January 5, 2010

Whitey's Guide to Dim Sum (Yum Char) - Beginner to Pro in 3 Minutes

Dim Sum is absolutely the breakfast, brunch, or lunch of champions. In a world where Chinese food is now ubiquitous, strangely, a lot of people have not experienced Dim Sum. Reactions from the new players range from "its too slimy, I just don't like the texture" through to, "its too fried and crispy, I just don't like the texture". Uh huh. When you plunge in with a bit of knowledge, or tag along with a Dim Sum regular, the reaction is almost universally similar. A clear sense that you have just discovered a new meal that will stay with you, for life. So, read on, for the Whiteys Guide to Dim Sum - Beginner to Pro in Three Minutes.

First, a quick note about myself. I have partaken in Dim Sum several hundred times, across a half dozen or so different countries. I'm not an expert, more an advanced enthusiast. Although the basics are mastered quickly, the amazing thing is, even after all these occassions, Dim Sum isn't an exact science. There's just too many variables that go into making up the whole experience. Hundreds of dish combinations alone mean that the attraction is as much the familarity, as well as the surprise, every time you go.

Dim Sum is just a term for a tasty type of Chinese meal. Consisting of a wide range of small, or light, dishes,  you simply pick and choose what you like,and eat as much or as little as you like. Its an entire meal of entre sized servings. What could be better? Essentially, you will also drink Chinese Tea with the meal. "Yum Char", in Cantonese, literally means "drinking tea", and is a term used to describe the whole experience of enjoying a meal at a Dim Sum restaurant. However, for us whiteys, "Dim Sum" and "Yum Char" are two interchangeable terms. Normally, Dim Sum is eaten anywhere from about 10am through to 3pm, although this may vary. I have experienced 24 hour Dim Sum in Hong Kong, just the ticket after a heavy night of Tsing Tao. Speaking from experience, Dim Sum makes for a great choice after an indulgent night out.

How do you choose a good Dim Sum restaurant? This is easy - use the Whitey Ratio (tm). Head down to your local Chinatown, and pick the busiest Dim Sum restaurant that has the highest proportion of Chinese customers. Simple, and effective. Or, ask one of your Chinese friends for a recommendation. No Chinese friends? Ask Victor Chan in accounts, Ivy Wong in HR, or Gloria Lim down in marketing. Yes, I made all of  those names up, but hopefully, you get the point - Chinese people the world over pick the same English names. The other point being, is that Chinese people really dig Dim Sum, and will talk the reg off a chair about their favourite haunt.  Word of warning - you specifically need a Dim Sum restaurant. If you walk into a regular Chinese restaurant, you notice that its empty, and one guy says:  "HERRO!! - YOU WANT A DIM SUM?", turn around and leave. A proper Dim Sum restaurant doesn't ask if you want Dim Sum.

So far, so good. You know what its about, you know how to choose a restaurant. Next, will be ordering. Simple - trolleys are wheeled around the restaurant, sometimes trays, and they will come to your table, full of small servings of food. Take a look, pick what you want, it will be placed on your table. Depending upon the staff, you will either get the full run-down on each dish, or just the name, or possibly, neither. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Chinese.

What to order? This is where experience helps. As each dish normally has between two and five small servings, always go to Dim Sum with a posse. Between four people, you will end up ordering a dozen or more dishes, so, it won't take long for you to realise the dishes you like, and the ones you're not so big on. You will build your own favourites, your own repertoire. If you like seafood, go for some Prawn Dumplings (Har Gau), or some fried Chilli Squid. Pork eaters, go for pork spare ribs, or any number of the pork dumplings on offer. The selection of dishes can be roughly divided up into steamed, baked, or fried.

The "scarier" dishes, as far as many Whiteys are concered, are of the tripe and chicken feet variety. Don't fear! The flavours and textures of most dishes are very palatable, if you like Chinese food in general, you will be right at home. Note that many dishes have their own accompanying special sauce for dipping. Before you know it, you will be surrounded by bamboo baskets, metal steamers, platters, and a multitude of sauces. The "standard" dipping sauces are chilli or soy sauce, use if you like your food saltier, or spicier. You may need to ask for theses sauces, but every Dim Sum will have them.

As each food item was delivered to you, it is likely that a mark was made on a docket sitting on your table. When you are all done with the meal, take the docket to the counter, and pay up. Pay for everyone at your table, if you can, its the Chinese way. Often, you will see Chinese men fighting at the counter, over who has the privilege of paying for everyone.

I had visited my regular Dim Sum over fifty times before the owner would even give me a porite herro. The day that smug young Chi-nee caught me refusing money from my friends at the counter, I witnessed a smile appear on his face. Before that day, standard service was -  "sit over there". Now, when we enter the restaurant,  a maelstrom of Chinese waitresses, faces holding panicked expressions, rolls like a snowball towards our table, all under the careful watch of the owner, the second we walk in the door. One crooked chop stick, and they're gone. Hot tea and chilli oil waiting, fresh batch of fried chilli squid on the way. That's the kind of Dim Sum power a whitey who pays for other whiteys holds. I can only dream of the power I would have if I was Chinese. Level 28 Super Yum Char Power, or maybe even higher, I would imagine. Ni-Hao!

