A guide to dim sum

Cantonese breakfast demystified: the teas and the dishes that are sure to please, dumpling- and rib-eating etiquette and more.

Photos by the Two Food Photographers

The clinking of ceramic plates and cups hastily set down on a round table equipped with a lazy-susan. The chaotic yet graceful flow of trolleys bountifully piled with towers of steaming bamboo baskets set to the tune of Sunday morning chatter. You are among family and friends in a banquet hall teeming with aromas of freshly brewed teas, shrimp, pork and flaky custard tarts. You are out for Cantonese breakfast, what most call dim sum.

The history of dim sum is unclear. The lore most commonly accepted as truth is that the tradition began in roadside tea houses operating along the southern Chinese portion of the Silk Road. It is important to remember that dim sum began in these tea houses because as a meal, dim sum is inextricably linked to the act of drinking tea. Like tapas to a beer, dim sum is an accompaniment to the main attraction: a warm pot of tea. The association with tea is so strong that the act of going out for dim sum is known in Cantonese as yum cha, which literally means drinking tea.

A cart emerges in a cloud of steam and the woven lid of a bamboo steamer-basket is lifted to reveal a delicious, if also mysterious, plate of food. Unfamiliar names are riddled off, vague descriptions uttered — what to choose? What to omit? What was that wonderful bite I had the last time? If only I knew the name. Below is a handy little guide of what to expect, what to eat, and how to ask for something specific when going for yum cha.

The tea

Most restaurants in Montreal serving dim sum will serve a green tea, sometimes a genuine Lung-Jeng tea (also known as Dragonwell) or a simple jasmine tea. This is a good, crowd-pleasing tea, and matches well with most dim sum dishes. However, if you have a choice of teas you might consider asking for one of these:

Pu-Erh, a black tea: Called Bo-Lay in Cantonese this musty and robust black tea is a great companion to dim sum. While it can be a bit intense on its own, it is a tea that when served steaming hot cuts the grease associated with many of the fried dishes common with any dim sum meal better than any other.

Chrysanthemum, a herbal tea: Devoid of caffeine, this light and floral tea, known in Cantonese as Gook-Fa, is brewed from the steeping of dried chrysanthemum flowers which develop into a chamomile-like slightly sweet tea that accompanies the more delicate steamed dumplings and seafood dishes that form an essential part of any good dim sum meal.

Oolong, a “blue” tea: Oolong, or Wulong tea is a tea fermented similarly to Pu-Erh but for much less time which qualifies this tea as sort of a halfway point between black and green teas which is why it is known as blue. This is a passe-partout kind of tea and a general crowd pleaser, its subtle flavours and mild tannins both cut grease and accompany delicate dishes with ease.

You’ve chosen your tea, and now it’s time to scout for food. In a traditional yum cha experience, trolleys filled with various items are carted around stopping at tables to display the dishes available. Below is a list of what I consider some of the essential dim sum dishes with their descriptions to help you spot your favourites, along with their Cantonese names to order à la carte in case something you want isn’t on the trolley. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that these are merely some of my favourites and many other options exist. These are dishes I consider sure to please, but the best advice I can give is to ask questions and try new things as you begin to discover the plates that will become part of your own dim sum tradition.

Siu Mai / Shao Mai

One of the most iconic dim sum dishes, this open-faced dumpling is usually a mixture of pork and shrimp (often including black mushrooms), which are then wrapped in wonton paper, steamed and garnished with a bit of fish roe.

Har Gow

Often referred to as crystal shrimp dumplings or simply shrimp dumplings, these translucent rice flour dumplings are filled with chopped shrimp and occasionally water chestnuts or bamboo shoots for texture. You can spot a quality har gow by its skin — too thin and it’ll tear, too thick and it is overly chewy, and a very good dumpling will be juicy with a bit of residual shrimp broth.

Xiao Long Bao

Although originally from Shanghai, the crimped-top, soup-filled dumplings have become an essential part of any good dim sum meal. They may be filled with pork, shrimp or crab meat, but are always served piping hot and plump with delicious aromatic broth. Word to the wise: use a spoon. When eating a soup dumpling, it’s recommended to lift the dumpling and place it in your spoon. With the end of your chopstick poke a small hole in the dough and allow the broth to fill the spoon. Slurp up that glorious broth and then have at the rest of that dumpling.

Char Siu Bao

A BBQ-pork-stuffed bun that may be served steamed in a sweetened and fluffy dough or baked in a sweetened yellow dough similar to a Chinese dinner roll. Both are delicious although the steamed variety is more traditional. Ask for Djing Char Siu Bao for the steamed variety and Gohk Char Siu Bao for the baked version.

Lohr Bak Go / Fried Turnip Cake

A square loaf of grated daikon, mushroom, dried shrimp and Chinese sausage bound together by rice flour. The blocks are sliced and pan-fried to a golden crisp and served with a healthy dollop of oyster sauce. One of my personal favourites.

Har Cheung

These are long rice noodles that envelop a filling of shrimp, but the cheung fun category includes fillings of beef, pork, scallion and yao tiu, a savoury Chinese fried doughnut. At a good dim sum restaurant, all the varieties may be available and all are worth a try. They are best served warm and dressed with light soy sauce.

Fung Chao / Phoenix Talons

Perhaps the greatest mental hurdle of dim sum: chicken feet. While the dish may seem daunting, it’s hardly more complicated than a chicken wing. The feet are cleaned, blanched and deep-fried to allow them to better absorb flavours while being braised until very tender. Finally, the braised feet are steamed to order and served in a black bean sauce. Earn some street cred by chowing down on fung chao.

Pai Gwut / Pork Ribs

Sparerib wing tips are steamed in a mixture of black bean, ginger and Shaoxing cooking wine. They may be a bit messy to eat, but go ahead and pop the whole piece, bone included, into your mouth, and once you’ve worked the meat off, discard the bone.

Lo Mai Gai / Sticky Rice

A steamed package of glutinous sticky rice mixed with black mushroom, Chinese sausage and chicken. It’s one of the most delicious and satisfying items offered at dim sum and the fragrance of the steam as the package is opened will have you ordering it time and time again.

Gai See Chow Mein

No dim sum meal is complete without an order of noodles. Gai see chow mein is soy sauce fried noodles with chicken. It’s a savoury mix of thinly cut chicken, toothsome egg noodles and crunchy bean sprouts, fried to perfection.

Djeen Dui / Sesame Ball

A gloriously puffed sphere dotted with sesame and filled with a sweet and savoury filling of red bean paste.

Daan Tat / Egg Tart

The iconic canary-yellow centred desert, a mutation likely sprung from the residuals of the Portuguese occupation of Macau. Unlike the Portuguese variety, the Hong Kong style egg tart is a smooth egg custard that is sweet and custardy, but also distinctly eggy, served in a delightfully flaky tart-shell.