The Essential Guide to Dim Sum
Shrimp dumplings, barbecue pork buns, and everything in between.
Dim sum is the original brunch, before the concept of brunch was even invented. The welcomed chaos of yum cha—which translates to “drink tea” in Cantonese—includes push carts of steaming veggies, scattered stamps on a card that establish how much your bill is going to be, and an array of small plates that, as a whole, create a filling meal alongside pots of hot tea.
However, for the uninitiated, it can be a little bit overwhelming. Some establishments follow the traditional method of wheeled carts where you flag down a server and point to which dish you want next on your plate. Other spots provide menus you can order off of, with items—like fried rice or stir fried noodles—that extend outside of the category of dim sum. And some places provide you with a paper menu and pencil so you can tick off exactly what you’re craving.
With at minimum 15-20 options on the menu, what dishes should you order? And what’s actually in them? Although Ali Wong has established it’s all mostly shrimp and pork, we’ve decided to give you a more detailed look at the dim sum dishes you’ll find at your local yum cha spot so you can get the real deal. Don’t forget to request chili sauce and hot mustard too—the perfect accompaniments to dim sum.
Bo Loh Bao
Contrary to popular belief, bo loh bao—Cantonese for pineapple bun—do not contain any actual pineapples in them. The bready rolls are named for the criss cross pattern found on their sugar crust that somewhat resembles a pineapple, and are often stuffed with a sweet egg yolk custard. This is an indulgent treat that is perfect for capping off the end of your dim sum excursion with hot tea.
Char Siu Bao
Char siu bao is a barbecue pork bun that is either steamed or baked. The baked version features a golden brown roll usually glazed with a sweet, honey syrup that enhances the sweetness of the pork. The steamed version has a fluffy, cloud-like bun that is snow white and very delicate in flavor, thanks to the low protein flour and cornstarch in the dough. Both are stuffed with the roasted, sweet-and-salty char siu: Chinese barbecue pork that is seasoned with honey, soy sauce, and Chinese five spice.
Char Siu So
Not to be confused with char siu bao, char siu so also contains delicious red barbecue pork, but instead of a baked or steamed bun, the meat is encased by a delicate, flaky, and buttery pastry topped with sesame seeds. It’s almost like eating a char siu turnover.
Chicken feet are an iconic dim sum offering that hit all the right notes: spicy, sweet, and salty. This rich in collagen item is a little bit jiggly and rubbery, akin to chewing on the fattier bits of pork belly or maybe even jellyfish, but the black beans and chili oil sauce that coats the dish makes for a well-seasoned bite. The only tedious thing about consuming these are all the tiny bones you have to make sure to not swallow, so eat these slowly.
Though cheung fun, or rice rolls, can be a meal all on their own (hello Joe’s Steam Rice Rolls!) they are also likely at staple at your local dim sum spot. Cheung fun is a dish composed of wide, semi-translucent rice noodles that envelop an array of fillings and are then steamed. The stuffing of cheung fun can be shrimp, pork, veggies, or even elongated Chinese donuts and the entire dish is usually bathed in a light soy sauce. You’ll definitely need to have perfected your chopstick skills when it comes to this dish; the rice noodles that envelop the filling tend to be really chewy and slippery.
After eating endless amounts of pork and shrimp, the perfect way to end your dim sum excursion is to dive into dan tats, or egg tarts. These custard tarts—which can have either a flaky pastry as a base or a sturdier, almost graham cracker-like crust—are made from egg yolks and baked until the filling is firm but still smooth. Macanese versions of egg tarts are torched on top, leaving a speckled brown surface of burnt sugar.
Fried Taro Dumplings
Taro is a starchy root vegetable that is used in both savory dishes and desserts. In the case of dim sum, the taro lends itself nicely to a crispy fried dumpling. The taro is mashed and filled with mushrooms and a saucy ground pork mixture. The dish is somewhat reminiscent of Cuban potato balls, if you need a comparison, but with a much flakier, lighter exterior.
Har gow is a dim sum staple: a shrimp dumpling wrapped in translucent skin with carefully folded pleats. Inside, the shrimp is commonly combined with finely chopped bamboo shoots, scallions, and a generous sprinkling of white pepper. It’s delicious in its simplicity, but can also benefit from a dip in soy sauce or Sriracha.
Loh Mai Gai
Loh mai gai is a glutinous rice package wrapped neatly in lotus leaves that toes the line between salty and sweet. The sticky rice is bathed in an adobo-like gravy with a medley of lap chong (sweet Chinese sausage), mushrooms, and either pork or chicken. Occasionally salted eggs and dried shrimp are thrown into the mix. Due to the lack of lotus leaves within the States, the steamed parcel is sometimes wrapped in banana leaves instead.
Pork Spare Ribs
If you’re feeling a bit intimidated by chicken feet, but still want the joy of eating something meaty, then this dish is perfect for you. The pork spare ribs at dim sum are steamed with fermented black beans for a remarkably savory, umami-forward dish. Occasionally, the dish is topped with slivers of chile for an added, spicy kick.
Radish cakes are an adaptation of traditional Chinese turnip cakes; since it’s difficult to gain access to traditional Chinese turnips stateside, which can also sometimes be deemed too pungent for American palates, the milder radish is used in its place. The radish cake is made from shredded radishes and are often mixed with dried shrimp, Chinese sausage, and scallions. The cakes are usually steamed and sliced into rectangles that are pan fried, resulting in a crusty exterior and soft interior.
Seaweed Shrimp Roll
There is a lot of shrimp involved in dim sum. The seaweed shrimp roll is a simple concoction of shrimp paste wrapped in seaweed, dunked in a tempura batter, and deep fried until light and crispy. Their shapes almost resemble little sausages, but their flavor is akin to a fishy shrimp cake.
Sesame balls are made from glutinous rice flour, so their exterior texture very much resembles mochi. They’re delightfully chewy and sticky, but also crunchy from being rolled in toasted sesame seeds. These desserts puff up when fried and are filled with sweetened red bean, black bean, or lotus seed pastes. The resulting flavor is not overwhelming sweet and is pleasantly nutty.
Shu mai just might be the most famous dish in the dim sum canon and it is a mandatory order. Generally, the steamed dumpling is filled with a blend of pork and shrimp alongside mushrooms, ginger, scallions. Some variations even include water chestnuts or crab if they are feeling extra fancy. The dumplings are often speckled with orange fish roe on top, and pair nicely with chili sauce. Though it is a Chinese creation, there are interpretation of shu mai all throughout Asia, including in Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Zhaliang has been lovingly described as “carb heaven” and for good reason: it’s a rice roll, similar to cheung fun, but instead of shrimp or beef folded within the almost-opaque noodle rolls, this dish is stuffed with savory fried Chinese crullers called you tiao. The resulting plate has contrasting textures; the crispy donut partners up with the slippery rice noodles and together the pair do an excellent job of sopping up the sweet soy sauce that is commonly served with zhaliang.