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Help! Dim Sum for Beginners

Going to have Dim Sum this weekend but I've never been. What do I need to know? How do I order? What do I order?

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  1. If you're going to a place with carts, you don't need to order anything...the women (and they're almost ALWAYS women) pushing the carts will give you a peek at their wares (minds out of the gutter, folks!), and if you like what you see, indicate you'd like to have it...a simple, "yes, please" and nod of the head is good enough. If it's important that you know what you're eating (it's not to me, but I know it is to some), go somewhere where you know they'll speak your language (I'm assuming you don't speak any Chinese), so you can ask. This is doubly important if you have food allergies. Otherwise, chow down, and report back!

    7 Replies
    1. re: ricepad

      Please forgive my ignorance. Do the carts only carry one type of Dim Sum each?

      I am going to a place that was highly recommended by a friend who is from Hong Kong. This place is in the middle of Chinatown so they may not speak english. My friend is unable to go and we have only this one Saturday so we are attempting to go solo (I love an adventure). My main objective is not to offend while getting a true Dim Sum experience.

      1. re: tlegray

        The carts carry many choices, usually 2 or 3 on the top shelf and some more selections on the 2nd shelf. If there's a lid on anything, just point to it and they will lift the lid and show you. Just indicate with your hand which one you want.

        Trust me, being asian and doing dim sum all my life, it's hard to offend them! They on the otherhand might run their carts into the back of your chair so keep your jacket or anything you value on a chair away from the aisle where the carts go up and down. Sit by the aisle so you can lean over and see what's on the cart but watch out when they move the dishes from the cart to your table. I've been dripped on before when they transfer the dishes. My mother (who has no patience and sometimes I think no tact whatsoever!!) physically gets up from her chair with the bill in hand and hustles across the room to the cart carrying what she wants and gets them to serve her on the spot. She then carries it back to our table. She claims if she doesn't do this, it will be sold out by the time they wheel it to our table (which is true and if there's something you really really want, you might miss the opportunity if there's a limited number on that cart).

        Have fun!

        1. re: fickle

          I agree with your mum. No way I'm waiting to get soggy cold deep fried squid or discover that the do fu fa ran out three tables ago :)

        2. re: tlegray

          My favorites are: Har Gau (steamed dumplings with shrimp); Shu Mai (pork and black mushroom filling); beef meatballs; Shrimp wrapped in rice noodle; Sticky Rice wrapped in lotus leaf; Steamed Barbeque Pork Buns; Baby Clams in Black Bean Sauce. You might want to try your local library or bookstore that might have a book on Dim Sum with pictures and descriptions. Also, the carts will carry many different items of Dim Sum and if you are going to a restaurant in a big city, most of the people pushing the carts will speak some English; in addition, often times the seating is communal, in other words, you may be seated at a large round table with several parties, I am sure that they can help guide you also.

          1. re: tlegray

            Each cart carries several different choices. You will not offend anyone. But do watch for the pushy dim sum woman. They'd try to push the more expensive items on you. Usually dim sum comes in 4 different prices. Small (there may be one or two items that are small), medium, large, and special. My experience has been they try hard to push the special items, esp. to someone who's not knowledgeable. And there are no prices on the carts, so you don't really know until they make the mark on your bill.

            Before you go check out some dim sum websites to get some idea to the more common items available.

            1. re: PeterL

              I have never had a cart lady try to push any item and I have been to dozens of dim sum places in the States and Hong Kong.

              1. re: JMF

                I find that usually it's the more elaborately dressed servers who are carrying trays of specials that actually push to have you try it, though used car salesman style badgering is usually nonexistent.

        3. You suppose to have Har Gau and Shu Mai for Dim Sum. It wouldn't be Dim Sum without it.

          1 Reply
          1. re: designerboy01

            If they have chicken feet, go for them. Great stuff!

          2. I'd also try the soft tofu, which is served in its own cart and comes in small soup bowls. They usually pour sugar over it, but you can request them not to.

            They might also push around clear carts with larger dishes, like jellyfish, fried taro and meat, noodles.

            For desserts, egg tarts, or coconut and taro or red bean squares.

            1. Thank you, thank you, thank you and keep the advice coming.

              1 Reply
              1. re: tlegray

                Write down all the things that people have suggested that you really want to eat (definitely siu mai pork dumplings and har gow shrimp dumplings!), and if you really find yourself in trouble at the restaurant ask to see the manager. The manager or hostess almost always speaks some English, and will certainly be able to read English and find the dishes you want for you.

