I remember the first time I experienced eating dim sum. For the longest time, I really had no idea what dim sum was. I remember a reference to dim sum in the movie Sleepless in Seattle but really had no clue what those two tasty words meant. Now, I feel like an expert on dim sum in Hong Kong, a mecca for the perfect meal of dumplings. But, for those uninitiated in this world, here we answer the question: What is dim sum?
In this post, we talk about typical Cantonese dim sum dishes and answer the question how to do you eat dim sum. We also provide recommendations on where to eat dim sum in Hong Kong, including our favorite place for classic dim sum dishes as well as some options for higher-end versions of some of the most popular dim sum dishes.
Eating Dim Sum
That first time we ate dim sum in Chinatown in Washington, DC, back in 2002, we had no idea how to eat dim sum. I merely just looked for dim sum near me, without thinking about what was the best dim sum, or traditional dim sum. We exited the Chinatown Metro and followed the crowds to a dim sum restaurant. We ended up at Tony Cheng’s dim sum Chinatown DC. We had no idea how to eat dim sum.
We looked around as carts wheeled by, pointing to some things that did not look scary (like the chicken feet, we avoided those), and we ordered a few dishes. Having no idea how much a plate of dumplings cost, we ordered maybe four dishes and called it a day. Without a dim sum menu, I had no idea if a plate was $3 or $30. It was confusing, but tasty, and kind of exciting.
What is Dim Sum?
Dim sum is a way of eating Chinese food, and in particular dumplings, in small portions, and on small plates. It’s kind of like the Chinese version of tapas, but I am sure dim sum emerged way before tapas. Dim sum is generally served in the morning, or early afternoon, although there are some dim sum restaurants that are open 24 hours a day. It is always served with tea, and some dim sum restaurants are known more as tea houses. Many of these dim sum places are filled with large tables because dim sum is really meant to be shared with friends and family.
Dim sum is also referred to as yum cha, but each phrase has a different meaning. The Dim Sum literal translation is a touch of the heart, whereas yum cha translates to with tea, and is more associated with eating dim sum in Cantonese speaking areas of China. It doesn’t really make a difference what the dim sum translation is. Whether it’s called yum cha or dim sum, for me, it’s just called tasty.
Learn more about dim sum in this Dim Sum Cooking Class in Hong Kong or learn about what to do in Hong Kong if you are short on time.
How to Order Chinese Dim Sum
In comparison to those first few times eating dim sum, we are now experts. Maybe not experts, per se, but I feel I can confidently order dim sum wherever in the world we are.
Yes, we can eat dim sum anywhere in the world and we know what to order, what we love, and when we can explore and try new dishes. Even if we don’t know the proper words for the dishes we like, we know what we like, and that’s enough. My preference is to try a traditional dim sum place, like some of the best dim sum in Hong Kong, where they still wheel the carts around.
When there is a dim sum menu, I prefer picture menus. As much as I know what I like, sometimes the English translations don’t offer much of an explanation. One restaurant offering dim sum in London had the following explanations of some of the dim sum names: fried pork dumpling, fried minced pork dumpling, grilled pork and vegetable dumpling, minced pork bao, and fried pork bao. But, which of those is the one I want? Sometimes it’s required to just take a guess.
The other important thing about how to eat Cantonese dim sum is that the plates are small, normally three items per dish. We normally order between 5 and 7 dishes for a typical dim sum breakfast. When they wheel carts around, be sure not to order everything from the first cart. There are so many options!
Get our recommendations for the Best Dim Sum in Hong Kong
Typical Dim Sum Dishes
There are so many different types of dim sum, steamed, fried, rolled, and more. Included here are my favorite dim sum dishes. If you are asking what is dim sum, then these are the most typical, easy to find, and perfect dim sum plates for beginners who are struggling with how to eat dim sum.
BBQ Pork Pao (or Bao), a classic bun, with hot bbq pork stuffed inside a puffy, cloud-like layer of yumminess:
Shu mai, are steamed dumplings, often filled with pork, shrimp, and other delectables. This one was filled with pork and a quail egg, which for us was a new take on an old classic:
Sticky rice in lotus leaf, is kind of what it sounds like, a glutinous rice, served with pork or shrimp, and then wrapped inside a lotus leaf to steam:
Chee Cheong Fun or Chang Fen: When we first tried these, I was not entirely sure what these were called, and they are something new to our dim sum repertoire. The first time I tried these they just seemed a little slimy, a noodle like substance filled with pork or other meat. They are quickly growing on me, though, and this one was particularly good.
Char Sao Sou: These are one of my favorite dishes, and another one that I am not sure what to call it when we order at a dim sum restaurant. They are glutinous, soft, and somewhat sticky, filled with pork, and then deep fried. When I bite into them, it is just a reminder of why I love eating dim sum, particularly eating dim sum in Hong Kong. I mean, deep fried pork dumplings, what’s not to love! And, these are hard to find on a dim sum menu that is translated to English because there are so many kinds of fried pork dumplings.
It is not often that we save room for dessert when eating dim sum, after all the other tasty treats. It is amazing how quickly I can fill up on such small plates of food. But, when I do save room, I go for the Chinese egg tarts, and these were particularly tasty, with flaky pastry filled with creamy custard:
Where to Eat Dim Sum in Hong Kong
One of the best places to eat dim sum is Hong Kong. It’s one of the primary reasons why we continue to travel to Hong Kong as often as we do.
The dim sum dishes above are a pretty typical dim sum lunch or breakfast for us. Only 6 dishes, but we walk out stuffed with tastiness, and floating away with the amount of tea we drank. Our favorite dim sum in Central Hong Kong is Lin Heung Tea House, is an experience not to be missed. For us, it is a dim sum icon in Hong Kong! Lin Heung is located at 160-164 Wellington Street. The entrance is on the ground floor, but climb the stairs to the madness of the dim sum restaurant. They are open from 6am-10pm seven days a week, making them a great option for all-day dim sum.
Other options for where to eat dim sum in Hong Kong:
Check out Dynasty at the Renaissance Hong Kong, which offers contemporary versions of some of the best dim sum dishes as well as some true classics. Also, check out Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin Star dim sum restaurant in Sham Shui Po District.
For more recommendations on where to eat dim sum in Hong Kong, check out our guide to the Best Dim Sum in Hong Kong
Or, check out this list of things to know before you visit Hong Kong
FAQs – What is Dim Sum Food
- When to eat dim sum? Or, how to dim sum? I love people who talk about eating dim sum as a verb. Generally, dim sum is best in the morning, particularly for groups of families or friends on weekend mornings. Yes, dim sum can be a breakfast!
- What kind of food is dim sum? There are different types of dim sum. There are dumplings and buns, but also rice, meats, and desserts.
- What are traditional dim sum dishes? The important thing to know is that dim sum dish names can differ whether you are eating dim sum in Hong Kong or in the United States or elsewhere. Remember that dim sum names are translated from Chinese, most likely Cantonese, into a name printed in western characters. If eating dim sum in a Spanish-speaking country, for example, common dim sum dishes can have different names. If you are looking for something particular, google a picture of the types of dim sum on your phone, and show a photo.
- What does dim sum mean in English? Dim sum translated to English means “a touch of the heart”.
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Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new Food and Drink Destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.