AT THE PLACES most Americans go for brunch—the corner diner or café hawking eggs Benedict and steel-cut oatmeal—routine reigns. Blueberry pancakes count as daring. Dim sum is a different animal—delicious, yes, if done properly, but also a cultural experience.
Instead of a quiet booth, you occupy a seat at a large table, often beside strangers, inside a clamorous banquet hall that looks as though it could seat half the population of Beijing. Rather than being ordered all at once, the delicacies approach you on multitiered rolling carts; you point to whatever’s most tempting, creating an ultra-customized brunch or business lunch out of many, many small plates.
The Cantonese tradition of dim sum dates to the 10th century, when the teahouses of China began serving food to go along with all that oolong and pu erh. Dim sum is so linked with tea that Cantonese speakers refer to eating it as yum cha, or “drinking tea.”
The phrase “dim sum” literally means “touch the heart,” but has come to refer to the dumplings and other small bites that, at their best, do indeed produce an emotional response.
Almost every dim sum parlor features certain dishes, the regular items that can be used to judge the quality of the establishment. Lightness and delicacy characterize the most refined dim sum, such as siu mai, dumplings that are crinkled, almost spherical, and filled with pork and shrimp. There’s more shrimp tucked in har gow: the pink crustacean shows through the gossamer skins. In other dumplings, snow pea leaves are visible from inside their wrappers.
Yet while phrase “dim sum” is often spoken in the U.S. as if it were synonymous with “dumplings,” there’s much else on offer. Sweet, lusciously fatty pork, for instance, lurks inside bao, a spongy bundle of dough that seems to have more in common with American white bread than dumpling wrappers. Look for turnip cakes, which sound like misguided desserts but are actually savory, wonderfully gummy, and often pan-fried and studded with sweet Chinese sausage.
AMERICA’S BEST DIM SUM
New York City: Dim Sum Go Go
San Francisco: Koi Palace
Los Angeles: Sea Harbour
Houston: Hong Kong Dim Sum
Boston: Winsor Dim Sum Café
If you’re not up for stewed chicken feet, a gelatinous treat that’s also an acquired taste, opt instead for the steamed hunks of spareribs sauced with salty fermented black beans, which offer similar chewy, bone-picking pleasure.
Although dim sum is thought of as a casual meal, in China the culinary tradition is taken very seriously. At one time, the brigades of dim sum cooks in the kitchen numbered several dozen. And men who aimed to head them knew they had to achieve years of labor-intensive, low-level experience, not unlike a sushi master’s apprenticeship.
Another similarity dim sum shares with sushi is that it’s something of a victim of its success: the fastidiously produced dishes that once defined dim sum are being supplanted by more slapdash versions. Today in Hong Kong, only a few restaurants, such as the octogenarian Lin Heung Teahouse and the cramped Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wun, still have true masters in the kitchen.
Lately, however, ambitious chefs around the world have been building on the original high standards, dreaming up genre-bending dishes that riff on the small-plate concept. At Myers+Chang in Boston, lively green papaya slaw and crisp-edged kimchee pancakes join more traditional offerings.
In London, Alan Yau makes impeccable dumplings containing the expected pork and shrimp, but also lobster and spinach, pumpkin and pine nuts. New York City’s only marquee dim sum chef, Joe Ng, is soon launching RedFarm, where he’ll serve soup dumplings filled with saffron-spiked broth and Peking duck sliders.
Note that not all dim sum restaurants feature the characteristic roving carts; some offer a more traditional menu and cook food to order. This has its advantages—you don’t have to settle for forlorn dumplings that have had many trips around the room—but you miss the rollicking atmosphere that’s so exciting, according to Steven Shaw, author of Asian Dining Rules.
“It’s a cacophonous, crazy, wonderful experience,” he says, and advises making the dim sum foray with a bunch of friends—otherwise, you’ll fill up after just a few plates. Shaw also says to look for a place that is jammed with people, because high turnover reduces the chances of languishing har gow and bao.
His final piece of guidance: once you’re there, misbehave. “It’s totally Darwinian at these places,” Shaw says. “You have to set aside Western restaurant etiquette and be assertive, pushy, and occasionally downright rude—otherwise, the stuff you want will be eaten by someone else.”
Article written by JJ Goode, Photos by Justin Guariglia