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Oct 14, 2008 08:14 AM

Dim Sum Variety

I don't have a load experience with dim sum and I've never eaten it outside of Boston, but I really enjoy the dishes I've had, and I like the whole idea of picking your favorites off the carts. Every Boston (Cantonese) restaurant appears to serve the same thing, even though the clientele is heavily Asian. I was just wondering though, I read where there are hundreds of possible dim sum dishes but all I ever see are the same 30-50, and many are just variations (different wrappings) using the same (but damn tasty) shrimp filling. I've had salt & pepper or curry squid, clams, beef ribs, beef balls, and various buns, spring rolls, and other dumplings. I pass on the stuff like tripe and coagulated blood cakes, but, is that all there is? I've heard about Taiwanese or Shanghai style dim sum but menus I've seen were quite limited. Do dishes vary much between cities? Are there other dishes you have to order?

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  1. Sure there can be hundreds of variations, but most people just stick to the tried and true. The basic fillings are shrimp, pork, beef and chicken. There are also a variety of dessert dishes. 30-50 is a lot of varieties.

    Dim sum is strictly a Cantonese invention. Yes there are so called Shanghainese "dim sum", which consists of various small plates such as soup dumpling (Xiao Lung Bao), pan fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, boiled dumplings, leak cakes, various cold plates such as drunken chicken, smoked fish, etc.

    2 Replies
    1. re: PeterL

      I was just wondering if I was missing something. Most of the places come around with the same carts over and over with hardly any variation. I think the estimate of 30-50 dishes may be overly generous with most of the places I've been, but then again, I don't even count desserts (not a fan). Don't get me wrong, it's all good.

      1. re: Dinsdale45

        I think most Yum Cha (Dim Sum) places here in Melbourne would average around 50 to 150 separate dishes. Having said that, many of these are 'specialty' items and are made on request rather than doing the rounds of the restaurant.

        I have a malay-chinese partner and he and his family have open up a whole world of yum cha/dim sum that would have gone unnoticed if I had only ever gone in the company of other white people.

        The other thing is that many of the dishes are variation on theme, so what may look like only 50 different dishes could in fact represent a larger selection.

        Usually when we go out for yum cha include amongst the dishes will be these favourites (excuse the horrendous phonetic spellings some of these I've never heard referred to in english):

        Hum soy go - go as in got w/out the 't' sound - (Egg shaped deep fried doughy like pastry containing minced pork, with finely chopped shitake mushrooms and garlic)

        Siu mai (minced pork wrapped dumpling topped with roe)

        Cheong fan - Prawn or shredded Char siew (BBQ pork) wrapped in a large sheet of rice noodle then drizzled with a dark soy (possible mixed with hoi sin or oyster sauce)

        Loh mai gai - sticky rice with pork.chicken, egg yolk, chinese sausage, shitake mushrooms and other assorted goodies wrapped in a banana leave and baked (there is also a version of this by a different name that is effectively fried sticky rice)

        Char siew bao - BBQ pork buns (my partner loves them)

        lo bak go (grilled daikon mixture cut into squares)

        Stuffed tofu (usually stuffed with prawn meat)

        Har gau (prawn dumpling - offered in a mind boggling array of combinations - we usually opt for prawn and chive or prawn with what I think is shredded bamboo shoots)

        Pai gwa - pork spare ribs simmered in an amazingly garlicky sauce (a definite no no if you're planning on conducting conversation with anyone other than close family and friends!).

        Chicken feet - have to say I'm not a big fan, sure it tastes alright but I've never been able to get past the sensation of it being like sucking a glove of a chicken's foot.

        As a general preference we avoid the deep fried things but occasionally we'll get salt/pepper squid/octopus, fried whitebait, spring rolls (very, very occasionally). Steamed gai lan with oyster sauce also makes a regular appearance. My partner's brother really likes what looks like sliced pickled pork belly, or a small plate of char siew, or roast pork and/or duck.