                But really, half the fun is looking on the carts and seeing what looks good. The manager advice is just in case of emergencies. And another tip: don't front load! The kitchen cooks things on rotation, so if you get a whole table full of food, you may not have room for new things that come out later!

              2. I'm sure they'll have chicken feet. For the adventerous they are pretty darn good. Simply things like fried prawns, pot stickers can also be good and pretty easy to know what they are.

                1. Sometimes they'll bring out plates on a platter, this generally signifies that it's a special dish from the kitchen. ie, jumbo fried prawns on skewers are usually brought out this way. Also, the platter carriers are men; carts--women.

                  1. When you get a chance go with 3-4 friends so that you can try more items since usually there are 3-4 dumplings in an order.

                    I love the marinated, sautéed, chicken feet, called Foong Jow, you suck off the skin and leave the bones.

                    I've found that the dumplings with veggies as well as meat can be really great, so if you see some that have a green filling definitely try them. One of my favorites are chive and shrimp dumplings, called Jean Gow Choy Bang.

                    Another interesting dumpling is Chao Zhou dumpling which has pork, bamboo shoots, shrimp, peanuts and other stuff. Its called Chiu Jow Fun Gwat.

                    Also if you see a bowl of soup with one huge dumpling in it almost the size of the bowl get it. It's called Goon Tong Gow. This is a mixed seafood soup dumpling with crab, shrimp, scallops, etc. in it and a small bowl of chopped ginger in sweet red vinegar will be served with it. Add some or all to the soup.

                    Small custard tarts can be nice (Dahn Taht), as is cold almond, coconut or mango pudding (Mong Gwor Bo Deen). Sweets are eaten throughout the meal not just as a dessert.

                    Dao Fu Fa is as mentioned before a fresh soft tofu, it is served with a thin sweet syrup made from either sugar or sorghum syrup. The dofu has a mild nutty taste and is like a warm nutty pudding with syrup. I always get this last and can eat a whole bowl even if totally full.

                    The tiny spare rib pieces about 1 inch long in a mild light sauce with a hint of black beans are very tasty, called Pie Gwat.

                    If you see a package that looks like it is wrapped in a leaf it's glutinous/sticky rice. The rice and meat pieces are put in a banana leaf and cooked. Sticky rice with chicken is called Nor My Guy.

                    If you see small golden brown flaky looking pastries they will probably have a tasty meat filling like sweet bbq pork or chicken in creamy gravy.

                    Recently I saw a sort of soft brown pastry shaped like a pear with a small green stem. It was a soft sweet starchy outside dough with a mixed meat and veggie filling that was out of this world.

                    I usually don't like the small fried spring rolls, Chun Goon, since they tend to be greasy inside.

                    By the way there is a great little pocket guide 3 1/2"x5" called Dim Sum a pocket guide by Kit Shan Li, published by Chronicle Books, $7.95. I got it one for $4 at Amazon.com. It is broken down into chapters on the different types and has glossy color photos, the names in English, Chinese, and Chinese phonetic. It only has 48 types of dim sum but it covers the basics.

                    1. Here's a short(ish) primer for you:

                      First and foremost: you won't offend anyone pretty much no matter what you do. If you try to take things off the carts, they'll smack your hand with tongs or a spoon or whatever, but they won't be offended. You can ask for a fork (they'll actually probably bring you one anyway, on the mistaken assumption that non-Asians can't use chopsticks). You wouldn't believe how rude (to American eyes) some people are in dim sum halls, mostly because they want what they want and don't want to wait for it!

                      The only rule about dim sum is that the women who push the carts ONLY push the carts. At pretty much every dim sum hall in the U.S., there are waiters (and, just like the cart people are always women, the waiters are always men) whose job it is to bring you drinks, take special orders, and handle the money. If you can't get one of them to pay attention to you, it is acceptable to stand up and gesture. (Acceptable meaning that plenty of other people do it, not acceptable meaning that it's polite, that is.)

                      Go in, and it'll probably be crowded. Don't go before 10 or after 2 if you can help it. Take your number and wait for them to call it.

                      Sit down and they'll bring you tea -- it's usually pretty base-model stuff, you can order fancier tea if that's your thing. Ask for water if you want it.

