The History of Dim Sum Culture

A staple of Cantonese cuisine is dim sum “點心” (diǎnxīn in Mandarin). While the term refers to the plethora of small Cantonese-style dishes that accompany tea, the meaning actually translates to “touching heart.”

Dim sum came about in Guangzhou during a time of increased travel. Many travelers and workers would head to tea houses to drink tea (“飲茶”; Cantonese: yum chà, Mandarin: yǐn chá) alongside small dishes. The term “yum cha” evolved to also mean brunch in Cantonese culture.

A table of dim sum dishes

Dim sum was a tradition my family grew up with. But whenever I take my non-Cantonese friends, they’ve always struggled with ordering. This is because they either do not know the names of the dishes or they don’t fully understand the culture of ordering in a dim sum environment.

To help you fully enjoy the cuisine, I’ve prepared a guide to having a stellar dim sum dining experience!

Etiquette and How to Order in a Dim Sum Restaurant

First, I’ll cover how you go about ordering in a dim sum restaurant, which can intimidate many people new to the experience.

When you first come in, you’ll often be offered a tea that will be refilled throughout your meal. Common options include black, green and chrysanthemum tea, but some restaurants will also offer oolong, jasmine or pu’er.

My personal favorite is the chrysanthemum, but you can’t go wrong with black tea! Remember that if you pick up the teapot, you must pour tea for everyone else before yourself, especially if you are seated with elders.

Pouring tea

Ordering is quite different from other restaurants, with waitresses that push carts filled with various dim sum dishes. You’ll be given a punch card that the waitresses will use to mark down the dishes you ordered to be totaled at the end.

You usually wait for a cart waitress to come by to order the dishes they have available. If it’s not too busy and they don’t have a specific dish, they will call over the waitress carrying the dish you want. These dishes are family-style and meant to be shared with the whole table.

                                     A waitress with a cart at a dim sum restaurant

The Four Heavenly Kings: Classic Cantonese Cuisine

First up are a group of classic Cantonese dim sum dishes referred to as 四大天王 “The Four Heavenly Kings” (Cantonese: sei daaih tīn wòhng). They consist of har gow, char siu bao, siu mai and egg tarts.

Dish: 蝦餃 Har Gow (Mandarin: Xiā jiǎo)

English Translation: Steamed Shrimp Dumplings

Description: One of the most difficult dumplings to make, har gow are shrimp dumplings wrapped with a translucent, chewy skin in a pleated shape.

                                     Har gow

Dish: 叉燒包 Char Siu Bao (Mandarin: Chā shāo bāo)

English Translation: Barbecue Pork Bun

Description: Chinese style sweet and savory barbecue pork is stuffed into soft, white, fluffy buns. There are other variations with different buns, the second most common being a baked variety with a glazed brown bun.
Char siu bao

Dish: 燒賣 Siu Mai (Mandarin: Shāo mài)

English Translation: Pork and Shrimp Open-faced Dumpling

Description: Pork and shrimp dumplings are made with a yellow wrapper, topped with fish roe and a pea. It is often also filled with mushroom and scallion.
Siu mai

Dish: 蛋撻 Dan Taat (Mandarin: Dàn tǎ)

English Translation: Egg Tart

Description: A sweet dessert and/or snack dish, dan taat is made with a flaky, pastry crust filled with egg custard. This has been one of my favorites since I was a child!

                                       Dan taat

Typical Brunch Dishes

Dish: 腸粉 Chéung Fán (Mandarin: Cháng fěn)

English Translation: Steamed Rice Noodle Roll

Description: A staple in dim sum, rice noodle rolls are a thin noodle roll filled with shrimp and beef. Though there are other fillings, these two are the most common.

                                             Cheng fan

Dish: 炸兩 Ja Léung (Mandarin: Zhá liǎng)

English Translation: Noodle Wrapped Fried Dough

Description: A variation on cheung fan, these rice noodle rolls are instead filled with fried dough. They are usually topped with scallion and sesame seeds.
Ja leung

Dish: 糯米雞 Lo Mai Gai (Mandarin: Nuò mǐ jī)

English Translation: Steamed Glutinous Sticky Rice

Description: Another one of my favorites, lo mai gai is made by wrapping sticky rice with chicken, mushroom, Chinese sausage and scallions in a lotus leaf. It is then steamed. You may also find nuts, dried shrimp or salted eggs.

