How to eat dim sum

Preparing dim sum in Hong Kong, (photo by Alex Havret)
Preparing dim sum in Hong Kong

From sunrise through lunchtime, people all over Hong Kong enjoy yum cha (“drink tea”), catching up with friends and eating dim sum (“little hearts”), small portions of Cantonese dishes and dumplings often served in bamboo baskets. To share the experience, head to a dim sum restaurant and join in the noise and enjoyment of this tasty Hong Kong tradition. 

In Hong Kong (and neighbouring Guangdong province) people eat dim sum for breakfast or brunch, congregating in bustling, informal eateries that often open at the crack of dawn. In those traditional establishments where menus have not yet taken over, self-service trolleys stacked with small plates and steamer baskets are wheeled past. Steamed, pan-fried, deep-fried or congee (a rice-based, soupy dish) are the traditional categories for dim sum, although a few varieties are baked. Most common are the delicate steamed dumplings, which come with a range of fillings. Dessert dim sum is also available.

Novices often start with siu mai (shrimp and pork dumplings), ha gow (shrimp dumplings) and cha siu bau (steamed barbecue pork buns) – these three are probably the most popular dishes.

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Dim sum for beginners

A dim sum restaurant can be daunting for foreigners with no experience of Chinese ­etiquette, so here are some pointers to follow. 

At the table you will be ­presented with a bowl, plate, chopsticks and a small teacup. Tea is the first thing to order, after which you will be presented with the all-important “card”, which resembles a large lottery ticket. Each time you order something, the item will be ticked by the waiting staff. A few restaurants have English menus, but on the whole be prepared simply to look and point and try new things. Older establishments still have vendors wheeling ­trolleys around, each carrying a different speciality. If you can’t see what it is they are selling, stop the trolley, with a polite but loud ng goi (excuse me). Sometimes there’s a counter, so walk up with your card, open the baskets and point at what you want. When your teapot is empty, simply flip the lid over and someone will appear and top it off with hot water. When your bowl is empty, it’s time to sample another bamboo basket.

Eating dim sum. Photo: Shutterstock


Dim sum for the initiated

If you are already familiar with dim sum and would like to try some of the best and most sophisticated that Hong Kong has to offer, check out the following restaurants.

Though the occasional chef has developed creative dim sum adaptations, a core of favourite items tends to remain the same. In some restaurants, such as the buzzing City Hall Maxim’s Palace, dishes are wheeled around on heated trolleys. Trolley labels are solely in Chinese characters, but feel free to lift lids and see what’s inside – or consult the bilingual menu at the table. This popular restaurant cannot be booked, so arrive before you feel very hungry, take a numbered ticket and wait your turn. The food, atmosphere and harbour view are worth it.

Also along the waterfront, elegant Lung King Heen at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong presents a dim sum menu list that includes refined takes on classics – the siu mai combines chopped premium pork, rather than mince, with large crunchy shrimps; there are steamed lobster and scallop dumplings; or baked puffs of whole abalone and diced chicken. 

Edgy-looking Zen, in Admiralty, actually serves up a pretty traditional menu: dim sum-sized house specials include deep-fried chicken wings stuffed with sticky rice and dried shrimp, and a few varieties of filled, steamed rice-flour rolls.

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