Dim sum is the name for a Chinese cuisine which involves a wide range of light dishes served alongside Chinese tea. It is usually served in the mornings until noon time at Chinese restaurants and at specialty dim sum eateries where typical dishes are available throughout the day. Dishes come in small portions and may include meat, seafood, and vegetables, as well as desserts and fruit. The items are usually served in a small steamer basket or on a small plate. Yum cha (literally "tea drinking") is the term used to describe the dining session, especially in contemporary Cantonese. Chinese families in particular typically like to gather at Chinese restaurants for dim sum on occasions such as Mother’s Day or Chinese New Years.
Equivalent terms, such as dianxin ("little heart") in Mandarin, exist in other varieties of Chinese, as a generic term for any of a variety of snacks or small food items. The terms "northern dianxin" or "Shanghai dianxin" (dee-shin) have thus come into use. These dianxin are, however, not necessarily Cantonese dim sum, although the two still share the same written script in traditional and simplified characters.
In the US and many other English Speaking countries, the word “Dim sum” is often mistakenly used as the name for Yum cha. In fact, in Cantonese, Dim sum (點心) is just a phrase for wide range of light dishes where Yum cha (飲茶) “drink tea”, is the process.
In Australia the name dim sim is used for a particular kind of dumpling snack. Dim sims may have been inspired by dim sum, but are typically ordered with fish and chips. Dim sum are available with yum cha in Australian restaurants.
In Hong Kong, and most cities and towns in Guangdong province, many Chinese restaurants start serving as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises, often enjoying the morning newspapers. For many southerners in China, yum cha is treated as a weekend family day. Consistent with this tradition, dim sum restaurants typically only serve dim sum until the afternoon (right around the time of a traditional Western 3 o'clock coffee break); other kinds of Cantonese cuisine are served in the evening. Nowadays, various dim sum items are sold as takeaway for students and office workers on the go.
While dim sum remains a staple of Chinese culinary culture, especially in Hong Kong, health officials have recently criticized the high amount of saturated fat and sodium in some dim sum dishes, warning that steamed dim sum should not automatically be assumed to be healthy. Health officials recommend balancing fatty dishes with boiled vegetables, minus sauce.
The drinking of tea is as important to dim sum as the food. A popular tea which is said to aid in digestion is bolay (pu erh), which is a strong, fermented tea. Chrysanthemum, oolong and green tea can be served as well.
It is customary to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup. A custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index and middle fingers together on the table, which symbolises 'bowing' to them.
This is said to be analogous to the ritual of bowing to someone in appreciation. The origin of this gesture is described anecdotally: an unidentified Emperor went to yum cha with his friends, outside the palace; not wanting to attract attention to himself, the Emperor was disguised. While at yum cha, the Emperor poured his companion some tea, which was a great honour. The companion, not wanting to give away the Emperor's identity in public by bowing, instead tapped his index and middle finger on the table as sign of appreciation.
Given the number of times tea is poured in a meal, the tapping is a timesaver in loud restaurants or lively company, as an individual being served might be speaking to someone else or have food in their mouth.
Traditional dim sum includes various types of steamed buns such as cha siu baau, dumplings and rice noodle rolls (cheong fun), which contain a range of ingredients, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns and vegetarian options. Many dim sum restaurants also offer plates of steamed green vegetables, roasted meats, congee porridge and other soups. Dessert dim sum is also available and many places offer the customary egg tart. Having a meal in a Chinese teahouse or a dim sum restaurant is known as yum cha (飲茶), literally "drinking tea", as tea is typically served with dim sum.
Dim sum can be cooked by steaming and frying, among other methods. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party. Because of the small portions, people can try a wide variety of food.
Dim sum dishes can be ordered from a menu or sometimes the food is wheeled around on a trolley by servers. Traditionally, the cost of the meal is calculated based on the number, size, and sometimes color of the dishes left on the patron's table (more below). Some modern dim sum restaurants record the dishes on a bill at the table. Not only is this tidier, it also prevents patrons from cheating by concealing or stealing the plates. Servers in some restaurants use distinct stamps so that sales statistics for each server can be recorded.
Dim sum restaurants have a wide variety of dishes, usually several dozen. Among the standard fare of dim sum are the following:
Certain kinds of instant dim sum have come onto the market in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. People can enjoy snacks after a 3-minute defrosting and reheating of the instant dim sum in a microwave oven.
Some stalls serve "street dim sum" which usually consists of dumplings or meatballs steamed in a large container, but served on a bamboo skewer. The customer can dip the whole skewer into a sauce bowl and eat while standing or walking.
Dim Sum can be purchased from major grocery stores in most countries with a Chinese population. These dim sum can be easily cooked by steaming or microwaving. Major grocery stores in Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Malaysia, Thailand, USA and Canada have a variety of dim sum stocked at the shelves. These include dumplings, siu maai, bau, cheong fun, lo bak go and steamed spare ribs. In Singapore, as well as other countries, dim sum can also be purchased from convenience stores, coffee shops and other eateries. In Malaysia, one can buy halal-certified dim sum with chicken replacing pork.
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