Growing up in a Chinese family, dim sum was my version of Sunday family brunch. Nearly every weekend, my family and I would trek out to Monterey Park, CA, where we would eat everything from custard filled pastries to pork-stuffed buns. Dim sum is a traditional style of Chinese food that has a unique method of serving, etiquette and of course, delicious dishes. Here you will learn everything you need to know to navigate dim sum like a pro.

The Dining Style

What’s special about dim sum, is that it’s served by servers walking around the dining room, navigating carts loaded with different types of food. The carts are usually organized based on the type of cuisine being served, for example, steamed rice paper dumplings on one cart and sweet baked ones on another. When a specific cart passes your table, you can point to the dish you want or tell the server the traditional Chinese name of the dish that you are seeking.

dim sum

Photo by Jasmine Tang

Etiquette and Tips

Don’t use a fork

You will be assigned an official waiter or waitress who will take you to your table, and serve you water and tea. This is the person to ask for the extra napkins or more silverware when you drop yours. However, please don’t be that person who asks for a fork for your dumplings. I can pretty much guarantee that the entire restaurant will be teasing you in Chinese.

Start the meal off with your favorite hot tea

Most restaurants will automatically serve you a hot jasmine tea with your meal, but you can request different types such as green tea or oolong. Many dim sum places will even serve cold milk tea (with boba if you’re lucky). They also always have a selection of sodas if that’s more your style.

Mix the sweet and savory

There is no right or wrong combination at dim sum. Just order what looks appetizing to you. Don’t wait until the end of the meal to order the sweet buns and custards because some establishments will run out of certain dishes as the afternoon drags on.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want

When an intriguing cart passes by, stop the server and ask her to name all of the dishes that she is carrying. You can also ask her if she knows the location of the cart that carries the dish that you are seeking. If all else fails, ask your waiter because they can often go back to the kitchen and grab some of the freshly made plates if the particular cart isn’t coming your way.

Refrain from ordering off of the menu

Dim sum establishments offer dishes on the menu like Chinese restaurants normally would, but the plates are usually large, heavy and will fill you up before you have the chance to try everything on the carts. Save the chow mein for your next order of takeout.

Don’t be afraid to try something new

Sure, you might not exactly understand what the server said is in the dumpling, but that’s part of the fun of dim sum. The dishes are generally very inexpensive (you usually pay about $1-$3 for 3-4 dumplings or buns), which makes dim sum the perfect opportunity to try something new.

This is not the place to go if you have a laundry list of food allergies 

The cooks fill the dumplings with practically anything and the Chinese aren’t exactly known for their sensitivity to vegan, gluten-free and paleo diets. The server has no clue what exactly went into those buns and even if they’re veggie buns, chances are they’re made with chicken stock or something else.

Tip like you would at any other restaurant

Like most restaurants where you have multiple people serving you, you only tip once on the main bill at the end of the meal. There’s no need to leave extra money on the table for the servers, since it will only be collected by your main waiter or waitress when you leave.

dim sum

Photo by Jasmine Tang

The Dishes

Cha Siu Bao: Barbeque Pork Buns

These little pillows of heaven are sweet, Chinese-style barbeque pork in a soft “bao” or bun. They’re filled to the brim with sticky barbeque sauce and they’re usually served in metal or bamboo baskets. They come in both the steamed and baked varieties, and I recommend trying both on your next visit.

Har Gow: Shrimp Dumplings

These dumplings are essentially fresh shrimp served inside of a sticky rice dumpling. Truly authentic har gow does not rely on bamboo fillers or seasoning to make this delicacy worth the trip. Be warned though, if the dim sum establishment that you are visiting doesn’t use fresh shrimp, these dumplings can go from delicious to disgusting very quickly.

Chee Cheong Fun: Rice Noodle Rolls

This dish is similar to the har gow, but the rice noodle is thicker and less sticky than the aforementioned dumplings. Unlike har gow, these come with a variety of fillings, such as shrimp, pork, beef or vegetables. They’re also served with a delicious sauce that’s similar to, but waaaaay better than, soy sauce.

dim sum

Photo by Jasmine Tang

Jin Deui: Red-Bean Sesame Balls

These sweet sesame balls are the perfect balance between sweet and savory. They use a sticky rice shell similar to the one used in the har gow, but they’re filled with a super sweet red bean curd that is out of this world. The balls are then deep-fried and covered in sesame seeds for a nutty crunch. These are usually served with the other desserts.

dim sum

Photo by Jasmine Tang

Dan Tat: Egg Custard Tart 

These pastries come with a flaky shell and creamy, egg-based custard. They’re slightly sweet and super creamy. These are generally served on the dessert cart with the jin deui.

Molihua Cha: Jasmine Tea

This loose-leaf tea is the perfect complement to the sweet and savory dishes that you’ll try. Good jasmine tea is very earthy and never sweet, and it’s very similar to a green tea. However, it also uses fresh flowers to create that signature scent. Most restaurants will deliver a fresh pot at the start of your meal and refill it throughout.

Atlanta Dim Sum

The authentic Chinese food scene in Atlanta is admittedly very scarce. While Chico & Chang or the occasional Panda Express might cure a craving for Chinese takeout, it can’t beat the real thing. However, if you’re up for a short trek from campus, there are several options to try out in neighboring communities. Duluth has a large Chinese community, with several restaurants, stores and bakeries that dish up authentic Chinese cuisine. If you’re interested in trying some dim sum, head over to Golden House Chinese Restaurant in Duluth.