                      Carts will roll by, and generally there are between three and ten items on each cart. Some are speciality carts -- for example, the cart that makes broccoli and other greens ONLY makes broccoli and greens -- but in general you'll have several selections from each cart.

                      You don't need any Chinese to deal with dim sum, but I'll provide you a list of terms in Cantonese and Mandarin at the end in case you really get stuck. Just point at what you want to see, and if it looks tasty, nod and hold up fingers for how many dishes of it you want. If you don't want it, shake your head. If you want to know what's in it, ask, but they may not be able to explain it. (We get a lot of "meat with vegetable" or "is pork, you like pork" at our favoured dim sum hall. Remember that unless they specify otherwise, "meat" means "pork".)

                      You'll have a card on your table and each cart lady will take it and put stamps in the appropriate location for how many items you took.

                      Any kind of sauce that's meant to go with the dish will be set on the table with the dish. That doesn't mean you can't use other sauces, of course! And if you want chili sauce, ask a waiter.

                      Most people eat savoury first and then switch to sweets, but you aren't bound by that -- certainly you won't be the only ones to buck the trend. Feel free to ask (a waiter, remember) for a clean plate if you don't feel like putting taro pudding or mango pudding or rice cakes in your soy-and-chili-sauce-covered plate.

                      The point is to drink quite a lot of tea, so when you get down to the end of the tea, flip the lid of the teapot upside down and set it at the end of the table. The waiter will pour more hot water in (producing a weaker brew each time). If you want more leaves, you will probably have to pay for them, but some places will refresh the leaves for you as well.

                      At the end, simply hold up your card, and the waiter guy will come over and total how many stamps in column A (at 90 cents each, for example), how many in column B (at $1.90, for example), etc. etc. and give you a total. Tip at your comfort level -- typical seems to be about 10% or 12%, but if that makes you uncomfortable, tip more.

                      A short glossary (starred items are Cantonese, others are Mandarin -- almost all employees in a HK-style dim sum restaurant will at least understand both languages)

                      Yi-geh: one (of those)
                      Liang-geh: two (of those)
                      San-geh: three (of those)
                      Yao: I want/would like/give me
                      Bu yao: I don't want/don't give me
                      ______ yoh may yoh: do you have _______
                      Waw dway (hua sheng) min gan: I am allergic to (peanuts).
                      Ngo dayee (faa sang) man gam*: I am allergic to (peanuts).
                      Ngau*: meat/pork (by default, "meat" means "pork")
                      Ngau yuk*: beef
                      Ngau gai*: chicken
                      Choy*: leafy vegetables (incl. chives)
                      Har* (said like a New Yorker): shrimp
                      Tah-sah/chah-shoe*: barbecued pork
                      Bao (rhymes with "how"): buns, either steamed or baked
                      Jiao (also rhymes with "how"): dumplings
                      Doh fu: tofu/beancurd
                      Xie xie (sheh sheh): thank you
                      do zeh sigh*: thank you (when they give you something)
                      mi goy sigh*: thank you (when they do something for you)

                      You're bound to have a great time, you're equally bound to eat things you won't be able to identify (I promise you, no matter what others may say, they don't serve dog), and I'll bet you'll look forward to the next experience, perhaps in a larger group where you can sample more!

                      (OK, not short at all. Sorry.)

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                        I have seen female servers as well as men servers in several NYC places, but I have never seen a cart dude...

                      2. This is all great stuff. I'm getting more excited with every post. I will study until Saturday and report back. I just hope I can tell you what I've had.

                        If they have them I will try the chicken feet.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: tlegray

                          The chicken feet suppose to make you a better runner and helps you to stay young as dinner table stories go in chinese families...

                          1. re: tlegray

                            Just be forewarned - they honestly look like chicken feet, with the toes on and everything. :)

                            Also, they'll be pushing around cart that serves pig's blood. We never get it, but just so you know what it is when you see it, they're red, bloody cubes they scoop into bowls.

                            1. re: chica

                              LOL. You make it sound like the cubes are bleeding. It looks more like tofu that's been cubed and dyed red. But yes, it's not for everyone. And frankly, most restaurants can't cook it right and it tastes like crumbly grossness.

