A Dim Sum Story

Everything you need to know about dim sum

Ever walk by a dim sum parlor? If so, you likely stopped in your tracks to watch families and friends move their hands from cart to table—sharing laughs, love and dumplings. The vision is enough to make your heart smile and your mouth water.

So what is dim sum, exactly? If you’ve never enjoyed this delightful Chinese tradition, it could be a little intimidating. Are there rules? What should you order? How do you eat it?

Don’t worry, these are all reasonable questions to ask before embarking on a storied culinary experience.

Here’s your all-inclusive guide, complete with wise expert words, so that you will enjoy your next dim sum date night out.

A storied road

Dictionary.com defines dim sum as “small dumplings, usually steamed or fried and filled with meat, seafood, vegetables, etc.” But dim sum goes much deeper than dumplings.

Dim sum is commonly translated to mean “touch the heart,” and is intended to be shared with loved ones. And dim sum is always accompanied by tea. The associated Cantonese phrase “yum cha” means to “drink tea.”

Where did this delicious tradition begin? Some sources link dim sum back to the Silk Road. As travelers grew tired they would stop for tea along the way. Once the digestive benefits of tea were recognized, small bites of food followed.

And so, dim sum was born. Blissfully welcomed by Western culture and still largely celebrated in the Eastern world, dim sum is more than a tiny tea break. Today, dim sum delivers hustle, bustle and banter, all while consuming the freshest buns, balls and dumplings from handcrafted bamboo steamers.

A time for tea

Tea is more than something to sip when it comes to dim sum. You might even consider it a requirement. After all, it’s tradition!

Julia Boyd, etiquette consultant, confirms that tea drinking always accompanies dim sum.

And there is definitely a proper way to do it. “It carries its own etiquette alongside the dim sum,” she says.

Here are a few tips on the do’s and don’ts when it comes to tea time at dim sum:

  • Always pour tea for your elders and companions first.
  • After someone pours your tea, tap the table with your index finger and middle finger (and say “thank you”) as a sign of respect.
  • Signal to the server for more tea by leaving the lid off the teapot.

A little bit of this

Dumplings come to mind first when it comes to dim sum, and the varieties available are astounding. But there’s so much more involved!

Most popular dishes include crystal shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, rice balls and rice noodle rolls.

And if you see something come out on a cart, feel free to run and grab it. There is no rule that says you have to be seated to be served.

An unkept secret

Chef Wilson Tang is certainly familiar with the familial aspect of dim sum.

“Growing up as the son of immigrants from China, dim sum was part of life. I would go for dim sum with my family on weekends…it was part of my culture and my cuisine.”

Tang continues to help grow his family’s own dim sum dynasty with tea parlor Nom Wah. As chef and owner of the Zagat-rated New York City tea parlor, his childhood memories of dim sum can be shared with generations to come.

Pro tip from Tang: “Always try to sit closest to the kitchen door so you have first dibs at a cart-style dim sum place.”

Speaking of tips: Leave the tip for your wait staff on your table, even if you have to pay your bill at the register.

Sharing is caring

And sharing is a huge part of dim sum culture, but it doesn’t come without a few rules of thumb worth following.

Boyd warns against double dipping. And “ask everyone at your table before taking the last piece,” she says.

Tang concludes, “Whether you’re having dim sum in a made-to-order space like Nom Wah or a more traditional cart-style restaurant, it’s always best enjoyed in a big group. The more the merrier when it comes to dim sum. And the more variety you can try!”

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