Savoring the Sum of the Parts
Since the tenth century, southern China has been famous for its
teahouses, where family, friends, and business people get together
to catch up on the latest news over a pot of tea. And out of this
tradition evolved one of China's tastiest contributions to the world:
dim sumCantonese-style dumplings, pastries, noodles, stuffed
breads, and other delectable tidbits, all designed to be eaten with
tea as a light breakfast or lunch.
The teahouse roots of dim sum are reflected in the phrase yum cha
(literally "to drink tea"), the common way to refer to
eating a dim sum lunch. I always tell people: "The cha part
means tea. The yum part refers to the food!"
Dim sum is variously translated as "touch the heart"
or "point to your heart's delight." Once you've tried
it, you'll know why. You've heard of "point and click"?
Well, this is "point and eat."
If you live near a Chinatown, you can probably find quite a few
Cantonese restaurants serving dim sum. Plan to show up between the
hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. Many dim sum houses don't take reservations,
and it's best to arrive on the early side to get the best selection
and the freshest items.
If the place is any good, there will be a crowd jammed into the
front entryway, especially on weekends, when lots of extended families
and large groups of friends get together for yum cha. Tip number
one: Dim sum is a communal affairthe more people in your party,
the more variety you can enjoy.
Most dim sum houses offer several types of tea to choose from.
As you take your first sip and breathe in the intoxicating aromas
of the food, your appetite suddenly becomes voracious and uncontrollable!
Good thing there's no menu to order from, and no waiting necessary.
The food comes streaming out of the kitchen in a steady parade of
carts loaded with little plates and stacks of small bamboo steamer
baskets filled with dumplings and other delicaciesusually
three or four pieces to an order. When they say everything is à
la carte, they really mean it!
Tip number two: Pace yourself. The individual dishes are small
and light, but the "sum" is greater than the parts, and
you'll be full sooner than you think. My advice is to take it slow,
or instead of "touch the heart," you may experience "touch
Before long, you'll have a collection of empty little plates and
steamers stacked up at the center of the table. At the end of the
meal, your bill is calculated by counting the number of plates in
the stack (or in some places, the number of stamps on your guest
Tip number three: I don't recommend doing what my friends and I
once did when we were young and starving. We hid half the plates
under the table, somehow imagining that we were the first people
ever to have thought of such a clever scheme. But at the end of
the meal, the waiter, suspecting foul play, lifted the tablecloth.
To our horror, someone else had already left a huge stack of plates,
and our bill instantly doubled!
It's been said that there are more than a thousand types of dim
sum. But most dim sum chefs draw from a repertoire of 75 to 100
specialties. Generally, dim sum comes two wayssteamed or friedwith
a few baked, braised, and stir-fried items thrown in. Allow me to
sum up a few of my favorites.
Har gau. Shrimp dumplings.
Siu mai. Cylindrical dumpling, open on top, filled with pork and
Fun guor. Crescent of translucent wheat starch dough stuffed with
pork, shrimp, and chopped nuts.
Char siu bao. Honey-glazed barbecued pork steamed inside a dome-shaped
bun of soft, sweet bread dough.
Churn fun. Steamed soft rice noodle skins rolled around shrimp,
minced beef, or barbecued pork.
Noh mai gai. Glutinous rice, marinated chicken, Chinese sausage,
mushrooms, and other savory ingredients steamed in a lotus leaf.
Chun guen. Crispy deep-fried spring rolls filled with meat, shrimp,
and bamboo shoots. (Some Chinese restaurants in North America serve
giant egg rolls with a similar filling.)
Har dor see. Golden crisp shrimp toast.
Woo gok. Taro root dumplings filled with shrimp, meat, and mushrooms.
SWEET AND SAVORY
See jup ngau hor. Also known as chow fun: stir-fried fresh rice
noodles with slices of tender beef or chicken and green and red
bell peppers in a fragrant black bean and garlic sauce.
Jin dui jai. Chewy glutinous rice dough wrapped around a sweet
bean or lotus seed paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and deep-fried
Don tot. One of the most popular dim sum desserts: individual egg
custard tarts with a Western-style pastry crust.
If you can't find a dim sum restaurant, don't despair. Even though
it would be tricky to create a full dim sum lunch in your own kitchen,
it's still a lot of fun to make one or two items. You can get the
whole family involved in rolling and stuffing. And don't stop at
lunch: Dim sum items make terrific appetizers and party food, too.
If you're lucky, you may even find a few frozen dim sum items in
Asian supermarkets near you. I always keep three big bags of frozen
potstickers in my freezer in case I get "stuck" with unexpected