Decoding dim sum

March 4, 2016 1:45 pm
Dim sum

We’ve all been there. The lunchtime Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet, with a dozen small but perfectly formed delights. But which to choose? What’s in them? And why are they just so darned pretty? These are dim sum and they have been charming Chinese diners for a thousand years. Let us demystify this Far Eastern staple, so you don’t feel so dim at the dim sum trolley.

It all started with a cup of tea. The drinking of tea is referred to as “yum cha” in Cantonese – which is a name we can all agree with. Whereas we might indulge in a Hob Nob or Ginger Nut with our milky brew, the Chinese (being much more civilised in all things tea-related) wanted a more sophisticated snack to accompany their drink of choice.

Some time in the third century, when it became clear that tea can aid digestion, tea houses along the Silk Road began to accompany their ‘yum cha’ with small, delicate dishes referred to as ‘dim sum’, essentially inventing tapas centuries before the Spanish. Depending on who you ask, ‘dim sum’ translates as either the descriptive ‘to eat a little something’ or the slightly more poetic ‘to touch the heart’.

Whilst to some, the image of dim sum may be steamed dumplings in a bamboo basket, there is a lot more to it than that. Here are few of the most popular varieties:

Har Gow

These shrimp-filled delights are said to be the most popular of all dim sum. The pleated wafer-thin wheat starch dough makes them very easy on the eye, with the number of pleats being an indicator of the maker’s skill. Seven pleats is the accepted minimum, but ten pleats are the sign of a dim sum master.

Siu Mai

Another big hit at the dim sum cart, these pork-filled parcels are also steamed, but with a wonton flour and egg wrapper, which is gathered up around the filling to create a little crinkly-edged cup.


Stepping away from the steamer for a moment: baozi are filled, fluffy buns, which are often baked (making them look a little like glazed bread rolls) and can feature a range of fillings, such as chicken or vegetables.


Fluffy buns: Baozi can feature a wide range of different fillings

Ngao Yuk

Don’t be put off by the name – ngao yuk is a tasty beef meatball, often flavoured with orange peel. Unlike the denser Italian or Spanish meatballs, ngao yuk have a light, springy texture thanks to the marinating of the minced beef in a mixture that includes baking powder. These are often served with a dish of Worcester sauce for dipping – a British export which found its way into Chinese cuisine (and dim sum in particular) in the 19th century.

Cheung Fun

These certainly are fun. Think of a Swiss roll with a wide rice noodle instead of sponge and an umami shrimp and spring onion filling in place of jam. Great served with a soy and oyster dipping sauce.

Takeaway favourites

More familiar dishes on the dim sum cart are the perennial deep fried vegetable spring rolls and spare ribs, either roasted or steamed and great with a black bean sauce.

Phoenix Claws

If you are brave enough to sample the Phoenix Claws, you will be presented with a plate full of braised chicken feet – be warned, that link is not for the faint hearted. Phoenix Claws are very time-consuming to make, as they require frying, grilling and simmering in sauce (and before all of that, what can only be described as an extensive pedicure). Despite this, phoenix claws are said to be some of the tastiest dim sum you could possibly sample.


It’s not all about savoury flavours. Dim sum also includes some sweet delights to round off your meal, including egg custard tarts and ‘chien chang go’, which translates as ‘thousand layer cake’ and is therefore bound to be on the next series of Great British Bake Off.

So there you have it. Hopefully enough information to impress your friends next time you are presented with an array of Chinese delights.

Big fan of Chinese and other Asian food, but no time to cook it yourself? Check out the Cafe Asia range at Iceland – our authentic Asian snacks are available in 600 branches across the UK.


Image credits:

Featured image: Some Dim Sum by Hisakazu Watanabe, CC BY-SA 2.0

Baozi: By own work (Own work) [GFDL , CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons