Dim sum is to the Chinese what tapas is to the Spanish. It's all about small servings of different dishes representing a variety of great foods and tastes. It is best experienced when eaten in a larger group because of the diversity on offer and because it lends itself so well to informal gatherings where the company and the chatter can be as delightful as the food.
Dim sum means "to touch the heart" and although it can be found in some restaurants throughout the day, if you want the experience to touch your heart, it's best taken at breakfast or lunch.
If you are in any kind of "sit down" environment experiencing dim sum in Hong Kong, you will be expected to drink tea or yum cha as it's called. So inextricably linked are the two practices, that when you hear people talking about yum cha, you know they are talking about going to eat dim sum.
The practice of drinking tea started out with Chinese farm workers who would come from the fields, exhausted from laboring and looking for healthy refreshment. Tea drinking today is seen as beneficial for a number of reasons as it lowers blood pressure, protects the heart, helps to prevent obesity, prevents tooth decay and increases immunity.
Small snacks were added to the tea drinking when it was found that the tea aided digestion by breaking down oil in food, which is especially common in many of the deep fried dishes served as dim sum.
There are several types of tea with varying fragrances, tastes and properties. White tea (Shoumei ) is roasted and has the lowest caffeine content being very light in color and aroma. Black tea (Pu'er) is fermented and is good for digestion because it's an emulsifier for fat and cholesterol.
Jasmine tea (Molihua Cha) is also known as a scented tea and can be black or green depending on which part of the plant is used. Oolong tea (Anxi Tie Guanyin), also known as Iron Goddess, is half-fermented being relatively thick in flavor. Like Black tea, Oolong is an emulsifier and so is a good for today's junk food eaters, but should not be drunk on an empty stomach.
Dim sum dumpling ingredients are often minced, including staples such as cabbage, fresh shiitake mushrooms, finely diced water chestnuts, scallion, sesame oil, oyster sauce, bamboo shoots, pepper and ginger, with egg white and cornstarch used as binding agents.
In the busiest restaurants, dim sum dishes are steamed in advance in bamboo baskets and paraded around the restaurant on steam carts. The senses of hungry customers are assaulted by the sights, smells and even the heat of these offerings and can choose their dishes straight off the steam cart.
The backbone of the dim sum experience consists of dishes such as shrimp dumplings (har gau), congee (rice porridge), steamed pork dumplings (siu mei), steamed, sweet pork buns (char siu pau) and rice noodle rolls (cheung fan).
Beef balls (Ow yok), phoenix feet (fung jow – chicken's paws in reality), tripe, tofu and all manner of vegetables round out the usual basic offerings. However, it is nothing for a good dim sum restaurant to put on thirty or forty different dishes for customers to choose from. Sweet dishes such as egg tarts and red beans in coconut milk are also essential for sweet-tooths.
As with many things Chinese, yum cha and dim sum have their traditions, such as serving tea to the people seated with you. It used to be that younger people served elders or employees of a lower rank served their bosses or those above them and while these customs still exist, they are far less rigid today. Nonetheless, in response to being served tea in a Chinese restaurant it is polite practice to gently tap the slightly bent middle and index fingers together on the table, in recognition of being served.
This tradition is said to have evolved when an unidentified Chinese Emperor was undercover outside the palace one day with companions and visited a tea house. The Emperor served tea to one of his companions on this occasion and instead of bowing which would have drawn attention to the Emperor, the companion discretely showed his respect at being served by the Emperor with the finger tapping.
Serving tea is also important at Chinese marriages where those getting married serve their parents. And when people need to apologise or make amends for some wrongdoing, they may offer to take those offended to yum cha.
In Hong Kong, there are literally thousands of outlets for yum cha and dim sum. Here are two, which in so many ways are poles apart. One is expensive, on Hong Kong Island, traditional and established for decades, the other is relatively inexpensive, in Kowloon, contemporary and established recently. Both have publicized reputations for their dim sum.
First up, the Luk Yu Tea House on Stanley Street in Central, is traditionally decorated with Chinese calligraphy, lots of wood and stone tiles. It’s a local legend, with a regular clientele of movers and shakers and a pedigree in the business district reaching back to the inter war years.
Tables are reserved in advance and one time visitors may find themselves on the third floor. Expect to pay two to three times prices paid in most dim sum restaurants, but experience something unique like the pig's lung with almond soup.
Tim Ho Wan, the Dim Sum Specialists on Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok is reputedly the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the World. Guests can eat 3–4 dim sum dishes for as little as US$10.
The restaurant has limited seating and 1–2 hour queues can easily form, especially on weekends. The secret of their success is apparently steaming the dim sum to order rather than in advance and only using fresh, not previously frozen ingredients.