By Stephanie Hua
Literally translated, dim sum means "touch the heart." Poetically translated, it means the "heart’s delight." Too true. Dim sum is a feast of mouthwatering, bite-sized morsels of varying textures, preparations, and succulent flavors.
Going to yum cha ("drink tea") is what we call going out for tea and dim sum in Chinese. The practice originated in southerm China, was perfected in Hong Kong, and now, in any given place with a Cantonese-speaking population, it is a favorite weekend pastime—think brunch-meets-Chinese-tapas.
In some larger dim sum houses, communal seating at big round tables is customary. There is usually a Lazy Susan involved. Once seated, you receive a bottomless pot of tea (for a refill, tip the lid open) and a card which gets stamped as you receive dishes. Pricing is cryptic, so don’t waste precious eating time trying to figure it out. Dishes are grouped into "small, medium, and large" brackets. Simple "small" dishes, like dumplings, usually come in at a few dollars, while more involved "large" dishes, requiring more skill to make, are more expensive. But prices aren’t always clearly displayed. Don’t worry about it. Just eat. Dim sum isn’t meant to break the bank anyway.
Traditionally, dishes are paraded around and rolled tableside on carts stacked high with steamers and plates. See something that looks good? Smile and point, and it’ll land on your table. Instant gratification. It can get rowdy with cart ladies hawking their goods, excitable customers flagging down dishes whizzing by, and neighbors fighting over the bill. It’s all part of the dim sum experience.
The key to a well-balanced dim sum meal is variety. You want something steamed, something baked, and something fried. You want chewy and crispy, savory and sweet. So we put toghether a rundown of dishes worth chasing down a cart for; a guide to dim sum-ing in any destination.
Har Gau (Shrimp Dumplings)
Har gau are one of the most common dishes, but truly great har gau are a treasure. These steamed dumplings should be generously stuffed with whole shrimp and little bits of water chestnuts or bamboo shoots for a bit of crunch. The translucent wrappings should be supple with a nice chew to it, and not too thick. Done well, you’ll find yourself doubling down on these plump beauties.
Cha Siu Sou (Barbecued Pork Pastries)
Cha siu sou are like the Chinese version of a meat pie. The inside is the same red-hued pork and onion filling you’ve probably seen in baked or steamed cha siu bao (barbecued pork buns). The outside, though, is another story. Flaky and buttery, like a cross between puff pastry and shortbread, these little pastries bring sweet and savory bliss to another level.
Cheung Fun (Rice Noodle Rolls)
Cheung fun come in all sorts of tasty forms—ngau cheung (beef rolls), har cheung (shrimp rolls), and yuen sai chong cheung (parsley and scallion rolls) are the most popular. What they all have in common are the silky sheets of steamed rice noodles swaddling the various filling, doused in sweet soy sauce.
Ja Leung (Cruller Rice Noodle Rolls)
Ja leung are another type of roll you should keep an eye out for—they get snatched up quick. Instead of a meat filling here, we have a fried cruller. That’s right: carb-on-carb action. When executed well, the contrast between the hot crispy bread and the slippery smooth rice noodle is pure joy.
Wu Gok (Fried Taro Dumplings)
Wu gok are made of mashed taro root. The taro is similar in texture to mashed potatoes, but subtly sweet, and with a purplish tinge. At the center of the mash is a saucy ground pork filling. Surrounding the outside of this little savory bundle is a nest of delicate fried flakiness. We liken this dish to a handheld version of Shepherd’s Pie, with extra crispies on top.
Lo Bok Go (Turnip Cakes)
Lo bok go are best when made by a grandma. Some dim sum places do a good job too though, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the chef’s grandma was responsible for them anyway. These flavorful cakes are made of shredded daikon, or Chinese radish, rice flour, and water. The mixture is made into a batter, studded with pork, dried shrimp, and scallions, then steamed into a firm (but definitely still jiggly) cake. Once the cake has cooled, it is sliced up and pan-fried golden. A good lo bok go is crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and full of umami.
Lo Mai Gai (Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf)
Lo mai gai is made with a glutinous rice typically stuffed with Chinese sausage, salted egg yolk, chicken, and mushrooms. It is steamed inside a lotus leaf and presented still wrapped up.
Lau Sah Bao (Egg Custard Buns)
Lau sah bao may look plain from the outside, but they are full of surprises. It takes a master dim sum chef to create these treasures of molten, buttery, yolky sweetness, encased in steamed bun fluff. These lava-filled buns are a great way to end your meal.
There are dozens more variations on buns, dumplings, and other dishes to enjoy over a proper dim sum feast. For adventurous eaters, there is fung zao (chicken feet), jue hung (pig’s blood), ngau jaap (beef intestines), or ngau pak yip (beef tripe). But we can work up to those. For now, these eight dim sum classics we’ve covered will surely become staples on your Lazy Susan.
Stephanie Hua is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her food blog, Lick My Spoon, chronicles her culinary adventures and love for all things delicious. Her favorite place to travel at the moment is Sicily, mainly for the cannoli and arancini.
Photo Credits: Courtesy Stephanie Hua