    2. Having eaten in Boston's Chinatown before, I think there are a lot more dim sum choices outside of Boston in areas such as the Bay area, NYC, and of course, Hong Kong. In NYC, there's a dim sum place that serves an array of "nouveau" dim sum which includes dumplings with mayonaise and dumplings with shark's fin. With cheung fun, the standard fillings I tend to see are shrimp, beef and fried dough. But in Oakland, I was lucky enough to try one filled with pork and minced vegetables. You'll generally see turnip and taro cakes. But there's a place in Manhattan that also carries pumpkin cakes. If you go to Toronto, there's Lai Wah Heen that specializes in dim sum that you probably won't find in most restaurants. Here is the menu:

      As you can see, there are so many variations out there. But most restaurants carry the same 30-50. In fact, there is a dim sum restaurant in Riverdale, NY that only has about 10-12 varieties.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Miss Needle

        Ok, now I'm totally craving dim sum. Thanks for posting that link - love seeing the variety available! :)

      2. PeterL is right, 30 to 50 is A LOT. I'd be hard pressed to find more than 30 let alone 20 unique varieties, unless you are including appetizer plates in the push carts like Cantonese BBQ pork, suckling pig, marinated cold appetizers like jellyfish, Japanese style wakame salad, congeee, and stir fry rice/noodle mini plates that aren't technically part of the group but are lumped in anyway.

        Many dim sum restaurants tend to stick with the classics and tried & true's and unless it is an area where there is a lot of competition (and not just for to see who sells the most, makes the most money, and consumes the least overhead) you will find almost no innovation or difference, except in the quality and slight variation of preparation.

        Of the places that do innovation, a percentage might actually back to basics, like for example using sour plum to steam with pork spare ribs (instead of the tried and true black bean sauce) that has been around for years and years in Hong Kong, but perhaps hasn't made its rotation overseas. I doubt most non Chinese are ready for pork liver siu mai, but that's another uber old school item. One of my favorites is stewed fish head (with tons of meat in the cheeks), very rarely seen, but also good ol' school.

        There are places in Hong Kong that make user of lobster and abalone in dim sum, maybe lobster gow (long ha gow) and abalone siu mai. However it is way too costly to make and the risk of actually selling them is the same.

        There are also places in HK that reinvent dim sum presentation, by making the dumplings in the shape of animals, sea creatures etc. Fun to look at and just as delicious. Won't find that in the US.

        Bottom line, the real good dim sum places shouldn't saturate your varieties with deep fried items. Takes a lot more skill and labor/time to make the good steamed stuff.

        Wikipedia English only lists the common varieties

        But look at the equivalent Chinese page. a whole lot more (100+ things inclusive of desserts and some plates


        (although I am not sure why "sweet soy sauce" is an item!)

        1. The suburbs around Washington DC have several fantastic dim sum cart restaurants. One south of DC, Marks Duck House, has pix of 70 or so of their offerings:

          But, the best dim sum meal ever was in San Francisco at Yank Sing:

          3 Replies
          1. re: Lydia R

            I've been in DC for the past decade or so, but it really doesn't hold a candle to what's available in Toronto, Vancouver, or Los Angeles. Don't get me wrong, it's good, but can't compare. Mark's Duck House is okay, but these days we prefer Oriental East in Silver Spring, MD.

            1. re: Lydia R

              Mark's Duck House is good for No Va but doesn't compare to other areas of the country. I never knew they had a website. They have the basics that go around in carts, but I don't think I've ever seen that many different types of dishes on the carts but a lot of what is on that page you posted can be ordered off the menu. That's one thing to keep in mind with dimsum--the most popular items go around but you can order off the menu to supplement.

              1. re: Lydia R

                if only mark's duck house food tasted as good as their photos look.....

              2. Just because the clientele is heavily Asian does not necessarily mean that the places are the best in terms of quality or diversity. There are other factors:

                1. Skill of the cooks: not everyone has the same skill levels.
                2. Customers' expectation: restaurants serve only what customers expect. Everything else is a waste of money. Some expect dim sum to be really cheap, but I've been to places where dim sum is quite pricey (about $4 per dish). True, you get lots of unusual stuff, but you pay for it.
                3. Customers' familiarity with dim sum: just because they are Asian does not necessarily mean they know dim sum. Dim sum is Cantonese, and lots of Chinese folks from other regions have no idea what to order for dim sum.

                In the SF and LA area, there is probably greater variety of dishes. The staples, of which you have listed some, are generally quite common. Other stuff is harder to find and more expensive.