Tips for overcoming dim sum intimidation
By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll be armed with enough knowledge to order dim sum like a pro.
Grab the family or a group of friends because this glorious, mostly midday meal of steamed dumplings (as well as some fried or pan-fried options) is designed for sharing. It began centuries ago when teahouses serving local farmers and travelers along the Silk Road discovered that tea cleansed palates and aided digestion. The teahouses started serving snacks and dim sum was born.
As a result, going for dim sum is often referred to as yum cha, which translates to “drinking tea” in Cantonese. It’s still a very treasured ritual in southern China that I was lucky enough to frequently enjoy during the five years I lived in Hong Kong and, thankfully, we can yum cha here in San Diego, too.
Navigating lengthy menu options - it’s estimated there are more than 2,000 dim sum dishes these days - is where many people stumble. Stephen Lew, vice president of Emerald Chinese Cuisine and its sister restaurant Pearl Chinese Cuisine, weighs in on how he and his staff guide diners through Emerald’s 75 dim sum choices.
Lew believes a dim sum restaurant can be judged by the quality of its siu mai (usually pork) and har gow (usually shrimp) - two staple dumplings and overall crowd pleasers. Both are safe bets for newbies but even pros begin here.
It’s completely acceptable to start with a few dishes.
“If you order all at once, you might get overwhelmed,” Lew said.
This strategy also helps prevent over- or under-ordering and both are easy to do when it comes to dim sum.
Also worth considering - and topping Emerald’s list of popular orders - are steamed spare ribs, rice rolls (Lew’s favorite is the shrimp), barbecue pork buns and sticky rice in a lotus leaf. Adventurous palates or those seeking a conversation piece can opt for phoenix talons, otherwise known as chicken feet. Believe it or not, chicken feet are essential dim sum to many.
Chinese desserts are nowhere as sweet as ours but the classic egg tarts are my favorite way to finish dim sum, with mango pudding or deep fried sesame balls close behind.
When it comes to etiquette, a handful of tips go a long way. Always pour someone else’s tea before your own.
“The proper way to thank the pourer is to tap the table with your index and middle finger a couple times in quick succession,” Lew said.
It’s customary to do this as your tea is being poured. Flip or displace the teapot lid to indicate that you need more tea and have no shame in drinking copious amounts (chrysanthemum tea is caffeine free) as it’s central to the dim sum experience.
If you’d like rice, it’s fine to ask for it.
“A lot of people hesitate asking for rice because it’s usually not offered during dim sum, but it’s always available,” Lew said.
If bad luck is not what you seek, avoid sticking chopsticks upright in the rice bowl. I find that slippery dumplings at risk of falling from chopsticks before hitting your mouth can be caught by holding a ceramic soup spoon (likely already on the table) in the opposite hand a few inches or so underneath the gripped dumpling.
Dim sum may be a centuries-old tradition but it, too, evolves. Like many popular restaurants across the Pacific, Emerald Chinese Cuisine now serves dim sum all day.
Katie Dillon is a lifestyle and travel writer who believes that one of the best ways to explore a city is through its food and drinks. Follow her adventures on social media at @lajollamom and send any tasty ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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