In the Canton provinces, many people gather at tea houses during the morning and early afternoon to socialize or conduct business over small meals. In China this is most popularly called going to yum cha
-- going to tea -- because the drinking of tea is so strongly associated with the snack foods served. In the United States, however, we are most familiar with the term dim sum to describe these small meals. Dim sum, literally translated from
the Cantonese, means "dot-hearts," small treats that touch the heart.
What Is Served
Most dim sum foods are savory pastries -- steamed or fried dumplings, filled buns, noodles. There are also sweet pastries, vegetables, meats. The portions are bite-sized, and they are served in small quantities, usually three or four to a plate, so
that the diners can enjoy a variety of foods, whether they eat very little or indulge in a huge feast. Variety is one of the keys to dim sum. Some restaurants offer over 100 different items on a
How Dim Sum Is Served
The presentation of the dim sum meal has no equivalent in the West. Servers push carts, loaded with a variety of foods, through the dining room, past the customers, who keep an eye out for appealing dishes. Once a desired item is in sight, the diner
flags down the cart and points out what she wants. The dining room bustles with the activity of carts wending among tables, calls for attention, and the clatter of plates. The idea is to choose things continually throughout the meal, rather than to gather
all the food at once before eating. Sweet items are interspersed with the savories; Chinese custom does not include saving sweets for the end of the meal, although they are reserved for special
occasions, such as the pauses between courses in a banquet or indulgences like dim sum.
Just as the arrival of food is ongoing, the supply of tea is endless. When a teapot is empty, the customer need only leave the lid up, and it will be whisked away and refilled. One story told to explain this custom involves a poor student who hid a bird in
his teapot. When the waiter came to refill the pot and lifted the lid, the bird flew away. According to his plan, the student made a loud fuss. It was a very valuable bird, he said, and the restaurant owed him recompense. After this, the restaurant-and all
others--decided to wait for customers to lift the lid of an empty teapot if a refill was needed.
When the diners have eaten their fill, the bill is calculated by counting up the number of plates on the table.
- Everything You Want to Know about Chinese Cooking by Pearl Kong Chen, Tien Chi Chen, and Rose Tseng. Woodbury, New York: Barron's Educational Series, 1995.
- How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: Random House, 1972.
- Dim Sum: The Delicious Secrets of Home-Cooked Chinese Tea Lunch by Rhoda Yee. San Francisco: Taylor & Ng, 1977.
- Classic Deem Sum by Henry Chan, Yukiko Haydock, and Bob Haydock. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.
- Chinese Dessert, Dim Sum and Snack Cookbook edited by Wonona Chong. New York: Sterling, 1986.
- Tiny Delights: Cooking Dim Sum and Simple Chinese Dishes by Elizabeth Chong. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1987.