Dim sum (simplified Chinese: 点心; traditional Chinese: 點心; pinyin: diǎnxīn; Cantonese Yale: dímsām) is a Chinese cuisine of bite-sized portions served in small steamer baskets or on plates. Dim sum is generally considered Cantonese, though other varieties exist. In Cantonese tradition, dishes are usually served with tea. Together, they form a full tea brunch or yum cha (饮茶; 飲茶; yǐn chá; 'drink tea'), a term used interchangeably with dim sum. Dim sum are traditionally served as fully cooked, ready-to-serve dishes. Some Cantonese teahouses have servers push around carts of dim sum for diners to pick from.
The original meaning of the term dim sum remains unclear and debated.
Some references state that the term originated in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420). According to one legend, to show soldiers gratitude after battles, a general had civilians make buns and cakes to send to the front lines. "Gratitude", or 點點心意; diǎn diǎn xīnyì, later shortened to 點心 (dim sum), came to represent dishes made in a similar fashion.
However, no historical text supports that legend. Some versions date the legend to the Southern Song dynasty (960–1279) after the term's earliest attestation in the Book of Tang (唐書; Táng shū. Written in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907–979), the book uses dim sum as a verb instead: 「治妝未畢, 我未及餐, 爾且可點心」; "Zhì zhuāng wèi bì, wǒ wèi jí cān, ěr qiě kě diǎnxīn", or "I have not finished preparing myself and been ready for a proper meal, therefore you can treat yourself with some small snacks". In this context, dim sum (點心; 'to lightly touch (your) heart'), means "to barely fill (your) stomach".
Later texts use the term as a noun. The Record of the Northern Journey (北轅錄; Běi yuán lù, written in the Song dynasty, states, "When grooming finishes, the dim sum has already arrived" (「洗漱冠飾畢, 點心已至」; "Xǐshù guān shì bì, diǎnxīn yǐ zhì"). Dim sum means "snacks" in this quote.
Though the original meaning remains unknown, the term referred to small dishes no later than the Song dynasty.
Dim sum dishes may predate the term itself. They are usually associated with yum cha (Chinese: 飲茶; Cantonese Yale: yám chàh; pinyin: yǐnchá; lit.: 'drink tea'), a much older Cantonese tradition akin to brunch. Yum cha may have roots in teahouses established along the ancient Silk Road, where travelers rested. When people discovered that tea can aid digestion, teahouse owners added various snacks, eventually evolving into modern yum cha. Modern dim sum originated in Guangzhou (or Canton) and spread southward to Hong Kong. Over the centuries, Hongkongers transformed yum cha from relaxing respite to formal dining experience.
In Cantonese-speaking regions (such as Hong Kong and Guangdong), yum cha is sometimes described as 一盅兩件 (literally "one cup, two pieces"), in which "cup" refers to tea, "two pieces" to dim sum. Historically, dim sum had larger portions that could fill up one's stomach. Nowadays, however, diners order more than two dishes during yum cha.
Many Cantonese restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning, and each restaurant has its own signature dim sum dish. Traditionally, the elderly gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises. Many treat yum cha as weekend family days and holiday gatherings. More traditional dim sum restaurants typically serve dim sum until mid-afternoon. However, in modern society, it has become commonplace for restaurants to serve dim sum at dinner time and even to sell various dim sum items a la carte for take-out.
Dim sum is usually eaten as breakfast or brunch. A traditional dim sum brunch includes various types of steamed buns, such as cha siu bao (a steamed bun filled with barbecue pork), rice or wheat dumplings, and rice noodle rolls that contain a range of ingredients, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns, and vegetarian options. Many dim sum restaurants also offer plates of steamed green vegetables, stuffed eggplant, stuffed green peppers, roasted meats, congee, and other soups. Dessert dim sum is also available, and many places offer the customary egg tart.
Dim sum can be cooked by steaming and frying, among other methods. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party. Small portion sizes allow people to try a wide variety of food.
Dim sum brunch restaurants have a wide variety of dishes, usually several dozen. Standard fare of dim sum include:
- Shrimp dumpling (蝦餃; xiā jiǎo; hā gáau): steamed dumpling with shrimp filling
- Teochew dumpling (潮州粉粿; cháozhōu fěnguǒ; Chìu jāu fán gwó): steamed dumpling with peanuts, garlic, Chinese chives, pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms.
