Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

Getting Acquainted with Dim Sum

One of my favorite sayings, the origin of which I can no longer remember, goes something like this: For one who has had the experience, no explanation is necessary. For one who has not, no explanation is possible. Words of wisdom that somehow seem to apply to dim sum. For those of you who know the joy of an afternoon spent indulging in these edible treasures in a bustling dim sum restaurant, no explanation is necessary. And for you bereft souls who have never had the pleasure, no explanation is possible. But I will try.

The term dim sum literally means 'to touch the heart', and a typical dim sum repertoire usually consists of, but is not limited to, an array of steamed and deep fried dishes, including dumplings, croquettes, spring rolls, and meat filled buns. There are also more exotic items like savory sausages, delicate seafood creations, and even chicken feet, a common dim sum standard.

According to convention, dim sum is usually, although not exclusively, served at lunch; and in a traditional dim sum establishment, there is no menu. Each type of dim sum is prepared in large batches in the kitchen, and then loaded onto rolling carts in stacked bamboo baskets. The dim sum waiter then rolls the cart into the dining room past all the tables, lifting the lids of the steamer baskets for the customers to peek inside to see if it looks appetizing enough to partake. Although there are no fixed rules, the order in which dim sum is traditionally eaten is the lighter steamed items first, followed by specialties such as paper wrapped chicken, spare ribs, sausages, meatballs and chicken feet, and finally the more filling deep fried dishes. And for dessert, delicate egg custards, and mango pudding are two favorites.

When you've tried enough of the dishes that you can't possibly eat another bite...well...maybe just a teensy bit more...the waiter counts the plates and beverage containers on your table and tallies up the bill. In his Asia cookbook, Martin Yan tells an amusing anecdote of a time in his youth when he and his buddies went for dim sum, and thought it would be clever to hide half their dishes under the table to economize on the bill. But it's an old trick, and the waiter was not that easily fooled. Moreover, to their horror, when the waiter looked under the table for their missing dishes, there were also lots of others left behind by the previous party, and they ended up paying the tab for those as well.

As a cuisine, dim sum originated in the province of Canton during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.), where the royal chefs created these tiny edible works of art to delight the emperor and members of his imperial court at tea time. This delightful new pleasure soon spread beyond the palace walls, and by the time that trade along the Silk Road had reached its peak, the route was dotted with cozy tea houses that served dim sum to weary travelers. Before long, dim sum houses spread to the villages, where field workers and tradesmen could enjoy a light afternoon repast after a hard day's work. Today, dim sum restaurants are ubiquitous in every metropolis in China, and are frequented by people of every nationality in the Chinatown sectors of cosmopolitan cities throughout the world.