So you like eating at Chinese restaurants and you’re particularly fond of the wheeled trolley that contains stacks of bamboo steamer baskets each containing a delicious dish. When the trolley stops at your table, you pick out the dishes that you like, the food attendant places the bamboo baskets on your table and you dig in. When the contents of the baskets are gone, you choose another round of dishes and the empty bamboo baskets are replaced with new ones. You know the routine.
Dim sum is the food; yum cha is the meal
Yum cha (“drink tea”) is a very old custom in China but the practice of serving tea with snacks, or dim sum food, came later — its history intertwined with the merchants that plied the Silk Road and the teahouses where they sought refreshment.
The Silk Road is an ancient route used by the Chinese to transport silk and other goods for sale. Caravans travelled from China to as far as Africa and Europe, and weary merchants stopped at roadside teahouses for refreshment. When exactly food was offered along with the traditional tea, no one really knows. What is known is that, at some point, someone realized that the tired merchants needed more than tea to replenish their energy and prepare for the next leg of their journey. And dim sum with yum cha was born.
Today, dim sum with yum cha is more than a light meal to recuperate from the hardships of travel. It has evolved into an all-day affair. In teahouses and some restaurants, dim sum items are available from breakfast until closing time. Many diners treat dim sum food as appetizer — a precursor to the heavier dishes of meat, seafood and rice.
Yum cha etiquette
Every culture has its dining etiquette and eating Chinese food, including dim sum, in or out of China, is no exception.
The first thing, and probably the most important, to remember is that dim sum food is meant for sharing. It’s not like an order of steak or chops that’s meant for one. The reason for ordering several baskets of different dim sum items is to allow everyone to try and enjoy all. So, do pick a piece from a basket and leave the rest for your companions.
The second thing relates to reaching out for food items that are on the other side of the table. A Hong Konger explains this rule by referring to elephants in Chinese chess, or Xiangqi.
“As a rule, the pieces labelled elephant or xiang play a defensive role and are not allowed to cross the river into the opponent’s side.”
So, if a dish is on the other side of the table, don’t “cross the river” but, rather, ask someone to pass the food. If the dining table is equipped with a Lazy Susan tray at the center, wait until everyone has finished getting food before turning the tray to place the food you want in front of you.
Dim sum and yum cha go together. In many dim sum establishments, the “house tea” is free and you can get unlimited refills.
Who should pour the tea?
The rules are confusing. The waiter or waitress may pour the tea when the teapot is first brought to the table. Others say that it is the youngest among the diners who should do this (we don’t include children in determining who the youngest is, I’m sure).
Whoever pour the tea should remember the basic rule: pour for all the others first before pouring tea into your own cup.
In the course of a yum cha meal, we consume several pots of tea. Three, four, five… depending on how much we eat and how long the meal is. Sometimes, we keep drinking tea long after the bamboo steamer baskets have been cleared. Dim sum food always makes us overindulge and tea aids digestion.
So, how does one go about having the teapot refilled? Lift the lid of the pot and rest it against the top of the curved handle so that the teapot is partially uncovered. It’s a signal for the food servers to refill your tea.
Using chopsticks at yum cha is the norm and there are rules attached to their use.
“First, don’t use it to hit the side of your bowl or plate to make a lot of noise, because Chinese people think only beggars would do this to beg for meals.
“Second, when you use it, don’t stretch out your index finger, which would be regarded as a kind of accusation to others. Never use it to point at others.
“Third, it is thought to be an impolite behavior when you suck the end of a chopstick. People will think you lack family education.
“Fourth, don’t use it to poke at every dish without knowing what your want.
“And last, don’t insert it vertically into the bowls or dishes. Chinese people do this only when they burn incense to sacrifice the dead.”
Can you pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks?
In James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, set in Hong Kong in the 1840s and my favorite among his Asian Saga novels, Dirk Struan, Scottish-born owner of Struan & Company, pays a visit to Wu Kwok, son of the pirate king Wu Fang Choi, to discuss business. But even before the first word was uttered, there was tea, and there were moon cakes and dim sum.
