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Dim Sum Thoughts

There seems to be a great deal of thoughts/questions on dim sum in the boards, so I was wondering what the fellow chowhounds' thought processes like in terms of judging a dim sum place and what their favorites items are?

First off - what kind of tea do you order with your dim sum? After all, in cantonese 'drinking tea' is the expression used for having dim sum, so tea is an important part of the meal. I for one like to order Pu Erh, or chrysanthemum (without sugar) if I don't want caffeine.

Secondly, what's your favorites and how do you judge the quality of the food? We always order the following dishes each and every time:

1) chicken feet - the feet must be tender enough to be able to take apart without effort, but not mushy. The sauce should be sweet, savory, a little bit spicy for kick. Generally the color is reddish brown

2) har gow - the gold standard for dumplings. The skin should be very, very thin, yet slightly chewy, definitely not soft and mushy. The shrimp ideally should be big, not minced, and crunchy to the bite. The filling should be mostly shrimp, and a little salt/sugar. A good hargow will also yield slight juice (not like juicy dumplings -XLB), not dry.

3) ham siu gook (football) - a good one will be hot and crispy on the outside, doughy/chewy within, with filling made mostly of minced pork (sometimes little shrimp can be folded in). The filling should be a bit savory and not overwhelming salty.

4) steamed pork ribs. A good one will have a good mix of the fat and the lean. The pork should be tender, with the sauce should not overwhelmingly taste of soy beans

5) lotus wrapped chicken. The rice for a good one should be soft, not mushy. The fillings vary but it should have enough flavor to blend into the rice. Some places uses dried scallop in the filling which added another dimension to the dish.

6) Rice Noodle wraps. A good rice noodle wrap should be thin - not thick and rubbery. It should be slightly chewy/have a resiliency as well. If shrimp is used in the filling, ideally they should be of the bigger variety, and not minced, and definitely crunchy to the bite.

Third - service. Good service to me means that your dirty plates should be taken away and replaced with clean ones at least once, and you don't have to flag down the waiter for additional water for the teapot (they should get the hint when the lid is on top of the handle). Unfortunately this kind of service seems hard to find.

Fourth - cart or order off menu? I prefer order, as I like to plan, and I think that the quality suffered a great deal if the food is on the steamer, or out of the fryer for a while. At a big dim sum place if you are not seated right outside the kitchen it can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes for the carts to reach your table. I guess cart style is more serendipitious and if you are not familiar with the food it allows a chance to view it before getting it.

Walking Specials - I don't usually order them. Most of the time they are a variation of fried shrimp paste/seafood and dough and it's where the restaurants make the most profit.

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  1. Notmartha, you should have been on our judging panel for San Francisco's dim sum "civil war"! I agree with you 100 percent.

    For the record the "benchmark" dim sum items for our judging process were:

    har gao
    sui mai
    shrimp rice noodle "crepe"
    steamed pork ribs
    chicken feet
    turnip cake
    fried taro puff
    egg custard tart

    A varied tea selection always got bonus points (I personally like chrysanthemum). We always tried to sit where we got first crack at the carts coming out of the kitchen, but also ordered things off the menu. As I said in the other thread, that's my preferred way to order dim sum: pick a few special items from the menu and grab a few basics off the carts to nosh on while we wait for the rest of our order.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      I love chrysanthemum but pu-erh is good, ba bao cha is good, and lung ching faa chaa (long jing hua cha) -- dragonwell tea.

      We usually do the carts, so it helps to know a bit of "Dim Sum Chinese" (really Cantonese, all transliterations are approximate):

      Yau mo ____ aa? (Do you have _____)?

      Mm-goy yat/leung/saam/say _____ (Please give us one/two/three/four ____)

      Mm-goy, mai dan. (Please give us the bill.)

      haa gau = steamed "see-through" shrimp dumplings
      shu mai = "beggar's purse" yellow dumplings, pork or fish
      jew-yook shu mai = pork shu mai
      haa shu mai = shrimp shu mai
      yew shu mai = fish shu mai
      ngau-yook kaau = beef meatballs
      chion giun = spring rolls
      hom sui gok = "footballs" (fried, filled with pork and sometimes shrimp)
      cheung fun = rice noodle "crepe"
      haa/jew-yook/ngau-yook cheung fun = shrimp/pork/beef crepe
      fung saau = chicken feet (with barbecue sauce -- they're trying to be cute here, "fung" means "phoenix")
      bak wan fung saau = steamed chicken feet (with vinegar)
      yau yew so = crispy squid
      gai laan = chinese broccoli
      cha shu baau = barbecued pork buns
      gai baau = chicken buns
      siu lung baau = juicy dumplings, XLB, Shanghai soup dumplings
      lap cheung baau = chinese sausage buns
      lo baak go = turnip cake
      chiu chau fun guor = Chiuchow-style dumplings with peanuts
      no maai gaai = lotus wrapped chicken
      jook = rice porridge
      pay daan jew-yook jook = porridge with century eggs and pork
      baau yew jook = abalone porridge (expensive!)

