Introduction to dim sum…
Dim sum may seem a million miles away from corn flakes or bacon and eggs but in Hong Kong and it’s breakfast. Over here, of course, it’s generally more of a lunchtime option and one of our favourites at that.
I always think it’s a shame when I see people in Chinatown during the day ordering from the dinner menu, oblivious to what they are missing. A world without dumplings would be a sad place indeed.
Restaurants often assume that non-Chinese customers are unlikely to order dim sum and so only give them the a la carte menu. To be fair, if you don’t know any of the dishes you’re unlikely to contemplate ordering them For example, pan fried turnip cake may not sound particularly appealing but it’s actually one of my favourite dim sum dishes and there are many other examples. Hopefully this guide will be helpful and soon you’ll be able to order dim sum like a pro.
What is dim sum?
Each dish usually consists of three or four bite-sized pieces, and like tapas, it’s meant for sharing. As a general rule of thumb, 3-4 dishes per person is about right, depending on how hungry you are. Try to order a variety, e.g. steamed, fried, grilled etc.
Be sure to order some Chinese tea with your meal. It helps to cut through the fattiness of some of the dishes and you get free refills so it’s good value too. Dim sum is known as ‘yum cha’ in Cantonese which means ‘to drink tea’ so save the Tsing Tao for later. When pouring tea, always fill other’s cups before your own and tap the table with your index finger to say thanks when somebody tops you up.
Here are a few of our favourite dim sum dishes so look out for these. There’s nothing wrong with prawn toast and spring rolls but if you look further, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Steamed dim sum
These steamed prawn dumplings are one of the best known dishes of all. Often called ‘Crystal prawn dumplings’, their thin translucent skin is soft and slightly sticky. The wrapper is made from wheat starch and tapioca flour and the filling is typically prawn and finely minced bamboo, which should be steamed to perfection.
Steamed pork, prawn and black mushroom dumplings. The wrappers are made from a thin sheet of lye water dough. The orange dot in the centre is crab roe or sometimes carrot. Like Har Gau, you’ll see this on every dim sum menu.
You’ll also find blinged up variations like scallop siu mai. These are often worth a try but only if you’ve got faith in the quality of the restaurant’s dim sum.
Prawn and chive dumplings
These are broadly similar to Har Gau, with added Chinese chives and are slightly larger. The chives add a delicious garlicky flavour and are also available pan-fried (see further down).
Xiao long bao
Also known as Shanghai dumplings (or soup dumplings), they are very delicate and contain gelatinous pork meat and stock. When they are done right, they are delicious and are usually served with ginger and vinegar dipping sauce. Be careful though because as the stock can be HOT!
Char siu bao
Filled with barbecue pork, the steamed bread-like casing and the meat inside are both a little sweet, but don’t let this put you off because they are super tasty. These too are one of the most popular dim sum dishes. Top tip: When you order them, make sure you remove the paper square that’s stuck to the bottom of each bun.
Chicken feet in black bean sauce
Not one for the faint-hearted but delicious nonetheless. The feet are soft and gelatinous and the sauce really makes the dish. If you’re open minded, give it a go!
Sometimes referred to as rice roll or rice sheet roll, they are made from wide rice noodle strips and can be filled with king prawn, beef, char siu (pork), scallops or even fried dough stick. Always served with soy sauce and a lot easier to eat if they are sliced up.
Sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf
Glutinous rice parcels filled with mixed meat and gravy. Just in case you’re wondering, do not eat the leaf! It’s just their to keep the rice lovely and moist as it cooks. Generally you’ll find mixed meat hidden in the rice.
Spare ribs in black bean sauce
These are packed with flavour but are very fatty and gelatinous, so are probably not one for the uninitiated. Best served with garlic, black bean and chilli in this sauce for added punch.
Fried dim sum
Vietnamese Spring Rolls
These are a little different from regular Chinese spring rolls as the wrapper is made from rice flour. The filling is generally a combination of minced pork, mung bean thread noodles, carrots and garlic.
Paper wrapped prawns
Crispy rice paper sheets, filled with prawns, coriander and finely chopped bamboo and often topped with sesame seeds. They are served with a sweet vinegar dip.
Deep fried prawn dumplings
No surprises here, apart from the salad cream they are sometimes served with. Just go with the flow – it works!
Also known as taro croquettes, they are filled with yam and minced pork, prawns and Chinese mushrooms. If they are done well, the outside should be light and crispy but not greasy.
Fried squid/cuttlefish cake
These golden patties are made from minced squid and are very tasty indeed. They are served with sweetened vinegar dip and have quite a tight, chewy texture. They also hold heat remarkably well so approach with care.
Deep fried custard buns (Lai Wong Bao)
These spheres of goodness are also available steamed if you want to be healthy and are perfectly nice like that. For me though, they have to be fried. A crispy, sweet, bread-like casing and a custard filling. Yum!
Grilled/Pan-fried dim sum
Pan fried turnip cake/paste
This is a much misunderstood dish indeed. It’s made from shredded mooli and rice flour, with small pieces of meat (usually wind dried Chinese sausage or dried shrimp). There should be a thin crunchy layer on both sides from pan frying and a soft centre and if it’s done right will not be too greasy. I urge you to order these.
Pan-fried Peking dumplings
Also known as wor tip, these juicy dumplings are filled with minced pork, ginger and spring onion and pan fried on one side. Often served with vinegar dip.
Grilled prawn & chive dumplings
A lesser know variation of the steamed dumplings. You’ll find them in a range of shapes and sizes.
This dish contains pork and prawns or Chinese sausage. It has a similar bread casing to a char siu bao, soft and slightly sweet and crisp on the bottom.
Baked dim sum
These aren’t found on every menu, but are an interesting option. We’ve seen a venison puff with black pepper sauce as well as shredded mooli puffs. Both have the same light, flaky outer casing with very different fillings.
Egg tarts are served warm and strangely enough they always seem to arrive first. This is a shame if you want to eat them at the end because they’ll have gone cold. They taste like a very eggy, less sweet custard tart, with lovely flaky pastry. I’d be more likely to buy these from a Chinese bakery, rather than order them in a restaurant but they are tasty nonetheless.
Barbecue pork puff
Basically they have the same filling as a char siu bao (barbecue pork bun) but are smaller and have a flaky pastry case. This is another dish that will mess with your senses of sweet and savoury flavours.
Congee is in a category all of its own. For the Cantonese, it’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s the food that Chinese mothers cook for their kids when they are ill (think chicken soup).
Congee is like a savoury rice soup and can often be fairly bland but is lifted with a little soy sauce and sprinkling of pepper. The classic version contains with lean pork and century egg. This is a bit of a challenge for beginners, for a start, the egg is black. But close your eyes and try it, it’s just a strongly flavoured egg. Other congee varieties include beef, fish and mixed seafood but really you can add anything you want.
Trust me when I tell you that we’ve only just scratched the surface with our guide. The number of dim sum combinations you could have are pretty much endless.
Where to eat dim sum in London
There is some great value dim sum in and around Chinatown but of course there are some terrible tourist traps too. We generally stick to Golden Phoneix on Gerrard Street which won’t cost the Earth and serves decent quality dim sum.
However, our favourite dim sum restaurant is Princess Garden of Mayfair. Here, 8-9 dishes plus Chinese tea will set you back around £40 including service, perhaps almost double the bottom end price but it’s well worth it. It’s a lovely light dining room and the perfect place for a tasty dim sum lunch. It’s also smart to book ahead.
If you want to spend a little more again then there’s something to be said for the likes of Yauatcha. Full review.