Dim sum. 点心.
Two magical words that make eyes light up. The lazy susan in the middle of the table spinning dishes of food around, the chaos of round steamers and metal containers of food piling onto the table, servers scratching off a fulfilled order on carbon paper receipts with their fingernail, and the frantic search to find the dish that you’re looking for on the various carts that criss-cross the room. No – it’s not quite time for dan ta yet (egg custard tarts and therefore dessert) – no, I’m not sure we need another fried dish – that’s the same cart we saw before – but wait, did we just see shrimp dumplings pass by? Flag them down!
It’s chaos – but it’s also beautiful in a way. Peaceful, even. Everyone eats what they want and what they can. Nobody regrets that they ordered a large dish of something they didn’t end up liking. Some, however, may regret filling their stomach with one dish only for another more delectable dish to arrive at the table. Eating dim sum involves strategy and planning.
点心 is pronounced “dim sum” in Cantonese but “dian xin” in Mandarin Chinese. The literal translation of the two characters is “dot” and “heart” – or “to lightly touch your heart”. Collectively, it means a light snack. Dim sum is supposed to lightly touch your stomach and satiate your hunger until you’re able to sit down for a larger meal. I’m not sure a “light snack” has ever happened with either my family or I, but it’s a very nice thought.
For me, dim sum hearkens back to Sunday brunch and the family tradition of making the drive down to Chicago from Wisconsin for a short day trip, a nice meal, and to stock up on Chinese grocery store essentials. Dim sum played a large and also understated role in my upbringing as most Chinese food did. My father would order until dishes piled on the table, declare it “not enough!”, then order more. My sister and I would happily sip our tea while eating our favorites, eschewing some of the odder things my parents would order. I’ve actually learned to enjoy chicken feet. I’m still not sure how I feel about stinky tofu.
Thanks to my upbringing, I have many strong feelings about dim sum and the various dishes. Others might not agree with my own preferences and nobody asked for this list, but regardless, here is my personal ranking of my top five dim sum dishes going backwards from five to one:
#5 – Egg custard tart – I mentioned these earlier. Delicious, creamy custard in a flaky crust. I will eat these anywhere. They’re also great from the various Chinese bakeries in Chicago; Chiu Quon comes to mind. These aren’t dim sum specific, but ending my meal on a delicious sweet bite is a dim sum essential.
#4 – Shu mai – I don’t usually eat potstickers during dim sum; I love them, but they seem a little everyday, banal, and as Cale once put it – “basic”. Shu mai are my dim sum replacement for potstickers. They’re essentially a tulip shaped dumpling of dough and meat filling with an opening on the top. The way that my mom makes them, the outer wrapper is slightly glutinous/chewy and the inner filling also has chewy rice with soy sauce + the usual meat. It’s delicious either way.
#3 – Cheong fun – It might look like jellyfish but I promise that it’s not! These are crepes made out of glutinous rice noodles, sometimes filled with meat or other fillings. My favorite is when there’s a Chinese donut – youtiao, similar to a savory churro – crisped up in the middle. They’re also usually drenched with soy sauce. I tried making cheong feng for Chinese New Years once and failed miserably, but I was able to salvage them into rice noodles with a delicious peanut sauce.
#2 – Water chestnut cake – I was unsure about putting this dish so high, but I did because of the surprise factor. Looking at the name and the picture, you wouldn’t expect much from this dish. It’s amazing. The cake itself is glutinous and jello-like. It’s sweet and savory at the same time. Parts of the cake are caramelized and the bits of crispy and fresh water chestnuts dotted throughout the cake make it phenomenal.
#1 – Shrimp dumpling (AKA Har gao or Xia jiao) – These are my number one. I can eat two or more servings of them by myself. When done right, the balls of shrimp combined with the steamed wrapper and a little bit of soy sauce is perfection. What more can I say?
Honorable mention: Fried taro puffs – I’ve only recently learned to love these. Mashed taro in the center – almost like mashed potato – and then deep fried.
There are a few dishes that I didn’t put on my list:
Potstickers: Potstickers are on many other lists and rightfully so, but I’m going to be a dim sum hipster and say that I find them slightly boring. I also know I can easily make them at home – and yes, I know I’m lucky when it comes to that. Whenever I go out to eat, I try and consume dishes that I can’t make myself. All six of the dishes listed above definitely qualify for that rule – but not potstickers.
Turnip cake: I tried it once. I accidentally ordered it instead of the water chestnut cake and it was one of the worst days of my life.
Xiao long bao: I also can’t order soup dumplings for dim sum – but not for the same reason as the turnip cake. When I eat xiao long bao, my whole stomach needs to be dedicated to them. I could write an entire article about my love for these little bundles of joy and my failure at replicating them at home.
BBQ pork buns: Delicious, amazing, and a great snack when I’m heading out and about and need something to stave off my appetite. These are the literal definition of dim sum – but I rarely ever order them at dim sum because I’m full after one of these buns, especially if they’re the fluffy steamed kind. Again, it’s all about strategy and self-preservation.
I could go on and on. But why do I cling to these memories of dim sum, almost to the point of romanticizing the experience? This age of “fast” food, hectic lives, overscheduling, trying to coordinate said overscheduled schedules with friends, and fleeting social media interactions and texts becomes overwhelming sometimes. The communal, shared experience of dim sum is priceless and a welcome respite. Phones disappear because you don’t want to miss a new dish arriving to the table. All of the dishes are shared, which means you can try something new without committing to eating it for the entire meal. You can draw out the meal with more tea and by ordering more small dishes until everyone is stuffed. It’s a fantastic shared experience with family and friends that lightly touches the heart.
There are some facets to Chinese culture that I dislike but the food culture is definitely not one of them. Food is of utmost importance, giving someone food is an act of love, meals are almost always meant to be shared, and in the end, it’s all about spinning the lazy susan to “help” someone so your favorite dim sum dish somehow ends up right in front of you — or, you know, enjoying a great meal with loved ones.