Dim sum is traditionally served family-style in the form of small plates, much like Spanish tapas. The process starts with servers roaming throughout the restaurant with carts filled with a certain kind of food. For example, one cart has sweets on it, another has steamed buns, etc. All you have to do is point to the dishes you want as each server passes by your table, and they mark a place card on your table that will eventually serve as your receipt. It’s super efficient (no long waits for food!), and the dishes are always fresh from the kitchen. Here are some traditional, must-try dim sum dishes you cannot go without:
1. Barbecue Pork Buns (Cha Shao Bao) Think of it like this: it’s meat from sweet and sticky barbecue ribs finely diced and stuffed in an airy and soft steamed bun. It’s the perfect combination of savory and sweet. Strategy: Look out for the cart with steamed buns of all sorts, specifically the bamboo basket with 3-4 puffy, slightly split white buns.
2. Shu Mai Dumplings (Shao Mai) These dumplings are made with fresh ground pork topped with salty fish roe and partly wrapped in a yellow dumpling skin. The steaming process ensures that the meat stays juicy and maintains its plump texture. Strategy: Look for the cart with dumplings. Shu mai look like angular pork meatballs with a yellow wrapper and orange “sprinkles.” 3-4 dumplings per bamboo basket.
3. Chrysanthemum Tea (Ju Hua Cha) This is not your average tea; chrysanthemum tea is made with chrysanthemum flower petals, giving the tea a floral, fragrant taste. Strategy: Order this before your food comes. Try it plain or with sugar cubes.
4. Turnip Cake (Luo Bu Gao) “Cake” may be misleading, as this is a savory side dish. Chinese radish is pureed and diced into a fine paste, formed into bar shapes, and pan-fried. The crisp outside contrasts nicely with the soft interior. Strategy: Look for a cart with miscellaneous side dishes on actual plates, not bamboo baskets. It’s usually accompanied by stir-fried Chinese broccoli or rice omelets.
5. Fried Sesame Balls with Red Bean Paste (Zha Zhi Ma Qiu) Sweetened red bean puree is encased in a glutinous rice layer, rolled in sesame seeds and fried. This delightful dessert is crispy and hot on the outside and sweet and smooth on the inside. Strategy: Look for the dessert cart filled with golden brown goodies such as egg custard tarts and coconut buns. 3 sesame balls per plate.
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