                          2. I think this is more than enough advice for one meal, but... your friend should let you know if this restaurant has any "must try" items that they do particularly well. Just like any other kind of restaurant, something usually stands out.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Jefferson

                              Never even thought of to ask my friend...where's my mind? Any way I'll see if I can get ahold of him. Thanks for the suggestion.

                            2. Actually, there is no mention about the different types of teas. The teas here are not so great. But I usually go for soo-me. Bo Ne I didn't hear good things about it. It was popular before but my chinese friends tell me not to drink it anymore. I forgot the reason why but I think it has something to do with foreign substances.

                              1. By the way... you didn't mention what city you are in and what place, this might help us with suggestions in case of specific or special items available. Of course then you would have to start a new thread on the appropriate board and link to it from here.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: JMF

                                  I am in Houston and the restaurant is called Ocean Palace. It's suppose to have ok chinese food and excellent dim sum.

                                  I'll see if I can manage a link...wish me luck.

                                2. Around here, you find cart service only in dim sum places, while regular restaurants that serve dim sum as a sideline will give you a dim sum checklist menu and serve just your selections. The menu will have a brief, and possibly helpful, definition of each item.

                                  1. First thing is to relax and enjoy. You can always ask about what's on the carts if you're not sure what's inside. For a while my friends and I would get at least one new thing every time, since we all had our regular must-haves. With dim sum, that's an easy "risk" to take, since each dish is only a few dollars. Have fun! :)

                                    1. If you are going by yourself, the big problem is that most people can only eat three or four different items. The temptation is to select two or three from the first cart that comes by because it all looks so good. But if you do that, you don't have much room for anything else - so pace yourself. Also don't feel weird about saying no. With dozens and dozens of choices and numerous carts buzzing around, you will have to tell the cart ladies "no" a lot. They're used to it.


                                      1. If you haven't gone there already, a few more things:

                                        If there are no small tables, you may be seated at a shared table with strangers. You should use your own teapot, your own set of sauce dishes, and keep your order card (for the card ladies to stamp the # of plates you take) immediately next to you.

                                        When you run out of tea, leave the lid ajar. This is a sign for the waiter to re-fill it.

                                        On the final bill there may be a "tea charge" of $1 per head whether you drank the tea or not. This is a kind of cover charge, and normal.

                                        The cart ladies only serve the ready-to-eat food (small dishes). The waiters will take orders for drinks or made-to-order food (large dishes), and will add up your bill.

                                        Good luck!

                                        1. Your first dim sum!!! I envy you--it's almost as good, nay, probably better, than first sex!

                                          If I were eating dim sum for the first time, especially if going alone (hope you aren't but even if you are it will be great), I'd definitely stick to the tried-and-true favorites sold in most places. There's a reason they're sold everywhere: they appeal to the most people. And since they're new to you, they will be almost as exotic as chicken feet without the fear that you'll not be ready for the experience. (I'm experienced--I used to watch my Russian grandfather eat chicken feet. And cow's brains. And I just *couldn't*.)

                                          I'd definitely pick har gow--the steamed shrimp dumplings and maybe the shrimp and scallion/chives, which are lightly fried. And char sui bow, the puffy bread-dough wrapped around sweet barbecued pork and then steamed. Also, the sticky rice wrapped in the leaf like a kind of Chinese tamale (don't eat the wrapper). If you haven't eaten good potstickers and you're at a very good dim sum place, get them. Or pork sui mai, which are steamed. Curried beef turnovers can be great as can paper-wrapped chicken (if the place isn't so authentic that the chicken is heavy on the fatty globules). The fried shrimp are also good if you have enough people. I love the turnip cake but that *might* be an acquired taste.

                                          I love some greens with my dim sum, either pea shoots (the young sprouts of the pea plant, sauteed with garlic), Chinese broccoli (which isn't really broccoli but is delicious with the traditional oyster sauce), or dry-fried string beans. They have asparagus, too, often. Keeps the meal from being a starch fest.

                                          The little custard pancakes are wonderful: rice dough around a custard filling, lightly fried and sweet, for dessert. Not every place has them rather than the more common tarts.

                                          The tea should be fairly to very good but NEVER order coffee. Walk out to the local coffee shop for a more traditional desser than mango pudding, walnut or almond cookies, and custard tarts. Chinese restaurants are not that well-stocked for dessert.

                                          1. Thank you all so much. You can read all about our experience at;