Other tips, in no particular order:

* I once read about a teapot that had a computer chip inside. When the pot was empty, a sophisticated wireless high-speed network would alert the kitchen, via a high resolution monitor, precisely which pot on which table need to be refilled. Funny, I always just take the lid off the pot, and place it back on upside down, slightly ajar. My tea is then refilled.

* Sometimes, there are no trolleys or trays. Not as fun, but just order from the menu instead.

* If you know what you want, and can't see it, just ask. Normally, the kitchen will whip it up for you.

* The bill cannot be understood by whiteys. We play "guess the bill amount", using official "The Price is Right" rules. Closest to the bill without going over, wins. If all guesses are over the actual price, you will hear this sound - BA BOWWW - and everyone will then be asked to submit a second guess. If somebody guesses $49, and you then say, "forty nine dollars and ten cents!", well, you're just an a-hole.

* If you can, learn the Chinese names for each dish. Given that most Dim Sum restaurants the world over serve a similar range of dishes, this will come in handy, and will also help you avoid the dreaded "guilo special".

* Venture outside your normal food boundaries. Your grandmother ate tripe, you can too.

* Yes, chicken feet taste fantastic, give it a go.

* Still reading? Bonus tip - there is a variety of sweet dishes on offer as well, mango and coconut balls, baked custard tarts, sponge cake, buns, and more. Leave some room for these!



Anonymous said...

hahaha that is an epic post.

ten points!


Jonathan Stanley said...

I did literally "LOL". :D

N. said...

thanks Sanj, and thanks Jonathan.

Anonymous said...

omg, how did i not know this?!? i always used to wonder what the crowds of chinese ppl were lining up for in northbridge on a sunday morn but i never asked a 'cultural translator' (read: chinese friends/coworker) what was up - i just assumed all chinese ppl have their birthday parties on sunday morning or something similarly stoopid =O

acc521 said...

Bloody brilliant post. This should be compulsory reading for anyone who has a mouth and stomach. Actually, probably not as we don't want the whitey ratio to increase too much.

Also +1 to chicken feet.

N. said...

Thanks for the compliment acc. Just doing my bit for cross cultural relations!

Anonymous said...

Never had Dim Sum but have wanted to 'go there' for years! How on earth that can be, after 20 years in Perth I have NFI, but I love your post! I will take all this new found knowledge on board and when I lose my Dim Sum/Yum Char virginity, I'll have you to thank.
Do you want a cigarette? lol

N. said...

Thanks anon... hit up Welcome Inn on William Street, you can't go wrong!

Big Ramifications said...

My missus is Asian so I sorta take it for granted. I, too, am surprised by the number of friends who've never experienced it.

One other "tip" for the novices: A few identical meals come slimy [steamed] or crispy [deep fried] and I've noticed the slimy ones tend to come out first.

I'm a big fan of the fried prawn dumplings, so have to patiently sit on my hands while the oh-so-tempting steamed prawn dumplings do the rounds.

/I often wonder if they use the older prawns for deep frying.

//"Steamboat" is another awesome Asian eatin' tradition. But it's more like the Aussie BBQ - best done at home with friends or family.

Anonymous said...

Oh but how to avoid chilli? I ordered chicken feet because I wanted try them, only to discover they were mouth-burningly hot with chilli. So I didn't get to try them. :(

N. said...

Avoid chilli? It goes hand in hand with dim sum! Chilli chicken feet sounds delicious, I have never tried them that way....

ChickenAboutChicken said...

Errr so... ummm... *cough*... what do you DO with the chicken feet? Eat everything and leave the toenails, or wot? 8-/

Anonymous said...


Chicken Feet (Phoenix Claw!) is one of those dishes that is about the texture and flavour not the meat. They are slow cooked in a delicious sauce (that is what my in-laws all compare different restaurant versions by) and you eat the very tender inner gelatinous flesh of the foot sucking on the little bones before politely popping them on the side of your plate. Some of the tendons are too solid to eat either so they get put aside too and the tough outer skin of the foot has long been removed and never sees the light of day in the restaurant. I think they cook them once to release the skin and nails then cook them a second time to get them so soft.

3 dishes we always get at Dim Sum is Crispy Fried Squid, Phoenix Claw and Sticky Rice. Generally we start with the Rice Porridge (can't remember the name) and end with Egg Tarts :)

Alisha said...

Heheheh, a "porite herro".

So, what is your favourite dim sum place in Perth? I went to the Shanghai Tea Garden last week and I thought their dumplings were pretty good! Lots of Chinese people in there too.

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