A First Timer’s Guide to Dim Sum

From how to flag down a dim sum trolley to what to order when you do, our guide to enjoying dim sum stress-free

Credit: Flickr / LifeSupercharger

Siu mai pork and mushroom dumplings will fill you up quickly, but the key to enjoying dim sum is in playing the long game

Dim sum can be intimidating to the uninitiated newbie, but the plump dumplings and steaming buns make it worth your while. If it’s your first time, a few basic do’s and don’ts ensure you won’t leave hungry

Dim sum, which means “touch of the heart,” is eaten at breakfast or lunch and consists mostly of the comforting, universally appealing food genus known as dumplings. Dumplings come both steamed or fried and stuffed with everything from shrimp, pork and beef to egg custard, bean paste and veggies.

Many other irresistible savouries, like bbq pork bao (buns), lotus-wrapped sticky rice, egg tarts, rice noodle donuts, sweet spare ribs, shrimp-stuffed eggplant and chicken feet are quite common in dim sum.

These are all served yum cha-style, i.e. with bottomless pots of tea. And traditionally, all your dim sum options roll by on trolleys, which you flag down in order to get what you’d like.

Dim Sum Do’s And Don’ts

Ordering dim sum can be mildly alarming if you’ve never done it before. The speedy trolleys and sealed steamer baskets make it difficult to know how to get food to your table – let alone what it is you’re biting into. But man up. It’s certainly not as scary as watching a season of Walking Dead, even if there are dismembered feet involved.

DO go in groups: Rope together a bunch of friends, family or colleagues (who, preferably, know what they’re doing) and book a table in advance. Dim sum can unite even the most straggly band of work mates and it doesn’t even matter if conversation is low quality since you’ll spend so much time discussing what to order. The tables at banquet-style dim sum joints accommodate up to 10 people with ease. The more people you have, the more likely you are to get attention from the carts. Plus you have more eyes on the lookout for the good stuff.

DON’T fill up too quickly: You’ve got to be strategic and play the long game. Easy-to-love, decadent treats like the pork-mushroom dumplings (siu mai), barbecue pork buns (cha siu bao), potstickers (guotie), beef pastries (sou), spare ribs (char siu), deep fried taro dumplings (wu gok) will fill you up swiftly.

The delicate, more nuanced treats – prawn dumplings (har gau), lotus-wrapped sticky rice with water chestnuts (lo mai gai), prawn and chive cakes, Japanese custard tofu, steamed pumpkin buns, bok choy and oyster sauce, steamed rice flour rolls (coeng fan) with fish and bean curd – will eventually come around.

DO draw attention to yourself: When it comes to attracting a trolley, do not be shy. The servers move faster than your Twitter stream. Make eye contact. Wiggle an arm. Turn around. Whatever it takes to make inquiries. Scan the lower levels as well as the top shelf for treats. If you ask what they’ve got and they tell you “shrimp dumpling,” ask for the name in Chinese. It’s har gau, FYI.

DON’T skimp on sauce if you must try the chicken feet: If you’re going to go for it, make sure they’re doused in sauce. Otherwise, the best descriptor I can come up with is chewy.

DO go on the weekend: The best time to go is 10 am to 12 pm Saturday and Sunday. That’s prime time when the kitchen is pumping out cart after cart of hot, fresh savouries. Sunday is especially ideal for the hungover. Forget bacon; greasy treats such as spare ribs and siu mai (pork mushroom dumplings) are the ideal cure.

DON’T forget dessert: You really want to try dessert, whether you opt for crunchy sweet sesame balls (jin deui/matuan) or golden-baked egg tarts (daan taat).

And most of all…

DON’T leave hungry: One plate of four dim sum treats will serve eight people; they often cut dumplings in half. Even if you feel like you’ve ordered enough to feed an army, the bottom line is: dim sum is cheap. The bill is rarely more than $15 per person. It’s usually under $10.  

Where to Try Dim Sum in Vancouver

Vancouver has many quality traditional dim sum joints that make their dim sum daily in-house and change their menu regularly to reflect seasonality. For starters, try the Pink Pearl (1132 East Hastings), Sun Sui Wah (3888 Main Street), Dai Tung Chinese Seafood Restaurant (108–1050 Kingsway) and Dynasty Seafood (108–777 West Broadway).