Dim Sum: never, ever served at dinner??
Hi... On the Los Angeles board, someone mentioned that dim sum is only ever a breakfast/brunch/lunch thing in the world-at-large, which I've never understood. Farmers toiling in the fields since 5:00 a.m. aside, who's _that_ hungry by 10:00 a.m., ready to eat plate after plate of what is essentially asian tapas and small plates? The sheer plenty and diversity of dim sum would seem to recommend its' availability to evenings as well. Is it the handmade quality of production that requires morning and early afternoon consumption? Or perhaps the vast communal/cultural mindset so firmly in place already, to break one's fast with so opulent (in terms of selection) yet affordable (in terms of price) a chowish ritual amidst family and friends? It would seem that for every famished 'morning person' standing in line at 9:59 a.m. ready to pound down dim sum and tea, there might be equivalent 'evening folk' ready to get their grub on and wash it down with cocktails and beer, or perhaps to soak up the effects of cocktails and beer. I'm just not ready for shrimp, pork, various feet, and encasing starches before noon, and thus would never think of seeking out korean BBQ and panchan at 10:00 in the morning. But somehow the same general ingredients, prepared and packaged/presented differently, are so welcome in the morning hours, that often one will miss out if attempting to eat dim sum at 2:00 p.m.. Just as the small plate and tapas boom has found a very willing and receptive market, why no dim sum for me and any other vampyres who only really ressurect an appetite once the sun goes down? I hope that in asking this sincere question, I am not offending anyone, culturally or culinarily...
I think most folks have a misconception of "dim sum".
Dim sum, per se, is less about the what type of food is served, than how the food is served.
Dim sum is a way to have a leisurely dining experience. It is a STYLE of dining.
Dim sum is NOT necessarily about the types of food served, i.e. steamed lotus leaves, hao-goa, shu-mai, etc. Most of those items can be found on menus for lunch or dinner.
The closest analogy that I can think of regarding dim sum, would probably be English High Tea.
As I understand it, high tea was conceived of by the Duchess of Bedford as a bridge meal between lunch and dinner. The usu. types of dishes that were served incl. things like crustless sandwiches, toast, scones and other pastries. The emphasis was on presentation and conversation.
Just like dim sum, one would not have "high tea" during breakfast hours even if one were to crave crustless sandwiches. You would just eat crustless sandwiches and call it breakfast.
Same thing with dim sum. If you craved shu-mai, then heck just eat shu-mai for dinner and call it dinner!
IIRC, "high tea" is actually a working class concept for a somewhat substantial mea. Afternoon tea as light refreshment was the upper class variant. In the US, a lot of people confuse the two concepts. Like the American idea of thinking tea is more refined than coffee (if there is a parallel in Britain, it used to be the reverse) or that putting milk you your coffee or teacup first before pouring in the hot beverage is more refined (again, in Britain, that was a mark that one was not highborn, as it were).
The explanation, offered to me by an owner of our favorite dim sum place, is simple. The dim sum chef has to go home sometime. He can't just be there making breakfast lunch and dinner too. And it's not economical to hire another shift of dim sum chef to do the dinner round.
I'm not quite sure that "pound down" is an accurate description of the most traditional way of eating dim sum - we're talking about grazing, with friends, on tea and cakes (so to speak).
The last time I was in Guangzhou, there were restaurants that also served dim sum at dinnertime. It was something of a fashionable trend that might have originated in Hong Kong.
But unlike daytime yum cha, there were no carts or menus. Instead the dining room had stations along the walls where people would pick up freshly prepared items to carry back to their table.
I've noticed that the early morning eaters of dim sum in Hong Kong tend to order very modestly because the food is so rich. It's only when income levels rise that people go all out and make a major meal out of dim sum.
Lastly, dim sum (dian xin in pinyin) does in fact refer to a category of foods that depends on the region in China. The style of dining is called yum cha (tea drinking) in Guangdong.
Well, the idea is to drink lots of tea and have a few snacks with it -- it has morphed into the opposite, where tea is the afterthought.
I don't know if they still do it but Legendary Palace does a second dim sum "late night" - from 11pm to 2am. I don't know of any other place that does late service.
There are some who post on CH who are experts on such things but I can tell you what I was told by Chinese Government cultural officers who assisted me with a tour I did for American business executives in the early '90.
They advised that we would have some dumplings in Shanghai but should wait for more in Xian because the very best (at least on our itinerary) were to be found there. I arranged 2 meals that were in restaurants and they were unforgettable. But the other patrons were well-to-do Chinese and other foreigners.
Xian is an industrial city and quite poor. Up and down the streets, vendors set up braziers to cook and serve meals, including dim sum, to workers.
My Chinese contacts told me that many Chinese didn't have cooking facilities at home, particularly single men, and took their meals at these makeshift restaurants. Shift workers ate their meals on breaks, eating their heaviest meals of the day at mid-day and only something very light on the way home.
