Dim sum, or dianxin (点心), can be directly translated to "point of heart." And growing up with this food, dim sum definitely holds a special place in my heart. It's my weekly outing: The comfort food for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Over the years, I've learned which foods to order and which to avoid, but it's not just about the food — here are a couple things I've learned not to do.
1. You go alone.
It's 100% fine to eat out alone. It's sometimes even preferred: No one judges you for the amount you eat, you can choose dishes you enjoy, and sometimes you just need a bit of alone time.
The only issue is, you can't eat very much alone! There's so much variety in dim sum. Going alone means you're missing out on a world of food. So try to find a few friends; it'll make the overall experience much more enjoyable.
2. You avoid the hole-in-wall, mom and pop shack.
Dim sum isn't supposed to be an expensive meal. In fact, the dim sum specialist, Tim Wo Han, is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant. Plus, more upscale places generally have longer lines and wait times.
This unnecessary inconvenience can be easily avoided by venturing into your local Chinatown. The ambience might be a bit harried and stressful, but with such a high customer turnover rate, this is the place for the freshest and quickest dim sum on any given Sunday morning.
3. You turn down the tea that comes before the feast.
Tea isn't the first dish we think of when we hear 'dim sum'. It's all about the food: Egg tarts, steamed bread, dumplings... Tea pales in comparison. But there's a reason tea is offered at every dim sum shop: It acts as a palette cleanser between dishes. It allows for a smooth transition between a sweet, flaky egg tart to a hot, savory siu mai.
Also, note that it's tradition to pour tea for your guests first. If you're the guest, you can thank the host by tapping your index and middle finger.
In general, most places will offer green tea (lu cha, or 绿茶), black tea (pu'er cha, or 普洱茶), Chrysanthemum tea (juhua cha, or 菊花茶), Jasmine tea (molihua cha, or 茉莉花茶), and Oolong (wulong cha, or 乌龙茶) tea.
4. You're too scared to ask for a fork.
There's no shame in not knowing how to use chopsticks. According to this survey, 24% of Americans have never even tried to use them. Five minutes spent trying to pick up the same mouthful of rice really isn't worth it, so save yourself the hassle.
5. You're too shy.
Before you go out for dim sum, prepare yourself for a hectic atmosphere of rolling trolleys, loud laughter, and a dozen hands trying to wave down the nearest server. It's definitely shocking for a first timer. It can be hard to order (especially if you don't speak the language).
My advice? Don't be bothered if a server runs past you as you try to grab their attention. They're just busy. Be persistent. If you don't see what you want on the cart, it can always be made in the kitchen for you.
Also, don't be afraid to ask about a dish or for recommendations. Servers love their food and are more than willing to share some advice with curious customers.
6. You order 3+ orders of the same dish.
Unless you're eating out with a group of more than 5 people, there's really no point in having the majority of your orders be the same thing. Each dish is rich, and having too much of the same one can feel overpowering. I know those BBQ pork buns are delicious, but save your stomach for something else!
7. You're too scared to try new things.
The most famous example of an amazing, but somewhat off-putting, food would be chicken feet (ji zhua, or 凤爪). They probably don't look or sound very appetizing to you, but dim sum is about trying a bit of everything. And hey, if the Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos consider them a delicacy, they're definitely worth a try!
8. You fall into the hype of 'cute' dim sum.
Remember how your mom told you not to play with your food? The same applies here. Gudetama buns may look cute, but as an avid eater of dim sum, I promise you, these buns look better than they taste.
The consistency of the filling and fluffiness of the bun is compromised by attempts to make it physically attractive. If you hold taste over presentation, stick to the traditional delicacies — or at least buns without faces on them.
9. You poke a hole in the XLB before eating it, hence letting all the soup drain out.
XLB, otherwise known as the xiao long bao (小笼包), is a famous dish that translates roughly to "soup dumpling." It goes without saying that not ordering them is a mistake, but the more common mistake is eating these dumplings incorrectly. The XLB usually has a pork, chicken, or beef filling, with a corresponding broth. The soup is what makes the XLB so distinctive.
The best way to eat it is as follows:
1. Nip a small hole near the top of the XLB.
2. Drink up the soup in the dumpling.
3. Finish the dumpling.
Or you could shove the whole thing into your mouth (Caution: You might burn your tongue). Whatever it takes to get all the soup. JUST DON'T WASTE THE SOUP.
10. You don't order enough.
Dim sum is a pain to make at home: You need a steamer, ingredients, time... Much more of an inconvenience than your typical pancake breakfast. So when you go out, be sure to make it worthwhile. Don't leave hungry!
Orders generally come with about 4-6 pieces in a small bamboo basket, so you can definitely order more than 1 dish per person.
All in all, dim sum is a cheap way to try a variety of foods. Come with a hearty appetite and an open mind — and I promise, you won't be disappointed.