      dou fu faa = ginger tofu pudding
      mang gwo pu din = mango pudding
      naai wong baau = steamed egg buns
      daan taat = egg custard tarts
      jin dui = red bean balls with sesame seeds
      maa lai go = steamed egg cake ("Malaysian cake")

      There's so much more... but this will get it started. :)

      1. re: Das Ubergeek

        That's pretty good--I actually understood most of them. Here are some minor corrections/suggestions:
        "siu mai" instead of "shiu mai" for those dumplings
        "jee yook" instead of "jew yook" for pork in general
        "fung jiao" instead of "fung sau" for red chicken feet
        "pay dan sau yook jook" instead of "pay dan jew yook jook" for pork and egg congee

        Here are some others:

        boh loh meen bao = sweet bread with a crispy top
        boh loh gai bao = sweet bread with a chicken filling
        pie gwut = sparerib
        yau ja gway = fried dough often eaten with congee
        wu tau = taro root (often available with "lo baak go"/turnip cake)
        hong dau sah = red bean desert soup
        guk cha siu bau = baked BBQ pork buns (these are brown unlike the steamed white ones)
        woh teep = potstickers
        siu yook = roast pork

        I wouldn't worry about asking for the bill. Either wave your bill in the air or wave your hand in the air (like you're writing on something) and they'll know you want to pay. If you want to pay in true Cantonese style, you must fight over the bill. This is an art in itself--outwitting your friends to pay before they do. :-)

        1. re: raytamsgv

          I am impressed with the list. I think Das Ubergeeks' pronounciation guide is in cantonese, not mandarin. But of course my mandarin pronounication is terrible...

          "pay dan sau yook jook" is the cantonese pronounication, instead of pork ('jee') sau means lean. That's typical cantonese phrase for congee with thousand year old egg and pork.

          Ah - fighting over the check. Not fun.

          The other dim sum etiquette I didn't mention is the tapping of fingers when someone pour you tea...

          1. re: notmartha

            I'm not remotely a Cantonese speaker -- I can do what I call "shopping and hotel" and I can leave the outgoing message on my HK mobile phone -- but it gets the job done at dim sum. I appreciate the corrections, and I actually didn't know it was supposed to be "pay day sau yook jook" -- I have a bowl of it in front of me right now with a yau ja gwai, perfect food for when one is sick.

            I agree, you just wave people over when you want something, but some people like to be extra polite when they're asking for it. (As opposed to the old taitai who just shouts for what she wants, gets up and goes to the cart and pulls the baskets open herself.)

            I have noticed that in Hong Kong, initial N turns to L, so where you would say "nai wong baau" in Guangzhou, you would say "lai wong baau" in Hong Kong.

            1. re: Das Ubergeek

              For someone who is not a Cantonese speaker, you've done a pretty good job (I'm a Cantonese speaker). In the last few decades, the "N" sound has turned into an "L" sound in Hong Kong but much less so in Guangzhou. Also, in Hong Kong, they have started to drop the "gn" sound altogether, so the word for beef sounds like "au" instead of "gnau". Having been raised in the U.S., my Cantonese-speaking friends who've recently immigrated often tell me that I speak like their grandparents. Certainly, when I fight over the check, they think I'm ancient, even though I'm in my 30's.

              1. re: raytamsgv

                I've noticed that too with the dropping of the "gn." My Cantonese is about 30 years out of fashion. I thought I was just delusional, as my wife's niece and the actresses on the HK TV shows all use the new pronounciation.

        2. re: Das Ubergeek

          I'd also say don't try if you don't get all the little nuances of the language, the slightest inflection can make a huge difference. I never fail to have my husband's nieces and nephew (who barely speak any chinese themselves but can understand) on the floor laughing when I try to say something and I speak Taiwanese and can't get the nuances of Cantonese or Mandarin. I can get out the basic dimsum foods but I don't try with real sentences. The cart servers are too busy to try to figure it out.

        3. re: Ruth Lafler

          Thanks Ruth - I think our tastes are similar in dim sum and chocolates. ;)

          Good list for judging the basic quality. Chicken feet and tripe (not to mention pork blood) are hard to take for many.

          1. re: notmartha

            I actually tried pork blood today for the first time (in a different context)!

            I think many westerners don't "get" chicken feet. There are quite a few Asian dishes that are enjoyed for qualities that are not really considered important elements in Western cuisines (mostly certain kinds of textures, like the chewiness of tendons) and chicken feet are one of them. Thus, while I've trained myself to appreciate them, my Western sensibilities still doesn't encourage me to go "ooooh goodie, chicken feet!"

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I guess I am so used to chewiness texture that I take it for granted, and actually crave it. I think it's all about being open to new tasting sensations, and once it's familiar, may turn into a new favorite.

              Although the one taste I am still not very fond of is bitter (as in bitter melons, arugula is OK).

              1. re: notmartha

                You and I are definitely on the same wavelength -- it sounds like you're "bitter-sensitive" (I also can't stand coffee and beer), too.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  You are right. Never thought of it that way, but I can only tolerate coffee if it's extra mild w/ tons of cream and sugar, and can never stand beer.

