THE IDIOT’S GUIDE: Cantonese Dim Sum
Dim Sum Guide
Dim sum, or yum cha (literally, “drink tea”) in Cantonese, has gained popularity in the States. It refers to wide range of small plates eaten with tea, sort of like Spanish tapas mixed with Western morning tea. It is served starting around 10AM and ends around 3PM. Dim sum is a very communal or familial event, and it’s best in groups. Being from a Chinese family, I started going at a very young and I loved it (and I still do!). I was exposed to the weirder plates like chicken feet and duck tongue at an early age and those are still my favorites. But don’t let that deter you from dim sum—they have many dishes that are less exotic and good introductory foods for those who had never tried dim sum. Be sure to bring some friends since it’s all about sharing good food with good friends!
For good, cheap dim sum, go where the Asians go. In Boston’s Chinatown, there are at least 5 well known dim sum places. I’ve been to Hei La Moon and China Pearl Restaurant, two of the more popular ones based on food quality, price, and seating capacity. Another plus for most people is that many of the servers can speak English at those two restaurants. Hei La Moon and China Pearl both use the serving carts, which are part of the novelty of dim sum. This means that the dishes are already prepared and nice Chinese ladies walk around pushing the carts while you point at foods you want to try. The dishes served at each restaurant varies, some things will be available at one place but not the other. But usually, they will all cover the basics like dumplings, siu mai, stuffed buns, and a variety of meat and vegetable dishes.
Step 1 to dim sum is the tea! I always get chrysanthemum because it has a nice sweet balance to the many salty and greasy meats that I tend to eat with my family. The restaurant usually offers a decent variety of teas in addition to the house tea. The couple popular ones seem to be jasmine, chrysanthemum, green, and oolong tea. Make sure to let your tea steep before pouring it. A little note on Chinese tea etiquette: if a friend pours tea for you and you’re busy and cannot vocally thank them, tap three fingers on the table to indicate thanks. In my family, we also had the youngest person pour the tea, but I don’t think that follows traditional Chinese tea etiquette.
On to the food!
Siu mai (steamed pork or shrimp dumplings)
The dumplings usually have a translucent wrapper stuffed with ground shrimp or pork. They are steamed in a basket and differ from dumplings because they have an open top.
Jiu cai bau (chive dumpling)
These plump dumplings are usually good for the vegetarians (to be safe it would be a good idea to double check for meat, recipes differ from restaurant to restaurant). The chewy dumpling skin surrounds seasoned chives for a mouthful of flavor.
Har gau (shrimp dumpling)
This is a really good dish for people who are new to dim sum. These are shrimp dumplings with a chewy, translucent skin that hold delicious shrimp inside.
Cha siu bao (pork buns)
Steamed buns stuffed with sweet and savory barbeque pork. So simple: yet so good.
Cheong fan (stuffed rice noodles)
I’m excited just thinking about these. My family’s, and my own, favorite dish. We order like three plates of these when we dim sum and the plates are always cleaned off. Cheong fan are steamed rice noodles stuffed with meat and covered with a sweet sauce. I usually see beef stuffed noodles or shrimp stuffed noodles, but I always always always go for the shrimp ones. It’s a bite of shrimp with chewy rice noodle and a sweet sauce and it’s absolutely amazing.
Fung zao (seasoned chicken feet)
Chicken feet cooked and served in a fermented soy bean sauce. I know it sounds gross but it tastes amazing. Whenever I’m with someone new to dim sum, I always make them try fung zao. They usually end up liking the flavor, but hating the texture so I end up having to finish the rest—not that I mind. The chicken feet have little bones that need to be eaten around and some pieces have a rubbery texture. If you can’t get around the texture, that’s totally understandable but I would definitely recommend trying it at least!
Pai gwut (black bean ribs)
As the list goes on, I get the feeling that dim sum isn’t too vegetarian-friendly in variety, especially not this dish. Pai gwut are pork ribs in small pieces swimming in a fermented black bean sauce, usually served with small chunks of rice noodle. My friends and family usually enjoy this dish.
Chiu ngau pak (steamed tripe)
This is another one of the more exotic dishes for some who are foreign to dim sum. Tripe is offal from beef stomach (dim sum usually uses beef, though tripe in general can refer to sheep, pigs, etc.). I’ve seen this dish made in many different ways at different dim sum restaurants. Some steam it in a fermented bean sauce (my preferred way) while others braise it in a soy sauce. This dish is another that my friends generally dislike for the texture rather than the taste.
Ya she (duck tonque)
Feeling adventurous? Duck tongue is something I tried for the first time recently. It was cooked in a light soy sauce with crunchy celery, and something tasty to snack on while waiting for the ladies to come by with other carts full of food. There’s bone—so be sure to eat around it. The cartilage and meat are pretty tasty though.
These little dishes of super rich seafood-clam mix are a little too much for me. The first bite is delicious, but a couple bites later it gets hard to finish. There are little chunks of clam and vegetables served in a ridiculously rich sauce.
Daan taat (egg tart)
Dim sum also has a desserts/sweets cart! Egg tart is custard with a light gooey center and a flaky crust. They’re usually cold by the time they make it to the table but I love them when they’re a little warm in the center. This is a favorite among many people that I end up going to dim sum with.
Heung jin ma tai gao (water chestnut cake)
This is another relatively new dish for me, but it’s one of my mom’s favorites. It’s a jelly that’s slightly sweetened and pan-fried. There are water chestnuts scattered throughout the cake so you get a bite of crunchy with the sweet gelatin. I’m not a fan of water chestnuts, but it really isn’t too bad.
Lo baak gou (turnip cake)
This is something that I not only eat at dim sum, but I also eat a lot of this during Chinese New Year. Its shredded daikon turnip with different meats and vegetables mixed in. At Hei La Moon, they have a cart especially for these where they pan-fry them tableside. They’re better when they’re fresh and hot, so give it a try.
These are just a few of the many different dishes offered at dim sum. Don’t be afraid to try new things, or bring a friend who is familiar with dim sum to make the process easier. If you don’t have any friends who are familiar with dim sum, just bring a group of friends and point to order and eat! It’s fun and simple if you aren’t afraid to try new things and be adventurous. Even if you are, the less exotic dishes are still delicious and just ask the lady pushing the cart what the dish is. It’s definitely a fun experience that I would recommend to anyone that wants to try something different. The prices are good—small plates are usually $2.50-$3.00, medium plates $3.00-$5.00, and large plates $5.00-$7.00. There are specialties that may cost more, but split among the whole table my bill has never been over $15 even after being stuffed with food. Dim sum is cheap, delicious, and fun so find a group and head over to Chinatown on the Red Line and grab some food!
– Article & Photos by Christina Pan