“Struan picked up his chopsticks again and meticulously chose another dim sum from the plate: the smallest and the most delicate, the most difficult to hold. It was one of the steamed, shrimp-filled doughs, the white pastry so thin as to be almost translucent. He lifted it quickly and effortlessly, praying to himself that he wouldn’t drop it. He held it out at arm’s length, offering it to Wu Kwok.
“Wu Kwok’s chopsticks snaked out and he took the dim sum and carried it to his small dish. But a tiny piece of shrimp fell onto the table. Though Wu Kwok remained impassive, Struan knew that he was enraged, for he had lost face.
“Struan delivered the coup de grace. Leaning over, he picked up the morsel of shrimp and put it on his plate, and selected another tiny dim sum. Again he offered it. Wu Kwok took it. He did not drop any part of it.
“He offered one to Struan, and Struan took it casually in midair and ate with relish but refused the next one offered. It was the height of Chinese decorum to pretend to the host that the food was so good that one could eat no more, even though both host and guest knew they would continue to eat ravenously.“
Passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks? Really? For a while, I thought Clavell got it wrong and he missed a terribly important piece of Chinese dining etiquette. Then, I realized that the taboo around passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks is Japanese, not Chinese.
“Never share food by passing from chopsticks to chopsticks because this resembles a custom at Japanese funerals when cremated bones are ceremoniously transferred to the urn. This is probably the biggest taboo at the Japanese dinner table. You can transfer food using your chopsticks to someone else’s plate but get them to pass the plate to you if it is a distance.”
So, you see, chopsticks are used in more than one country and the rules surrounding their use are not always the same.
Dim sum menu
The dim sum menu of a teahouse or restaurant can consist of as little as a dozen items or as many as a hundred. Overall, there are some 2,000 known dim sum dishes served around the world. Let’s meet some of them.
Har gow is steamed shrimp dumplings with a smooth and transparent skin. A challenge to chefs, it takes a lot of training and practice to prepare har gow which must have seven or more pleats to seal the dumpling close. The skin should be soft and thin but still firm enough not to tear when the dumpling is picked up with chopsticks.
In the photo: Har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings) at Federal Palace, Citygate Outlets, Hong Kong
Thin-skinned soup-filled pork dumplings, xiaolongbao is said to trace its roots a hundred years ago in Nanxiang in the northern Jiading District of Shanghai. A larger version with thicker skin is called tangbao.
In the photo: Xiaolongbao at Din Tai Fung, Taipei
Chives dumplings come with pork or shrimps, or even both. There is a variant that is boiled and another that is steamed and fried. The chive dumplings we like are steamed with slightly chewy translucent skin.
In the photo: Chive Dumplings at Tim Ho Wan, SM Megamall, Metro Manila
Siu mai (shumai, shaomai)
There are many versions that exist but the world is mostly familiar with Cantonese siu mai, a pork and shrimp dumpling with an open top. The exposed portion of the filling is sometimes garnished with fish or crab roe, grated carrot or pea.
In the photo: Siu mai At Changi Airport, Singapore
Read also: Singapore’s Penal System May Be Harsh, But…
Wontons with chili sauce
It might look like just another wonton dish but the addition of chili sauce takes the wontons to quite another dimension. We’ve tried this dish is many restaurants including Luk Yuen and Lugang Cafe (Metro Manila, the Philippines) and Din Tai Fung (Hong Kong and SM Megamall) and the best we’ve had, so far, is the version of Din Tai Fung.
In the photo: Sichuan-style wontons with chili sauce, Din Tai Fung, Hong Kong
Feng zhua or what the English-speaking world calls “chicken feet” is a thrice-cooked dish. The chicken feet (all skin and tendons and no muscle) are deep fried just until a crust forms on the surface, then steamed until puffed. The chicken feet are then stewed in a soy-based sauce until the skin and tendons turn gelatinous.
In the photo: Chicken feet, Hong Kong Emperor Seafood Restaurant, Mall of Asia, Pasay City, the Philippines
Pai gwut is pork ribs steamed in the black bean sauce in which it has marinated. The addition of a little baking soda in the marinade ensures that the pork cooks to perfect tenderness.