This dish is actually different from a very similar dish known as zongzi (粽子), which are bigger and usually have different ingredients inside such as peanuts, dried prawns and have a different overall taste.
Lo mai gai

Dish: 潮州粉粿 Chiu Chao Fun Guo (Cháo zhōu fěn guǒ)

English Translation: Steamed Pork, Shrimp, and Peanut Dumpling

Description: Similar to har gow, chiu chao fun guo is also made with a translucent, chewy wrapper, but fun guo has a more thick, sticky texture. It is filled with pork, shrimp and peanuts. You will often find garlic, chives, radish, mushrooms, and cilantro in it as well.
Chiu chao fun guo

Dish: 鹹水角 Ham Sui Gok (Mandarin: Xián shuǐ jiǎo)

English Translation: Fried Glutinous Rice Dumpling

Description: Deep fried dumpling filled with savory pork and vegetables. The wrapper is thick, sweet, crispy and slightly sticky.

                      Ham sui gok

Dish: 芋角 Wu Gok (Mandarin: Yù jiǎo)

English Translation: Fried Taro Dumpling

Description: This deep fried dumpling is filled with mashed taro and pork. The crispy, flaky outside is made from deep-frying boiled and mashed taro, creating its unique appearance. It may also be filled with mushrooms or shrimp.
Wu gok

Dish: 蘿蔔糕 Lo Bak Gou (Mandarin: Luó bo gāo)

English Translation: Turnip Cake

Description: Lo bak gou is a mixture of shredded white radish, dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and mushroom that is mashed. It is then steamed and fried.
Lo bak gou

Dish: 鳳爪 Fung Jau (Mandarin: Fèng zhuǎ)

English Translation: Phoenix Claw (Steamed Chicken Feet)

Description: Chicken feet are deep-fried and boiled, then steamed with salted black soybeans in a sweet and savory sauce.
Fung jau

Dish: 排骨 Pai Gwut (Pái gǔ)

English Translation: Steamed Spare Ribs

Description: These steamed pork spare ribs have salted black soybeans and garlic.
Pai gwut

Dish: 小笼包 Síu Lùng Bāo (Mandarin: Xiao long bao)

English Translation: Soup Dumplings

Description: A fan favorite, siu lung bao are steamed dumplings filled with savory broth and meat. There are variations in fillings, including seafood or vegetables.

                                        Siu lung bao

Baked or Dessert Dishes

Dish: 叉燒酥 Char Siu Sou (Mandarin: Chā shāo sū)

English Translation: Barbecue Pork Pastry Puffs

Description: The dried, flaky, lightly-sweetened pastry puffs are filled with barbecue pork and topped with sesame seeds.  

Char siu sou Dish: 煎䭔 Jin Dui (Mandarin: Jiān duī)

English Translation: Fried Glutinous Rice Ball (Sesame Ball)

Description: Made with a crispy, chewy, mochi-like texture, the outside is covered with sesame seeds and deep fried. They are then filled with a sweet red bean paste.
Jin dui

Dish: 菠蘿包 Bo Lo Bao (Mandarin: Bō luó bāo)

English Translation: Pineapple Bun

Description: Contrary to its name, the pineapple bun doesn’t actually have pineapple in it. Its name refers to the pineapple-like texture the bun has. It is a sweet bread bun.
Bo lo bao

Dish: 奶黃包 Nai Wong Bao (Mandarin: Nǎi huáng bāo)

English Translation: Sweet Custard Bun

Description: This is a soft, fluffy steamed bun filled with sweet and creamy milk custard filling.

