What is it?
Dim sum or as the Cantonese call it "yum cha" is a favourite amongst Cantonese Chinese families. You often will see large tables of families gathered on the weekends where three generations dine together. Some like to consider it Chinese brunch; but, it's actually served for much longer periods of time - often from 8am to 3pm at most restaurants. Accordingly, you may think of it as breakfast, brunch or lunch.
Dishes are "tapa" style and come in a wide variety of cooking methods - the most popular being steamed in bamboo baskets. They are generally individual portions of about four to a plate and are shared amongst the table. The ingredients are focused around proteins (seafood, pork, beef) so unfortunately there aren't usually that many vegetarian options. Also, don’t even think of asking about gluten free options – I don’t know if this even exists!
Each restaurant offer different variety of dishes, although they will usually all have the "staples", a sample of some of the most popular:
- Har gow - steamed shrimp dumpling
- Siu mai - steamed pork (and usually also contains shrimp and Chinese mushrooms) dumpling
- Steamed rice noodle rolls - a thin white soft rice roll that have different fillings (shrimp, bbq pork, beef, vegetables)
- Steamed buns - white bun filled with various fillings (bbq pork, chicken, egg custard, glutinous rice)
- Deep fried options - shrimp rolls, spring rolls, octopus tentacles
- Offal options - tripe, pig stomach, chicken feet
Cart or Menu?
Dim sum is served two ways:
- Employees circle the restaurant with carts holding two - five varieties of dishes and announce the options. Patrons will call out the name of the dish that they want when the employee is near them; or
- Ordering off a menu and dishes are brought to the table.
I prefer the carts because I find there are often a larger variety of dishes to choose from. Restaurants don't need to print everything onto a menu so they can just offer one-time items and switch up the menu more often. Additionally, you don't have to gauge how many dishes to order - you simply keep ordering until you're full.
With that said, if you don't know Cantonese, I suggest you go with the menu option. The employees pushing the carts often don't understand much English and therefore you'll need to stop them to look at the dishes and they may not be able to describe the dishes more than the main ingredient (i.e. beef).
Tips and Things to Note
- Be prepared to wait - as you enter the restaurant look for a host/hostess (behind a podium) and tell them the number of people in your party. They will give a number and you just wait until your number is called. You'll notice the numbers aren't called numerically (i.e. they will skip around). It really depends on how many people you're trying to seat (a small or large table); so don't be shocked when a number that is after you is called before you - it's likely because they have a different table size than you.
- Reservations - most restaurants will take reservations but they don't work like normal reservations – a table isn’t placed on hold for you. Rather, when you arrive, the restaurant they will move you up the list and give you a table earlier. This also doesn't mean you will get the next available table, but instead one within the next three customers. Therefore, if you make a reservation for noon, don't expect to be seated at noon.
- My suggestion is to get there early - aim for shortly after 11am if you don't want to wait more than 20 minutes. If you go after 11:30 be prepared to wait about 30+ minutes to get a table.
- The optimal party size to go with is four people. Most dishes will have four pieces so going with four people makes it easier to share.
- Tea charges - almost all restaurants will charge each person a "tea charge", regardless of if you actually drink it. The prices can range from $0.50 - $1.75 per person.
- The general rule of thumb is three dishes per person. Of course, it will differ depending on the size of the dishes you order (i.e. you don't need three large dishes per person) and how hungry everyone is. But, this should give you an idea of how much you should order for "menu" restaurants.
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