In the photo: Steamed pork ribs with black bean sauce, Lam Tin Tea House, Quezon City, the Philippines
A dish I’ve only had once and once is enough. We ordered it out of curiosity more than anything else. I was expecting something melt-in-the-mouth tender the way beef tongue is when cooked right but duck tongue is more chewy despite the copious amount of fat in it. Surprisingly, there is a bone right down the middle of the duck tongue.
In the photo: Preserved duck tongues with Shaoxing rice wine, Din Tai Fung, Hong Kong
Zongzi or lo mai gai
Zongzi is a rectangular-shaped filled sticky rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves and steamed. Lo mai gai is a pyramid-shaped filled sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed. The fillings vary but the most common (most popular?) is a combination of stewed fatty pork, Chinese sausage and black mushrooms.
In the photo: Zongzi, Cifu Asian Cooking, Quezon City, the Philippines
Known in English as tofu skin rolls or bean curd rolls, pei guen is either fried or steamed (locally known as que kiam?) but the steamed version is the variant most often found in dim sum trolleys. Tofu skin rolls are made by wrapping seasoned minced pork in tofu skin which forms on the surface of the vat during the production of tofu.
In the photo: Pork-stuffed bean curd rolls, Xin Tian Di, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Quezon City, the Philippines
Cheong fan is rolled rice noodles which come in a variety of savory or sweet fillings. If you’re wondering where the “noodles” are, it is the wrapper which is the same stuff that goes into beef chow fun. The more popular fillings of cheong fan include barbecued pork, beef, shrimps and Chinese crullers.
In the photo: Cheong fan (rolled rice noodles), Pak Loh Chiu Chow, Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong
Steamed cha siu bao
“Bao” is bun and “cha siu” is the pork barbecue filling. Minced cooked barbecued pork is mixed with hoisin sauce, a little rice wine and starch then wrapped with flattened dough before steaming. What makes the bun unique is that it is made with a starter dough that is incorporated in a second dough which gives it a fine-grain texture.
In the photo: Steamed pork buns with pork barbecue filling, King’s Chef, Quezon City, the Philippines
Baked cha siu bao
The baked version of steamed cha siu bao, the bun is sweeter, crusty and yellow. Called pineapple bun (no, pineapple is not an ingredient), the crusty top is created by placing a thin layer of sugar dough on top of the filled dough before baking.
In the photo: Baked buns with pork barbecue filling, Tim Ho Wan, SM Megamall, Mandaluyong City, the Philippines
Cha siu sou
A variant of the cha siu bao but, instead of a bun, the pork barbecue is wrapped in a flaky pastry.
In the photo: Pork barbecue in flaky pastry shell, Market House Bakery on Main Street, Hong Kong Disneyland
For more Hong Kong Disneyland food, see: Hong Kong, Day 2: Disneyland Good and Bad Eats
One of my favorite dim sum items, wu gok is taro puffs or, simply, taro dumplings. Lightly crisp on the outside, the mashed taro is creamy underneath. The savory pork filling at the center creates an interesting contrast, in texture and flavor, with the crust.
In the photo: Our homemade taro puffs (see the recipe)
In tKnown as sesame seed balls, these sticky and chewy pastry is a staple in any dim sum. Sticky rice flour is mixed with water to form the dough. The dough is divided, flatted, filled with sweet lotus or bean paste then gathered into a ball. The filled dough is rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried until browned.
In the photo: Sesame seed balls, Wai ying Fastfood, Chinatown, Manila, the Philippines
Nao wong bao
I know it’s bad manners to poke the custard bun like that but I didn’t know a better way to expose the center to show the custard in the photo.
Nao wong bao is steamed sweet bread with a sweet filling. I’ve tried quite a number of Chinese custard buns in different countries — some with firms centers and some with gooey centers — but tbe best I’ve had was in Saigon.
In the photo: Custard buns (nao wong bao) at New Kowloon Bistro, Takashimaya, Saigon
For more photos and details of the meal with the custard buns, see: A Vietnamese Lotus Tea Guide. And Story.