                                        Nai wong bao

Dish: 芒果布丁 Mong Gwo Bou Din (Mandarin: Máng guǒ bù dīng)

English Translation: Mango Pudding

Description: Inspired by the British dessert, there is virtually no difference between dim sum style mango pudding and the original. It was popularized in Hong Kong and may sometimes be served in cute shapes like the photo below.
Mong Gwo Bou Din

Dish: 椰汁糕 Ye Ji Gou (Mandarin: Yē zhī gāo)

English Translation: Coconut Jelly Cake

Description: Yet another one of my favorites, this dessert dish is lightly sweet and refreshing. It is made with fresh coconut milk and gelatin to get a jelly, pudding-like consistency.
Ye ji gou

Dish: 豆腐花 Dau Fu Fa (Mandarin: dòu fu huā)

English Translation: Tofu Flower (pudding)

Description: Extremely soft and tender tofu is sweetened with brown sugar, osmanthus syrup and ginger juice. My grandma and I enjoyed this dish a lot when I was younger!
                              Dau fu fa

Banquet Dinner Dishes for Gatherings

Dish: 烤鴨 Hau Ap (Mandarin: kǎo yā)

English Translation: Roast Duck (Cantonese style)

Description: The roast braised duck has a savory and lightly sweet, juicy texture. It is different from Peking duck, which hails from Beijing and has a crispier, thinner skin. Hau ap is served toward the middle of the meal since it is a hearty, meat dish.

             Hau ap

Dish: 伊麵 Yi Mein (Mandarin: yī miàn)

English Translation: Cantonese Egg (Long Life) Noodles

Description: Yi mein are Cantonese golden brown, chewy egg noodles. It has a spongy texture from the soda water used in the frying and drying process.

These noodles are often served stir-fried on birthdays and events as a symbol of longevity.
Yi mein

Dish: 清蒸鱼 Ching Jing Yu (Mandarin: Qīng zhēng yú)

English Translation: Cantonese Style Steamed Fish

Description: A simple dish to make, the whole fish is steamed and drizzled with soy sauce, then topped with ginger and scallion. It is served before the last rice or noodle dish.
                                     Ching jing yu

Dish: 糯米龙虾 No Mai Lung Ha (Mandarin: Nuò mǐ lóng xiā)

English Translation: Lobster Sticky Rice

Description: One of my favorite banquet dishes, no mai lung ha is made using glutinous fried sticky rice and then tossed with tender, sweet and savory lobster.

Ingredients for the rice may vary, but Chinese sausage, scallion and cilantro are common ingredients. This is usually served as one of the last main rice or noodle dishes.
No mai lung ha

Dish: 蜜汁核桃蝦 Mat Jap Wat Tou Ha (Mandarin: mì zhī hé táo xiā)

English Translation: Honey-Roasted Walnut Shrimp

Description: My favorite banquet dish of all time, these shrimp are coated in a light, sweet mayonnaise based sauce and topped with sweet honey-roasted walnuts. It is typically presented with a ring of broccoli. It is served towards the middle of the meal.

                          Mat jap wat tou ha

Dish: 紅豆湯 Hung Dau Tong (Mandarin: Hóng dòu tāng)

English Translation: Sweet Red Bean Soup

Description: This sweet and thick dessert soup is made from red bean paste. It is served at the end of the meal. It can be made both hot and cold and usually includes sago, tapioca, coconut milk and glutinous rice balls. I personally prefer the cold version!
Hung dau tong

Dim Sum in New York City

Growing up in Queens, the most common place I got traditional dim sum for low prices was in Flushing. It’s a hub for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans so of course it’s a great spot to try all these dishes.

My family’s favorite spot, especially for big gatherings, is Good Fortune, but I’ve also enjoyed my time at Royal Queen, Asian Jewels, and New Mulan.

Some good spots for pickup are Shanghai You Garden and the area right in front of New World Mall, which sells Royal Queen’s dim sum in stands.

There are also great spots in the city for dim sum includingJing Fong, Dim Sum Palace, and Tim Ho Wan, which is Michelin starred.

Now that you know where to try these delicious dishes along with a guide to Cantonese dim sum cuisine, grab your friends and head out for a warm, hearty meal this winter! 

And as a reward for making it to the end, here is a quiz if you ever wondered what dim sum dish you are!

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Vivian Ma

Vivian Ma is a Baruch College graduate with a degree in marketing and film. Vivian is fluent in Cantonese and has been taking Japanese for 4 years with an interest in Asian culture in media and entertainment!
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