Dim Sum 101

Learn­ing the in­tri­ca­cies of this Chi­nese spe­cialty

RSWLiving - - Culinary - BY ALI­SON ROBERTS- TSE

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 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.


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.


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.

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