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What is Dim Sum?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Dim sum is an integral part of Chinese cuisine, closely associated with the tradition of yum cha, or taking tea. This type of food can be found all over China and in many parts of the West, where it is a popular meal. Most people eat dim sum is usually served in the late morning through the early afternoon, although some establishments serving it are open later. It is a meal that should be lingered over, in multiple courses that traditionally have a set order.

Dim sum is an umbrella category for small Chinese dishes. Typical examples of this food are small dumplings, wrapped foods such as won tons and egg rolls, and other foods. In general, individual portions of dim sum are small, so that numerous dishes can be ordered and sampled by the table. Most dim sum falls under the category of a savory pastry, although these foods can be prepared in a variety of ways. Dim sum can be steamed, fried, boiled, baked, or broiled, and this wide range of options makes for a lively and varied meal.

Usually, dim sum is served from rolling carts, which makes it markedly different from Western foods. A specific type of dish is used for each food, so that at the end of the meal, the staff can add up all the dirty dishes to determine how much should be charged. Eating traditional dim sum is like grazing, and it encourages diners to linger and nibble, sometimes for hours.

Most restaurants have a dazzling array of foods available, with large establishments offering over 100 different varieties of food that change from day to day. The chef is given a great deal of leeway to create whatever he or she pleases, depending on seasonal availability and what he or she thinks is auspicious for that day.

Some classic examples of dim sum include har gow, small steamed dumplings with shrimp and water chestnuts. Consumers can also often find siu may, open faced pork dumplings with chives. Steamed buns filled with a variety of things, from barbecued pork to vegetables, are also extremely popular. Many restaurants also make sweet steamed buns, filled with things like red bean paste, sesame, or lotus root. More exotic offerings such as chicken feet or shrimp wrapped in bean curd skin can often be found as well.

Usually, a dim sum meal begins with light steamed dishes, such as har gow, followed by heavier fried items including pot stickers or egg rolls. Then exotic foods are brought out, and the meal finishes with sweets for dessert. This order is not always rigidly observed, although it sits better in the stomach than a jumble of foods. Dim sum is also accompanied by a small tray of condiments, which usually includes sesame oil, fermented black beans, soy sauce, and other similar ingredients in which the food can be dipped.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon128384 — On Nov 19, 2010

Dim Sum is an awesome lunch date activity. Tasty, fun and you don't have to wait for food. And if you really like the person you can always hang out afterward and drink tea. --Heather W.

By cupcake15 — On Nov 15, 2010

Suntan12-I always try to order from the dim sum menu. I love the beef balls, the Char Siu which are the roast pork buns and the rice noodle rolls. I love a dim sum lunch but I don't go too often because it is fattening.

By suntan12 — On Nov 15, 2010

SurfNturf-I love dim sum restaurants too. You know in the third century a doctor claimed that mixing tea and dim sum together would lead to excessive weight gain.

Chinese restaurants now offer tea because it has been found to assist in digestion of the dim sum.

There was a great dim sum restaurant in Boston called Gitlo’s dim sum bakery but unfortunately it is no longer in business.

They served the most delicious food and they were cheap too. There is a great restaurant in New York City called Ping’s Seafood off of Mott’s street that opens for business from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm which are the traditional dim sum brunch hours.

The place is small but it boasts the best seafood dim sum around.

By surfNturf — On Nov 15, 2010

I love dim sum cooking, but there is only one dim sum restaurant in Miami called Tropical Chinese restaurant.

The steamed dim sum comes in rolling carts and you just point to what you want and they add it to your check. It is really a fun way to dine because you actually get to see and smell the food directly in front of you.

A dim sum lunch is incredibly filling. I always leave so full. I always have to have the shrimp dumplings. Those are my favorite.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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