Your Ultimate Field Guide to Chinese Dim Sum
It's impossible to ignore what is arguably the best hot breakfast of all: the tradition of Chinese dim sum. Dim sum (which technically translates to "point of the heart") can be a disorienting ritual: unrecognizable food being wheeled around in carts, waiters who only speak Cantonese, and an endless number of dumplings and buns.
We're here to save you from the confusion of the process, as we present to you our ultimate field guide on the subject. We promise, you'll never be scared to order dim sum again!
— Additional reporting by Sara Yoo
Dim Sum 101
Historically, this Cantonese meal is served from morning until midafternoon, about the same hours as breakfast and brunch. It's also called yum cha, a reference that translates to "drinking tea." Tea is an essential part of the experience: its astringency is a necessary foil to the ritual's rich dishes.
Expect lots of savory dishes, many of which are shrimp and pork-based: steamed dumplings, buns, rolls and pancakes, and meat dishes. You'll also spot certain signature sweets.
Har Gow (Shrimp Dumplings)
These delicate-looking, translucent shrimp dumplings are the hallmark of dim sum, and the single most recognizable menu item. While dim sum offerings vary from one tea house to another, this is one food you can always count on finding. Here, shrimp (and often pork) and bamboo shoots get wrapped in a wheat skin and steamed in a bamboo steamer for the most succulent of results.
Siu Mai (Pork or Shrimp Dumplings)
If dim sum were to have a popularity contest, har gow would place first, and then siu mai would come in at a close second. These cylindrical dumplings, known in Mandarin Chinese as shaomai, are wrapped around the sides with a lye water dough, exposing the shrimp or pork filling above and below.
The most common siu mai found in dim sum have a filling that consists of ground pork, chopped shrimp, Chinese mushrooms, and scallions; the medley is seasoned with ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, and sesame oil, then wrapped and garnished with an orange dot.
Fay Choy Gow (Jade Dumplings)
Chinese chives and chopped shrimp, wrapped and carefully folded in a see-through wheat starch and tapioca skin.
Soi Jin Gow (Crystal Dumplings)
Another dumpling with transparent-like skin (hence, the likeness to crystal) that's glutinous and chewy thanks to wheat starch and tapioca. The inside is filled with minced pork and shrimp.
Fun Kor (Also Known as Teochew Dumplings)
These moon-shaped dumplings, actually referred to in English by their Cantonese name, fun kor, are filled with chopped peanuts, garlic chives, ground pork, dried shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms, wrapped in a rice-based dumpling skin, then steamed. They're often served with chili oil.
Wu Gok (Crispy Taro Turnovers)
These deep-fried delights are one of our personal favorites: mashed taro root is stuffed with shrimp, pork, and mushrooms, covered in batter, then flash-fried for a shatteringly crispy contrast in textures.
Hom Soi Gok (Deep-Fried Crescent Dumplings)
Take ground pork and chopped vegetables — in this case, mushrooms and scallions — then envelop them in an oval-shaped rice flour skin and throw them in hot oil. What do you get? A sticky-sweet-savory combination that's crispy and chewy all at once.
Char Siu Bao (Barbecued Pork Dumplings)
Cloud-like steamed white buns filled with pork that's been barbecued, Chinese-style, with honey, five spice, fermented red bean, soy sauce, hoisin, and red food coloring.
Lor Pak Gow (Turnip Cake)
Another staff favorite, this is a Chinese pancake of sorts. Ironically, it involves daikon radish, not turnips, which are shredded, combined with water, rice flour, and corn starch, along with bits of mushroom, dried shrimp, and occasionally sausage. The mixture's poured into a steamer, then panfried in oil until crispy around the edges.
Cheun Gyun (Deep-Fried Spring Rolls)
Cheun gyun are far superior to their American-style counterparts, although at the heart of it, they're basic Chinese egg rolls, filled with sliced vegetables (think carrots, cabbage, and mushrooms) and often meat as well.
Lo Mai Gai (Lotus Leaf Rice)
This glutinous sweet rice comes with a handful of hidden surprises inside: nuggets of chicken, ground pork, and other goodies like egg yolk, water chestnuts, and mushrooms. The whole package is wrapped up in lotus leaves (which impart extra flavor but aren't actually edible), then steamed.
Kai Keok (Phoenix Claws)
Let's call a spade a spade — "phoenix claws" are really just chicken feet! In dim sum, phoenix claws are deep-fried, steamed, then simmered in a fermented black bean and sugar sauce. If you can get over the idea of eating them, their slippery, gelatinous texture, which is either beloved or loathed, is one to remember.
Pai Gwat (Pork Spare Ribs)
Pai gwat are pork spare ribs that are steamed with fermented black beans and chiles.
Jin Dui (Sesame Balls)
For dessert, you can't go wrong with jin dui: balls of rice flour that have been coated with sesame seeds on the outside, then filled with sweet black bean paste, lotus paste, or sweet red bean paste. They're airy and nearly hollow, and have a satisfyingly chewy-crisp texture.
Loh Mai Chi (Coconut Balls Filled With Peanut)
Think of loh mai chi as the traditional Cantonese equivalent of a gummy candy, only made with glutinous rice flour, filled with peanut paste, and rolled in shredded coconut. Then, they're topped off with a signature red dot.
Dan Tat (Egg Custard)
It's impossible for our pie-loving selves to resist dan tat, or egg custard; its flaky, buttery pastry and sweet and soft egg custard center are quite possibly the best Chinese dessert combination to ever exist. We love it alongside a sweet soy milk for sipping.