Dim Sum 101
Learning the intricacies of this Chinese specialty
Whereas Spanish locals eat small tapas plates during the evening, Chinese families mix and match dim sum dishes for brunch. As one small-town family recently discovered, ordering restaurant dim sum is more complicated than requesting an A9 with fried rice from a Chinese take-out. Intimidated, Tshia Yang’s family left the dim sum restaurant and has avoided this Chinese specialty ever since.
In contrast, my Auntie Faye, who was first treated to dim sum with a Hong Kong family, fondly reminisces, “Dim sum is a taste bud’s delight, a cornucopia of delicious small plates for everyone to share.”
Adventurous diners can embark on this delicious cultural and culinary adventure in Southwest Florida, and in this article we equip you with the basic knowledge to order and dine confidently.
DIM SUM KNOW-HOW
Dim sum is the Cantonese pronunciation of dian xin, which references the heart but ultimately means to order snacks. British-born Chinese Sammy Ho grew up with this “comforting family ritual,” so she quickly learned how to tally the group’s food selections on the paper menu and to order two to three dishes per person. Her family taught her to sand off bamboo splinters from her chopsticks and neatly fold the paper wrapper into a chopstick stand. From childhood, she became accustomed to waiters delivering towers of round bamboo steamers and shallow accompanying sauce dishes.
Cantonese speakers invite others to dim sum with yam cha, which literally translates to “drink tea.” Even in Hong Kong, which can be even hotter and more humid than Florida, piping-hot tea is the drink of choice. Pourers should first serve guests and elder family members, filling their own cups last to demonstrate respect. To ask for more tea, simply pop the lid off the empty teapot and set it off kilter to alert the staff. When they reappear, you can silently thank them by tapping the table twice.
Dim sum can be devilishly slippery and difficult to grasp with chopsticks. To prevent food from tumbling onto the table, employ your Chinese spoon as a safety net by holding it beneath your chopsticks. You can also close the distance between the food and your mouth by lifting your bowl to eat. Resist the urge to impale food with chopsticks, which demonstrates bad manners, as Taiwanese native Gordon Yu insists: “Chopsticks are a tool to delicately select food, not stab it.” If you are struggling, however, pick up food with your hands or exchange chopsticks for a knife and fork.
DIM SUM DELIGHTS
Some dim sum menus offer more than 50 items, which may seem overwhelming. To balance out the meat-centric dishes described here, you can order a large noodle dish and a plate of steamed vegetables to share. Dough-wrapped dumplings. From Italian ravioli to Japanese gyoza, cultures worldwide enjoy stuffed parcels of dough. Dumplings can be boiled, steamed, fried in a pan or deep-fried.
Regardless of cooking method, Chinese dumplings are traditionally filled with pork or shrimp, although vegetarian options are available. Westerners favor the sweet cha siu bao, barbecued pork wrapped in a fluffy bun.
Rice-based dishes. During a dim sum meal, diners may also order rice-based dishes, aside from the standard white or fried rice. Ho fun are slippery rice noodles, fried with soy sauce and beef. Chee cheong
fun are steamed rice-flour rolls with a filling such as prawns, while the puffy deep-fried version is named ham sui gok. To bulk up your meal, order lo mai gai, a brick of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf that encases pork, dried shrimp and mushrooms.
Chinese sweet treats. Forget fortune cookies, which likely had their origins in Japan, and Chinese bean soups. For dim
sum dessert, the egg tart and custard tart pastries reign supreme. Children, especially, adore the sweet set egg and rich custard fillings. For a unique treat, order the purple-stuffed taro puff, whose filling is occasionally compared to sweet potato.
FLORIDA DIM SUM
While Londoner Laura Bezant cautions, “Don’t go for yum cha at a place filled only with Caucasian customers,” this certainly was not the case at Ginger Bistro in Fort Myers. Sanibel resident Karen Roberts declares the dim sum quality stacks up to food in various Chinatowns, and husband Todd Roberts agrees, although notes the menu is smaller.
Dim sum is all about trying different dishes, so gather your friends and give dim sum a go. Alison Roberts-Tse has been haphazardly scribbling in journals since she was a small-town small-fry. She has degrees in communications and dance from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She lives in London, spends time on Sanibel and obsessively plans getaways, both near and far.
Dim sum orders are placed via tally sheets (top). Chinese steamed buns (middle and bottom) come in both sweet and savory varieties.
Prawn dumplings are a classic dim sum dish, served in a traditional bamboo steamer.