If you’re Cantonese born and raised like me, you’re probably familiar with the weekend routine of your family saying “ngo dei huir yum cha!” which translates to “Y’ALLZ WE GOIN’ FOR DIM SUM!” This then proceeds to a morning of joining an elderly Chinese crowd (with a few kids here and there) anxiously waiting for a table full of steamed baskets of goodies. For those who have never experienced dim sum or have only heard of it, I’m sorry to say you have been missing out on some major brunch in the world of Chinese cuisines. Dim sum, directly translating to “little heart”, is a custom where steamed or fried bite-sized dishes are enjoyed with tea. Basically, dim sum is fun-sized (little) comfort food to warm the soul (heart).

Carolyn Ho

 Nevertheless, dim sum places have been popping up all over the world and I bet you found a joint yourself. As happy as I am for this, I can’t that say many, MANY of these joints fail to serve the staples or even come close to replicating with what I grew up with. Actually, many of these joints stink. Starchy har gows? Mushy rice rolls? Where the heck is the dan tat?

Carolyn Ho

Here’s the list of what you need to look for and things to watch out for. There are certain factors that show how a dish may fail; as noted by professional, dim sum pros/ regulars (i.e my grandparents and other Hong Kong families and friends). Follow this and you will get the dim sum you deserve.

First, THE TEA.

As soon as you get the table, a waiter will ask, “Mei ya cha?” which means “What tea?” To respond: choose one or two of these teas: chrysanthemum tea (gook-fa), green tea (look cha), oolong tea (woo-long), pu-erh (bo-lay), white tea (sau mei), and jasmine (heurng peen).


This is where the fun begins. Depending on the dim sum place, you might have the food rolling out on wheels or you could order from a menu. Nevertheless, you should be able to order these dishes… 

Ha Gau (Shrimp Dumpling)

Carolyn Ho

These are a must-have item at any dim sum place. This steamed dish alone can determine the skills of a dim sum chef based on the dumpling having steamed clear skin with many pleats, chopped shrimp with its pink showing through, and a proportioned bite-size that’s also not too small.

Fails: Overcooked Shrimp. Sticky skin that tears apart when picked up.

Siu Mai (Pork & Shrimp Dumpling)

Carolyn Ho

While some dishes have open-faced sandwiches, dim sum has open skin dumplings. Because of its unclosed flour-egg based wrapper, the siu mai looks like a flower bulb waiting to be devoured. Also steamed, siu mai is savory with flavor-packed pork and shrimp.

Fails: Thick, chewy, wonky yellow skin on the outside. An uneven ratio of pork to fat such that you end up with a soggy oily mess.

Custard Buns

Carolyn Ho

Cream filled buns are the ultimate childhood food. Is it a dessert? Is it a snack? Why not both! Either steamed or baked, these sweet cream buns can come in any consistency from overflowing lava to creamy, thick pudding. 

Fails: Served cold with the bun losing the soft fluffy texture. Custard filling too solidified and stiff.

BBQ Pork Buns (Cha Siu Bao)

Carolyn Ho

Barbeque and bread: it’s a match made in dim sum. Either steamed or baked, these warm soft buns are stuffed with sweet ’n savory slow-roasted cha siu, or Chinese BBQ pork. For the baked version, the bread will have a golden brown, lightly glazed top. The bread for the steamed version will be white and just as soft as well.

Fails: Does not fit into the palm of your hand. Wet or doughy bottoms. Dry, stringy pork pieces.

Phoenix Claws (Fung Jau)

Carolyn Ho

No, this is not from the bird in Harry Potter. Also known as chicken feet, you might be surprised by this dish's flavor. Braised in a rich black bean sauced and steamed, pheonix claws are a delicacy to dim sum regulars for its succulent taste and soft, velvety texture. Pro-tip: huge bites will take forever to spit out bones!

Fails: Over-cooked mushiness. Pheonix claw is not intact when picked up.

Lotus Leaf Sticky Rice (Loh Maih Gai)

Carolyn Ho

If you’ve never received rice as a gift, this dish does it. Wrapped and steamed in lotus leaf, this classic dish not only reveals savory aromatic sticky rice when unwrapped, but also reveals a hidden layer of ground pork, mushrooms, dried scallops, and Chinese sweet sausage.