        4. Great points made above. I just want to add that sometimes I ask for Jui-pu, which is a combo of crysanthemum and pu-erh. It's a common combination, and nicely balanced.

          5 Replies
          1. re: Pei

            Isn't the chrysanthemum / pu-erh combo called guk-bo?

            1. re: usr.bin.eat

              It probably is in Cantonese. I'm Mandarin-only, so my spelling is usually way off when it comes to dim sum.

              1. re: Pei

                Understand now. My mom orders that usually. Actually just realized I have a whole box of guk-bo in my drawer, but the english version just say pu-erh (and the chinese has chrysanthemum).

                I have to be more adventurous and try the other types of tea to see how that works with dim sum. Sometimes I stick too much with what I'd liked already.

              2. re: usr.bin.eat

                Guk-bo is the right pronounciation in Cantonese. Don't forget to get the rock sugar that traditionally comes with it. It's supposed to be drunk slightly sweetened.

            2. I always just have whatever tea is given to me at a meal. I'm not too picky as long as it's nice and hot.

              I love the shrimp rice rolls (does anyone know what to call them in Chinese?)
              Har gow
              stuffed eggplant
              beef tendon (I can't get any in albany - only in NYC)
              Beef spare ribs

              2 Replies
              1. re: yumcha

                The rice rolls are chang fen. Shrimp rice rolls would be xia chang fen (or more commonly shortened to xia chang). Excuse my poor Mandarin pinyin.

                1. re: yumcha

                  See my post above for the Cantonese names for a lot of the common foods (the dim sum we have here in the states are mostly Cantonese in origin, with some Shanghainese intruders).

                2. The different style of service doesn't necessarily equate to bad. The kind of service that you're looking for won't exist, unless you want to eat a place that's the PF Chang of dim sum. Tipping the kettle's top is definitely obvious, but expecting the waitstaff to hound your table like a hawk isn't going to happen. During dim sum, don't be afraid to flag someone down, they'll be expecting you to, and that's simply how it works.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: air

                    The difference between a formal banquet, where the host has only to raise his eyebrows and a flurry of people come over, and cart-style dim sum, where he who makes the most commotion gets served first, is impressive.

                    We saw a family of Japanese tourists at Ocean Star one time, they were completely bewildered... we offered to let them join our table, but they declined. We explained that it wasn't like Japan, you have to be very insistent about what you want.

                    1. re: air

                      I think it depends. I had waiters clear my plate once, but that was a long time ago. Minimally I expect them to clear away the empty baskets/dishes of dim sum. Sometimes they don't even do that, which really annoys me.

                      The order style dim sum's service tends to be better than the cart style too from my experience. Oh - I do flag them down. No one had ever accused me of being shy. ;)

                      1. re: notmartha

                        I thought they calculate your bill by counting the number of empty dishes you have. But I haven't been to dim sum in many years. I always eat alone, of course, and I end up ordering stuff from the first cart to wander along, and then I'm full and forced, like Tantalus, to watch the best stuff parading by, and I can't get it.

                        1. re: Brian S

                          Hah! I do this too. All the good dim sum places are an hour's drive from where my SO and I live so we always arrive starving and stuff ourselves with the first things to come our way. Since there are only 2 of us there is only so much we can try. Booo.

                          And nowadays they stamp a card on your table with designated boxes for the differently priced items. Then they just count the stamps at the end of the meal and bill you accordingly.

                          1. re: Brian S

                            I haven't been to a place where they counted the dishes in probably 20 years...I was always amazed that they could total it in their heads and add tax on the spot. Of course, I always wondered if that's what they were REALLY doing, or just sizing up the group and writing a number they were pretty sure we'd pay without question!

                            1. re: Brian S

                              That was an old way of doing it. Legend has it that it was discarded in favor of the current stamp system in a famous Hong Kong restaurant. Allegedly, the people figured out they could save some money by throwing the dishes out the window and into the harbor.

                              1. re: raytamsgv

                                ... or just wiping them off and stuffing the dishes in their purses.

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Or in the order off menu restaurants the items are all entered into the computer. Actually get the list of dishes on the receipt that the servers check off when they deliver the goods.

                                  The counting dishes type sounds similar to the revolving sushi places. If they count the dishes that means they can never clear any dirty ones out?

                                  1. re: notmartha

                                    Exactly. You'd be stuck with stacks of dirty plates/steaming baskets/etc until somebody came to tally up your bill. I've never actually seen anybody hide plates (or throw them out windows), but I know lots of people who have *claimed* to.

                                2. re: raytamsgv

                                  Ha, my grandmother had stories of those times... they did it by hiding dishes under the tables.

                          2. i like pu-erh (aka bo lay or bo nay) tea.

                            Fun gaw is one of my favorites. I'm not sure if that is the correct name, but it's basically a half moon shaped dumpling with a ruffled edge. It's stuffed with pork and vegetables, but the signature of this item is the peanuts.

                            I have to say that dofu fa, when it's still warm is very good.