings, buns, crepes, cakes, pastries, or rice; they can be filled with beef, shrimp, pork, chicken, bean paste, or vegetables; and they can be bamboo-steamed, panfried, baked, or deep-fried. More esoteric offerings vary vastly from place to place. Abandon any squeamish tendencies and try at least one or two unusual plates, like duck web (foot) in abalone sauce, tripe, liver dumplings, or dried pork bellies.

You'll be able to find dim sum from before dawn to around 5 or 6 pm, but it's most popular for breakfast (from about 7:30 to 10 am) and lunch (from about 11:30 am to 2:30 pm). Dim sum is served everywhere from local teahouses to high-concept restaurants, but it's often best at casually elegant, blandly decorated midrange spots that cater to Chinese families.

The following is a guide to some of our favorite common dim sum items, but don't let it narrow your mind. It's almost impossible to find a bite of dim sum that's anything less than delicious, and the more unique house specialties can often be the best.

Buns

Cha siu so: baked barbecued pork pastry buns; they're less common than the steamed cha siu bao, but arguably even better.

Cha siu bao: steamed barbecued pork buns are an absolute must. With the combination of soft and chewy textures and sweet and salty tastes, you might forget to remove the paper underneath before eating.

Dumplings

Har gau: steamed dumplings with a light translucent wrap that conceals shrimp and bamboo shoots.

Siu mai: steamed pork dumplings are the most common dumplings, and you'll find them everywhere, easily recognizable by their bright yellow wrappers; some are stuffed with shrimp.

Meats

Ngau yuk yuan: steamed beef balls, like meatballs, placed on top of thin bean-curd skins; not the most flavorful option, but a good one for kids or picky eaters.

Pie gwat: bite-size pieces of succulent pork spare ribs in a black-bean and chili-pepper sauce.

Rice creations

Ha cheong fun: shrimp-filled rice rolls, whose dough is made in a rice-noodle style; the thick, flat rice rolls are drowned in soy sauce. Other versions include ngau yuk cheong fun (beef filled) and cha siu cheong fun (barbecued pork filled; if available, these are not to be missed).

Ja leung: similar to cheong fun but filled with a crunchy, deep-fried pastry. The rice-noodle dough is sometimes dotted with chopped scallions. These are also served with soy sauce but should also be dunked in sweet sauce and peanut paste.

Ho yip fan: delicious sticky rice, which is usually cooked with chopped Chinese mushrooms, Chinese preserved sausage, and dried shrimp, and wrapped and steamed in a lotus leaf to keep it moist (don't eat the leaf).

Don't be afraid of …

Woo tao go: a glutinous panfried taro cake, sweet enough for dessert but eaten as a savory dish, with delicate undertones that come from preserved Chinese sausage, preserved pork belly, and dried shrimp. Another version of this is lau bak go, which is made with turnip instead of taro.

Foong jow: marinated chicken feet, whose smooth, soft texture is unlike any other. Once you get past the idea that you're sucking the cartilage off a foot, the sensation is wonderful.

Gam cheen to: cow's stomach served with chunks of daikon and doused in an addictive black-bean sauce with chili.

Sweets

Dan taht: tarts with a custard filling, generally served for dessert.

Mong gwor bo deen: mango pudding that has a consistently glassy texture. The pudding itself is not too sweet and needs to be eaten with condensed milk.

Ma lai go: This soft and spongy steamed cake is served warm and is popular for its eggy, custardy aroma.

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