Fails: Too little filling. Looking like one sticky clumpy mass and unable to see individual soft grains of rice.

Steamed Beef Ball (Nao Yok Yurn)

Carolyn Ho

The Swedish and Italians aren’t the only ones with meatballs. While steamed fish balls are also served, the beef balls are the popular classic. Light, tender, juicy, and slightly springy, steamed beef balls are served with tofu skin on the bottom and a splash of Worcestershire sauce.

Fails: Crumbly texture that falls apart when split in half.

Beancurd Skin Rolls 

Carolyn Ho

The fillings of these mini tofu wraps can range from vegetarian to pork to seafood. Though it may look like a mini burrito cooked in sauce, the tofu wraps are fried then steamed into a very soft and tender roll. Most commonly, bamboo shoots are wrapped inside as well.

Fails: Too much sauce in the dish making the tofu skin very soggy and the wrapping very loose.

Fried Turnip Cake (Lo Bak Guo)

Carolyn Ho

If you’ve actually tried this before, you might be surprised to know that inside isn’t turnip but shredded radish. At pushcart dim sum places, these treats can be seen fried on a portable grill in front of your very eyes! Chilled in a mixture of rice flour, dried seafood, and radish, the “cake” is cut into squares and grilled creating a thin crunchy layer on the outside and a soft gooey texture on the inside.

Fails: When that outside crust is not crispy and the cake is too stiff.

Steamed Chaozhou Dumplings (Fun Guo)

Carolyn Ho

Like the ha gow, these dumplings also have a translucent skin but contains various fillings. They’re often bigger than traditional dumplings because they can contain different combinations ingredients like peanuts, shrimp, pork, and vegetables. Because of this, fillings are not densely packed and should not be like biting into a meatball.

Fails: Skin falls apart when trying to pick up the dumpling. Unable to make out each ingredient in the filling.

Rice Noodle Rolls (Cheung Fun)

Carolyn Ho

Another classic delicacy where a long, thin rice flat noodle rolls up fillings of either beef, pork, or shrimp. This creates layers soft skins with hidden gems of protein gems in between. Served with seasoned soy sauce, the steamed dish is so delicate, you could see the meat through the rice noodle wrappings.

Failures: Supper thick wrappings of rice noodle that creates starchy bites. An uneven ratio of filling.


Carolyn Ho

Of course, you cannot finish dim sum without something sweet: dessert! Although most puddings appear as chilled bars of various flavors, they are also hot desserts available at certain places. Flavors can include, juju berries, classic fruit, coconut, black sesame, mango, and red bean. While the chilled puddings are served like jello blocks, hot puddings can be served steamed or simmered.

Fails: Lacks the jiggly factor. When you can’t cut the knife through it like butter.

Steamed Sponge Cake (Mah Lai Gou)

Carolyn Ho

How about having a cake that’s steamed instead of baked? These sponge cakes are sweetened with brown sugar and have a soft, spongy feel in every bite. Unlike a crumbly texture from an oven-baked cake, these sponge cakes have air holes that make them incredibly light, slightly chewy, and sweet.

Fails: Does not have a springy effect when touched. Lacks air holes throughout the interior.

Fried Rice Balls (Jin Deui)

Carolyn Ho

These deep-fried gems are not a popular dish but also a classic snack. Made from glutinous rice flour, these fried rice balls can come in different fillings such as minced pork and red bean paste. There’s a pleasant crunch on the first bite followed by a sweet chewy mochi taste and whatever the filling you ordered.

Fails: The balls’ exterior is not light golden brown. Fried for too long such that the interior has soaked up a pool of oil.

Dan Tat (Egg Custard Tarts)

Carolyn Ho

This ain’t your typical mini pie filled with some sort of pudding. Using puff pastry like crusts, these sweet tarts are filled with smooth custard jelly made from simmered eggs and milk. Since egg custard tarts did not appear in China till the 1920s, chefs have changed the texture to a less creamy, more eggy filling. It's also served hot and not sprinkled with spices (unlike its English and Portuguese tart cousins).

Fails: Slimy, watery pudding filling. Doughy crust.

Carolyn Ho

Even though there are many standards for the dishes, the most important thing is that each one suits you! If they do, pour yourself some tea and tuck in! And remember: Gum Bei (Cheers)!