At that time, there was no middle class in China which would have patronized restaurants as in the developed world. They ate in very humble homes, if possible, or as best they could from whatever source outside the home.
I've seen this same pattern in other third world countries as well. Even in some immigrant communities in the US, some workers don't have kitchens and depend on taco trucks or the like for meals.
This question has certainly elicited quite a variety of responses. There are language issues tangled up with food issues tangled up with broader cultural issues here.
Ipsedixit has it substantially right.
YUMCHA means “drink tea”. This is what Cantonese speakers will say when they want to enjoy what the rest of us use the words “dimsum” to refer to. Yum cha is the thing that is constrained by time, NOT dimsum. In Hong Kong yum cha is likely to start by 5 or 6 am and to finish, in its normative, weekday form, by perhaps noon. That is not to say that you cannot find restaurants that will serve it much later, perhaps as late as 2 or 3 pm. On weekends, especially Sunday, it is certainly possible to go to a very passable yum cha restaurant in mid afternoon and get something (good) to eat. Hotel dinner buffets in Hong Kong or the PRC are likely to include items that are normally only seen at yumcha, typically before 2 pm.
DIMSUM (in Cantonese, “dianxin” in so-called Mandarin) refers to a whole class of items ranging from sickly sweet to richly savory, from egg custards to pork ribs in black bean sauce; from grass jelly to chili chicken feet. In other contexts, on a regular restaurant dinner menu, for instance, dimsum can refer to pastry or “tidbits” that can be eaten anywhere, any time. “Xidian” - “dian” is the same word as “dim” - refers to Western pastry that can include donuts, danish, rolls, etc. The point is that dimsum can be eaten any time anywhere, but yumcha is time-constrained as above. There is no such thing as “yumcha” for dinner but you could have items that are usually considered “dimsum / dianxin” at dinner. Such items are generally referred to as “dumplings” in this context.
So, in thinking about whether or not “dimsum”, which is a large class of food items, can be served for dinner, the answer is yes, it can, as long as we are not confusing it with “yumcha”, which is an eating ritual including tea, dimsum, a typical service style (employing carts, etc.), and companionship (yumcha is rarely never done alone) which really happens primarily in the first half of the day, from early morning to early afternoon.
If there is a class constraint or origin to yumcha/dimsum I am not aware of it.
The experience in Xi’an described by MakingSense is part of the general north China (north of the Yangtse) dumpling tradition. Defachang, the most famous Xi’an dumpling restaurant is NOT a yumcha/dimsum restaurant as understood by Hong Kong or Canton Chinese. The famous “soup filled” dumplings of Xi’an’s Jia family likewise.
Defachang is open in the evening and I was advised to plan a dumpling "banquet" there for the tour group I took to Xi'an. It was extraordinary! We had about 10 or 12 people so I could special order a very large selection.
Each variety was shaped like what it was. Tiny rabbits for rabbit dumplings. Miniature ducks. Small chickens nestled in the steamer baskets. Fish with fan tails and bulging eyes. They were almost too adorable to eat except that they tasted fabulous. I don't remember what the bill was, only that I rationalized that it was cheap by any comparison to US prices and paid happily.
The restaurant was very busy with what seemed to be business level Chinese and some tourists. This city is near the Terra Cotta Warrior site so they were beginning to get some foreign tourists at the time we visited.
Our dumpling feast however was very different from the street vendor meals that we saw all over Xí'an and in areas away from major cities.
Everything that has been said is about right but you can request selected items to be served at a dinner meal with advance planning.
Dim Sum Chef normally work during the day but are there for hours after the lunch rust. They have to prepared many of the next day lunch. Many of the dumpling are made the night before. so if you know the staff a selection can be set aside for a dinner meal. I have had this done for me at a few places in the Bay Area.
So if you really want dim sum for a starter for dinner it can be done if you just ahead and be a good customer.
After all there is no harm of asking.
So, there is this chain of restaurants called A&J that we have in the DC area. They are also in southern California and I think are based in Hong Kong. They serve what they call northern Chinese dim sum all day including dinnertime. Why is it different?
My family is Chinese (from Taiwan), and "dium shim" (in the Taiwanese dialect) simply mans "snack." Any time of day, we'll ask someone whether they'd like a "dium shim." Or I'd say I feel like having a "dium shim." You can eat a snack any time of day.
When we go out for tea and the various dishes associated with dim sum, we say we are going out for "yum cha." We have "yum cha" any time in the morning or any time in the afternoon.
At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we might (and do) eat various the dishes that you typically get at dim sum restaurants, but then we don't call the food "dim sum." For example, potstickers are popular at dim sum, but they are eaten at lunch and dinner, too, and then they are not called dim sum. The same is true of sesame flat breads wrapped around fried crullers and of rice congee, which can be eaten at yum cha or at breakfast.
I like the analogy to English high tea.