- Chive dumpling (韭菜餃): steamed dumpling with Chinese chives
- Xiaolongbao (小笼包; 小籠包; xiǎolóngbāo; síu lùhng bāau): dumplings containing a rich broth and filled with meat or seafood
- Guotie (鍋貼; guōtiē; wōtip): pan-fried dumpling, usually with meat and cabbage filling.
- Shaomai (烧卖; 燒賣; shāomài; sīu máai): steamed dumplings with pork and prawns, usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.
- Taro dumpling (芋角; yù jiǎo; wuh gok): deep fried dumpling made with mashed taro and stuffed with diced mushrooms, shrimp and pork
- Haam Seui Gok (鹹水角; xiánshuǐ jiǎo; hàahm séui gok): deep fried dumpling with a slightly savoury filling of pork and chopped vegetables in a sweet and sticky wrapping
- Dumpling soup (灌湯餃; guàntāng jiǎo; guntōng gáau): soup with one or two big dumplings.
- Spring roll (春卷; 春捲; chūnjuǎn; chēun gyún): a deep fried roll with various sliced vegetables (such as carrots, cabbage, mushroom and wood ear fungus) and sometimes meat
- Tofu skin roll (腐皮捲; fǔpíjuǎn; fuh pèih gyún): a roll made of tofu skin filled with various meat and sliced vegetables
- Fresh bamboo roll (鮮竹卷): a roll made of tofu skin filled with minced pork and bamboo shoot, typically served in an oyster sauce broth
- Four-treasure chicken roll (四寶雞扎): a roll made of tofu skin filled with chicken, Jinhua ham, fish maw (花膠), and Chinese mushroom
- Rice noodle roll (腸粉; chángfěn; chéungfán): steamed rice noodles with or without meat or vegetable filling. Popular fillings include beef, dough fritter, shrimp, and barbecued pork. Often served with a sweetened soy sauce.
- Zhaliang (炸兩; jaléung): steamed rice noodles rolled around youjagwai (油炸鬼), typically doused in soy sauce, hoisin sauce, or sesame paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds
- Barbecued pork bun (叉燒包; chāshāo bāo; chāsīu bāau): buns with barbecued pork filling steamed to be white and fluffy.叉燒餐包; chāshāo cān bāo; chāsīu chāan bāau is a variant glazed and baked for a golden appearance.
- Sweet cream bun (奶黃包; nǎihuáng bāo; náaih wòhng bāau): steamed buns with milk custard filling
- Lotus paste bun (蓮蓉包): steamed buns with lotus seed paste filling
- Pineapple bun (菠蘿包; bōluó bāo; bōlòh bāau): a usually sweet bread roll that does not contain pineapple but has a topping textured like pineapple skin
- Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕; luóbo gāo; lòh baahk gōu): pudding made from a mix of shredded white radish, bits of dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and mushroom that is steamed, sliced, and pan-fried
- Taro cake (芋頭糕; yùtou gāo; wuh táu gōu): pudding made of taro
- Water chestnut cake (馬蹄糕; mǎtí gāo; máh tàih gōu): pudding made of crispy water chestnut; some restaurants also serve a variation made with bamboo juice.
- Steamed meatball (山竹牛肉丸; niúròu wán; ngàuh yuhk yún): steamed meatballs served on thin tofu skin
- Phoenix claws (鳳爪; fèngzhuǎ; fuhng jáau): deep fried, boiled, and then steamed chicken feet with douchi. "White Cloud Phoenix Claws" (白雲鳳爪; báiyún fèngzhuǎ; baahk wàhn fuhng jáau) is a plain steamed version.
