Saturday, June 13, 2009

Apple #390: Dim Sum

I've got more beautiful-nature-and-look-at-those-enormous-trees entries I want to do. But I thought I'd break that up with a little bit of dim sum.

Because I ate dim sum for the first time ever, when I was in San Francisco's Chinatown. Actually I'd had some dim sum items before, without ever realizing it. If you've gotten appetizers at a Chinese restaurant, you might have too.

On the corner of a street that goes into Chinatown. The restaurant where my intrepid traveling companion and I ate was just down the block from here, if I remember right. And that black blob is your mysterious Apple Lady's left shoulder.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Dim sum isn't one food but a collection of snacks. Saying "I ate dim sum" is like saying "I had a lot of appetizers" or "I ate all the hors d'oeuvres."
  • They're usually bite-sized -- or for me, three-bite-sized -- and you usually get three or four of them per order.

Potstickers, or pork-filled dumplings that are pan-fried. Commonly served as appetizers at Chinese restaurants, even if a full dim sum menu is not available.
(Photo and recipe from Blazing Hot Wok, which means hot-temperature, not hot-spicy)

  • The reason they're small has to do with how they originated.
  • Dim sum were originally created to be eaten with tea. For centuries, the Cantonese relished drinking tea, but they thought it was inappropriate to eat food while drinking tea. But over time, people began to realize that not only could tea aid in digestion, but it was downright tasty to eat things while drinking tea.
  • But so they wouldn't overdo it, they kept the food that was to be eaten with the tea in small portions. Snack-sized. Dots of food, so to speak.
  • Hence, "dim sum," which means, depending on your preferred translation, "heart dots," or "a bit of the heart," or "to touch the heart."
  • Most dim sum items are savory, dumpling-like goodies stuffed with pork or shrimp or occasionally beef. They might be fried or steamed.

Steamed dim sum dishes are often prepared and served in steamer baskets like this one.
(Photo from Disney World's Anandapur Yak and Yeti Restaurant. This basket of dim sum for 2 sells for $13.99.)

  • Other items might be sweet, like custard tarts.
  • Or they might combine the sweet and savory, like pork buns, which are like flaky dinner rolls with barbecue pork in the middle and a sugar glaze on the outside.

Pork buns are sort of like doughnuts, but with barbecued pork inside.
(Photo from Century Cafe and Bakery in Manhattan)

  • Gourmands estimate that there are some 2,000 varieties of dim sum that have been created over the centuries. Restaurants that specialize in dim sum might make 100 different types in a single day.

Menu of dim sum varieties available from Furama in Chicago.
(Here is the menu at its full size)
(Image from

  • In most restaurants that offer dim sum, the snacks are served from carts. Waiters push the steaming carts around the dining room, and when the diners see something on the carts they like, they tell the waiter, and the waiter gives them a serving and then moves on.

Dim sum cart in full steam. I saw a lot of photos of dim sum carts that weren't steamy like this one. They were all dished up onto plates, which makes it easier for people to see what's on the cart. But it probably doesn't stay as nice as hot as it would on a cart like this one.
(Photo by Dave H from Yelp)

  • This is what Tess McGill has to do, if you remember, in Working Girl. She winds up pushing the cart around the business lunch herself, and the steam totally gets her face all sweaty and wilts her pouffy hair.
  • Some people say there's an order in which the dishes are presented -- lighter, steamed fare first, then heavier and more exotic treats, and finishing up with the sweets. But other people say that in true dim sum fashion, the sweet and the savory are served in any order, and you are to go back and forth from the savory and sweet as you like.
  • When you're ready for your teapot to be refilled, take the lid off the pot and allow it to dangle by the wire that connects it to the teapot, or balance the lid on the handle.
  • Many dim sum aficionados say that the best dim sum is served in Hong Kong.

A typical table of dim sum, with teapot, in Hong Kong's Central Station.
(Photo from Luk Yu Tea House on picfood)

  • Here are typical dim sum dishes that many people list as their favorites. Links take you to recipes and usually also photos.
  1. har gau - steamed shrimp dumplings
  2. cha siu bau - barbecued pork inside steamed rolls
  3. tsun geun - spring rolls
  4. jiaozi - boiled dumplings with meat or shrimp
  5. guotie - pot stickers (like jiaozi, except pan-fried instead of boiled)
  6. siu mai - (pronounced shoo my) cup-shaped dumplings with the filling, usually pork, visible at the top.

Har gau, as served at Jade Asian Restaurant in Flushing, NY
(Photo by Robyn Lee)

I had all of the dim sum types I listed up there, except for the har gau, I think. They were tasty little freddies, all of them. The best spring roll I ever had, though, was the first one, which was at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris. Light, crispy, fresh, and slightly sweet, truly deserving of the word "spring." I can still taste it in my mind.

For a lot more recipes, instructions about how to fold the stuff into the wontons, and descriptions and diagrams of how those steamer baskets work, check out Ellen Leong Blonder's Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch.

Rhonda Parkinson,, Delicious Dim Sum - Chinese Brunch, and Delicious Chinese Dumplings
CuisineNet, Diner's Digest, Dim Sum
Global Gourmet, Hong Kong, Dining in Dim Sum Restaurants
Robyn Lee, Serious Eats, New York, Dim Sum Favorites at Jing Fong Chinatown, September 30, 2008 and Dim Sum at Jade Asian Restaurant in Flushing, February 4, 2009
Leo Weekly, Dim Sum touch our hearts, June 11, 2008


  1. i am now raving hungry and missing china terribly, thank you apple lady, you must now take me out to lunch for heart dots in order to save me from eating my left arm!

  2. Thank you for mentioning Working Girl, Apple Lady! The first thing I thought when I saw your post was, "Dim sum, Tess. I like it."

  3. Everything looks delicious! I can't tell if I'm more jealous of the meal or of the fact that you were in San Francisco!

  4. I got bored and build a random dim-sum generator app with over 1300 combinations, most of which seem surprisingly tasty.


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