Every Important Dim Sum Dish, Ranked
Anyone can appreciate a tradition like yum cha (otherwise known as going to dim sum), but understanding what's what when it comes to the individual items is another thing entirely. Between the sheer number of dumplings, buns, pastries, and noodles, and the breakneck speed of the servers hawking them, option paralysis is almost inevitable.
So here's my not-at-all subjective, totally iron-clad ranking of the items you're most likely to encounter, so your experience is a little more informed. (Note that their names, whether in English, Cantonese, or Mandarin, can vary widely; I provided transliterations only where common enough stateside to be useful.)
24. Crystal shrimp dumplings (har gow)
Remember the kids who ate pencil erasers in grade school? Pretty sure they grew up to be the people who insist these dead ringers for already-chewed gum wads are the crown jewels of the dim sum canon.
23. Coconut buns (gai mei bao)
The har gow of Cantonese baked goods. (I fully expect to take heat for this.)
22. Coconut pudding
I don't care if it's flavored with mango or red bean -- it's still Jell-O. Or maybe I'm just over coconut.
21. Chicken feet (feng zhua)
The flavor of the black-bean sauce is complex, pungent, and actually delicious; it's the jellied texture that takes some getting used to. Whether sucking bird toes seems like something worth getting used to is entirely your business.
20. Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce (ho yau gai lan)
It's no more exciting than your mom's broccoli, but required for the same reason -- to balance out all the fat and carbs you're shoving in your body. Eat your vegetables, dammit.
19. BBQ pork puffs (char siu so)
Barbecued pork: delicious. Fried pastry: delicious. Fried pastry stuffed with barbecued pork: overkill.
18. Beef meatballs (ngao yuk)
Steamed and flavored with dried tangerine peel and watercress, these taste lighter, fresher, and generally healthier than your average albóndiga -- not that wholesomeness is ever anyone's key criterion for a meatball, but it doesn't hurt.
17. Cruller-stuffed rice-noodle rolls (zhaliang)
Talk about putting the fun in cheong fun!! This dim sum staple is akin to elasticized cannelloni, and hinges on youtiao, which are basically batons of solid grease masquerading as donut-like pastries.
16. Egg tarts (don tot)
Obviously tiny vanilla custard pies are fun to eat, but you can't look at them without thinking they'd be more fun to throw in the faces of three tiny Stooges.
15. Pork glutinous-rice dumplings (ham sui gok)
At their best, these crackling rice-flour shells filled with pork and mushroom gravy belong at the top of the list as prime examples of sweet-salty and crunchy-velvety contrasts. The problem is that they're not always at their best, and at their worst they've got a kind of abscessed-Twinkie thing going on.
14. Deep-fried shrimp balls
Though mixed and bound with other ingredients like all meatballs, these taste purely of mildly sweet and juicy shrimp. Salty and greasy fried shrimp, but shrimp all the same.
13. Shrimp-stuffed eggplant
The same mixture goes porno when erupting from deep within the succulent, empurpled flesh of the nightshade. (How's my prose?)
12. Beef short ribs in black pepper sauce/pork spareribs in black bean sauce
The two dishes are surprisingly similar -- a little crispy, a lot fatty, and bathed in a hot, oily sauce -- except that the bone-in cuts mean there's not a lot of meat to go around. So you could take your pick, but why not get both?
11. Pork-blood cubes (zhu hong)
The first time I ever tried these, I wrote down this note: "Like simultaneously licking an aluminum pole and biting through the freshly spilled bowels of a moonlight sacrifice." I quote myself here, because I am a goddamn poet. If you eat one type of gelatinous offal at dim sum, make it this one.
10. Sesame balls (jin dui)
If a donut were your girlfriend, this would be the exotic cousin she brings to the bar who you're trying not to appear too interested in, but you know she's all coated in sesame seeds and filled with sweet, sweet bean or lotus-seed paste.
9. Open-face pork-and-shrimp dumplings (siu mai)
What har gow could be if they just made a little effort.
8. Pineapple custard buns (bo lo nai wong bao)
The name alludes to the rind-like pattern made by the sugary topping, not actual fruit. But you can't really complain about false advertising with a mouthful of custard in a fluffy dough pillow.
7. Potstickers (guotie)
Similar to the old truism/meme about sex and pizza, even bad potstickers are worth having now and regretting later.
6. Pan-fried turnip cake (lo bak go)
Just try it: slightly crunchy on the outside, almost creamy on the inside, mildly savory, and weirdly addictive.
5. Soup dumplings (xiao long bao)
Close your eyes as you bite down on the silk-sheathed pork, and fully savor the aromatic broth without distraction. Also close your ears, because your self-described foodie friend just launched into a tirade about how the skins aren't as supple as the ones he had that time in Shanghai, and also how xiao long bao aren't technically dumplings so don't call them that.
4. Sticky rice in lotus leaf (lo mai gai)
Speckled with bits of chicken, sausage, and mushrooms, this is pretty much everything you love about fried rice, minus the grease, plus gift wrap.
3. Pan-fried chive or leek dumplings (gow choi gau)
Crispy, juicy, intensely earthy... you can skip the Chinese broccoli if you eat your fill of these veggie dumplings.
2. Fried taro dumplings (wu gok)
With lacy crusts that give way to a mouthful of mashed taro root -- which could pass for potato but for its lavender color and nuttier flavor -- followed by a smidgen of saucy ground pork, these may be the most exciting discoveries on the dim sum table, despite looking like sponge-coral specimens, petrified faceless gerbils, or whatever's clogging your shower drain. But those are also exciting discoveries!
1. BBQ pork buns (char siu bao)
The baked kind evokes those honey-glazed dinner rolls your grandma used to make for you (or else makes up for all the ones she didn't); the steamed version comes off like a cross between Wonder bread and a marshmallow. Whichever you prefer, the tangy, tender barbecued pork at the center puts these in the running for the world's greatest comfort food.
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Ruth Tobias eats pork and shrimp for a living. Find out how she's breaking her JewBu mother's heart today by following her: @Denveater.