- Spare ribs (排骨; páigǔ; pàaih gwāt): steamed pork spare ribs with douchi and sometimes garlic and chili
- Pork rinds and radish (豬皮蘿蔔): boiled and steamed pork rind and radish
- Pork blood (豬紅): stir-fried pork blood with douchi and scallion
- Beef tendon (牛筋)
- Reticulum beef tripe (金錢肚)
- Omasum beef tripe (牛百頁; 牛柏葉)
- Beef entrails (牛什; 牛雜): pieces of beef entrails such as tripe, pancreas, intestine, spleen, and lung served in a bowl of master stock
- Siu mei (烧味; 燒味; shāowèi; sīuméi): Hong Kong-style barbecue meat roasted in an oven. Popular varieties include char siu (Chinese: 叉燒), siu ngo (Chinese: 燒鵝), siu aap (Chinese: 燒鴨), white cut chicken (Chinese: 白切雞), soy sauce chicken (Chinese: 豉油雞), and siu yuk (Chinese: 燒肉).
- Chicken wing (Chinese: 雞翼): deep fried (Chinese: 炸雞翼) or marinated in soy sauce and spices (Chinese: 瑞士雞翼)
- Deep fried squid (炸鱿鱼须; 炸魷魚鬚; zhàyóuyúxū; ja yàuh yùh sōu): similar to fried calamari, the battered squid is deep-fried.
- Curry squid (咖哩鱿鱼; 咖哩魷魚): squid served in curry broth
- Steamed vegetables (油菜; yóucài; yáu choi): served with oyster sauce, popular varieties include lettuce (生菜; shēngcài; sāang choi), choy sum (菜心; càixīn; choi sām), gai lan (芥兰; 芥蘭; jièlán; gaailàahn) or water spinach (蕹菜; wèngcài; ung choi).
- Fried tofu (炸豆腐): deep fried tofu with salt and pepper
- Lotus leaf rice (糯米雞; nuòmǐ jī; noh máih gāi): glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf that typically contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, and meat (usually pork and chicken). A lighter variant is known as "pearl chicken" (珍珠雞; zhēnzhū jī; jānjyū gāi).
- Chinese sticky rice (糯米飯; nuòmǐ fàn; noh máih faahn): stir fried (or steamed) glutinous rice with savoury Chinese sausage, soy sauce steeped mushrooms, sweet spring onions, and sometimes chicken marinated with a mixture of spices including five-spice powder
- Congee (粥; zhōu; jūk): many kinds of rice porridge, such as the "Preserved Egg and Pork Porridge" (皮蛋瘦肉粥; pídàn shòuròu zhōu; pèihdáan sauyuhk jūk)
- Egg tart (Chinese: 蛋撻; pinyin: dàntǎ; Cantonese Yale: daahn tāat): baked tart with egg custard filling
- Tofu pudding (豆腐花; dòufuhuā; dauh fuh fā): soft tofu served with a sweet ginger or jasmine flavoured syrup
- Sesame ball (煎堆; jiānduī; jīn dēui): deep fried chewy dough with various fillings (lotus seed, black bean, red bean pastes) coated in sesame seeds.
- Thousand-layer cake (千層糕; qiāncéng gāo; chīnchàhng gōu): a dessert made of many layers of sweet egg dough
- Malay sponge cake (馬拉糕; mǎlā gāo; máhlāai gōu): steamed sponge cake flavoured with molasses
- White sugar sponge cake:(白糖糕; báitáng gāo; baahk tòng gōu): steamed sponge cake made with white sugar.
- Coconut pudding (椰汁糕; yēzhī gāo; yèh jāp gōu): light and spongy but creamy coconut milk pudding made with with a thin clear jelly layer made with coconut water on top
- Mango pudding (芒果布甸; mángguǒ bùdiàn; mōnggwó boudīn): a sweet, rich mango-flavoured pudding usually with large chunks of fresh mango and often served with a topping of evaporated milk
- Ox-tongue pastry (牛脷酥): a fried oval-shaped dough resembling an ox tongue that is similar to youjagwai, but sugar is added to the flour.
- Tong sui (糖水): sweet dessert soups; popular varieties include black sesame soup (芝麻糊), red bean soup (红豆汤; 紅豆沙), mung bean soup (绿豆汤; 綠豆沙), sai mai lo (西米露), guilinggao (龟苓膏; 龜苓膏), peanut paste soup (花生糊), and walnut soup (核桃糊).
