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More about Dim Sum

A unique Chinese food is dim sum. Actually dim sum is more than just a category of dishes; it's an eating habit.


In the Canton provinces, many people gather at tea houses during the morning and early afternoon to socialize or conduct business over small meals. In China this is most popularly called going to "yum cha" -- going to tea -- because the drinking of tea is so strongly associated with the snack foods served. In the United States, however, we are most familiar with the term dim sum to describe these small meals.

What Is Served

Most dim sum foods are savory pastries -- steamed or fried dumplings, filled buns, noodles. There are also sweet pastries, vegetables, meats. The portions are bite-sized, and they are served in small quantities, usually three or four to a plate, so that the diners can enjoy a variety of foods, whether they eat very little or indulge in a huge feast. Variety is one of the keys to dim sum. Some restaurants offer over 100 different items on a busy day.

How Dim Sum Is Served

The presentation of the dim sum meal has no equivalent in the West. Servers push carts, loaded with a variety of foods, through the dining room, past the customers, who keep an eye out for appealing dishes. Once a desired item is in sight, the diner flags down the cart and points out what she wants. The dining room bustles with the activity of carts wending among tables, calls for attention, and the clatter of plates. The idea is to choose things continually throughout the meal, rather than to gather all the food at once before eating. Sweet items are interspersed with the savories; Chinese custom does not include saving sweets for the end of the meal, although they are reserved for special occasions, such as the pauses between courses in a banquet or indulgences like dim sum.


Just as the arrival of food is ongoing, the supply of tea is endless. When a teapot is empty, the customer need only leave the lid up, and it will be whisked away and refilled. One story told to explain this custom involves a poor student who hid a bird in his teapot. When the waiter came to refill the pot and lifted the lid, the bird flew away. According to his plan, the student made a loud fuss. It was a very valuable bird, he said, and the restaurant owed him recompense. After this, the restaurant-and all others--decided to wait for customers to lift the lid of an empty teapot if a refill was needed.

The Bill

When the diners have eaten their fill, the bill is calculated by counting up the number of plates on the table.
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