The drinking of tea matters just as much as the food does. The tea service includes several customs. Typically, the server starts by asking diners what tea to serve. According to etiquette, the person closest to the tea pot pours tea for the others. Those served tea express thanks by tapping their first two fingers on the table. Diners flip open the lid (of hinged metal tea pots) or offset the tea pot cover (on ceramic tea pots) to signal an empty pot. Servers then refill the pot. Teas served during dim sum include:
- Chrysanthemum tea: instead of tea leaves, it is a flower-based tisane made from flowers of the species Chrysanthemum morifolium or Chrysanthemum indicum, which are most popular in East Asia. To prepare the tea, chrysanthemum flowers (usually dried) are steeped in hot water (usually 90 to 95 °C (194 to 203 °F) after cooling from a boil) in a teapot, cup, or glass. A common mix with pu-erh is called guk pou (Chinese: 菊普; pinyin: jú pǔ; Cantonese Yale: gūk póu), a portmanteau of its component teas.
- Green tea: freshly picked leaves that go through heating and drying processes but not oxidation keep their original green color and chemical compounds, like polyphenols and chlorophyll. Produced all over China and the most popular category of tea, green teas include the representative Dragon Well (Chinese: 龍井; pinyin: lóngjǐng; Cantonese Yale: lùhngjéng) and Biluochun from Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, respectively.
- Oolong tea: partially oxidizing the tea leaves imparts them with characteristics of both green and black teas. Oolongs taste more like green than black tea but have a less "grassy" flavour than the former. Major oolong-tea producing areas line the southeast coast of China, such as Fujian, Guangdong, and Taiwan. Tieguanyin (Chinese: 鐵觀音; pinyin: tiěguānyīn; Cantonese Yale: titgūnyām), one of the most popular, originated in Fujian province and is a premium variety with a delightful fragrance.
- Pounei (Cantonese) or pu-erh tea (Mandarin): usually a compressed tea, pu-erh has a unique earthy flavour from years of fermentation.
- Scented teas: various mixes of flowers with green, black, or oolong teas exist. Flowers used include jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, grapefruit flower, sweet-scented osmanthus, and rose. Strict rules govern the proportion of flowers to tea. Jasmine tea, the most popular scented tea, is the one most often served at yum cha establishments.
Restaurants and pricingEdit
Dim sum has a unique serving method. In specialized dim sum brunch restaurants or teahouses, servers offer dishes to customers from steam-heated carts. Diners often prefer tables nearest the kitchen since servers and carts pass by these tables first. Many restaurants place lazy susans on tables to help diners reach food and tea.
Pricing of dishes at these types of restaurants may vary, but traditionally, the dishes are classified as "small", "medium", "large", "extra-large", or "special". For example, a basket of dumplings may be considered a small dish, while a bowl of congee or plate of lo mai gai a large one. Dishes are then priced by size. Servers record orders with a rubber stamp or ink pen onto a bill card that remains on the table. Servers in some restaurants use distinctive stamps to track sales statistics for each server. Menu items not typically considered dim sum fare, such as a plate of chow mein, are typically branded as "kitchen" dishes on menus and individually priced. When done eating, the customers simply call the servers over, and the bill is calculated based on the number of stamps or quantities marked in each priced section.
Another way of pricing the food consumed uses the number and color of the dishes left on the patron's table as a guide, much like the method used in some Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Some newer restaurants offer a "conveyor belt dim sum" format.
Other Chinese restaurants may instead take orders from a pre-printed sheet of paper and serve à la carte, much like Spanish tapas restaurants, to provide fresh, cooked-to-order dim sum or due to real estate and resource constraints.
Instant dim sum as a fast food has come into the market in Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. People can enjoy snacks after defrosting or reheating instant dim sum in a microwave for three minutes.
In many cities, vendors sell "street dim sum" from mobile carts. It usually consists of dumplings or meatballs steamed in a large container and served on a bamboo skewer. The customer can dip the whole skewer into a sauce bowl and then eat while standing or walking.
Dim sum can often be purchased from grocery stores in major cities. These dim sum can be easily cooked by steaming, frying, or microwaving. Major grocery stores in Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Australia, United States, and Canada have a variety of frozen or fresh dim sum stocked at the shelves. These include dumplings, shaomai, baozi, rice noodle roll, turnip cake and steamed spare ribs.
In Hong Kong and other cities in Asia, dim sum can be purchased from convenience stores, coffee shops and other eateries. Halal-certified dim sum that uses chicken instead of pork very popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
Modern dim sumEdit
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