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dim sum questions

alyseb Jan 14, 2010 10:36 AM

Ok, I admit it. I have never had dim sum before.

On Saturday, I will be going to a Chinatown restaurant in Boston or dim sum. I'm looking for some hints so I do not commit any significant social faux pas.

I would greatly appreciate some guidance and coaching from those experienced in the dim sum process.

How do I order? How do I know what items being pushed around on the carts?

Any suggestions about things I *must* try or should avoid? I am not an exceptionally adventurous eater.

Is the menu also available during dim sum?

What's the likelihood of dim sum items containing MSG? It's not an allergy per se so I try not to make a "big deal" out of it, but I get migraines if I consume MSG.

Thanks in advance.

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    FrankD RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 03:59 PM

    Dim sum is pretty informal, especially if it's cart service. (If it's menu service, it's usually a little nicer - cloth tablecloths instead of plastic, for example.) At most places, they'll slap a pot of tea down on the table, along with a small plate, tea cup, and chopsticks. You'll have to speak up if you want something else to drink, or need a knife and fork.

    When the carts come by, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the cart lady to lift up the lids on steamers and take a look. Note that there will not be much beef - pretty much everything is chicken, pork, or seafood. And they may use parts that turn you off (like chicken feet or pig intestines).

    Standards include "shui mai" (ground pork wrapped in cabbage, usually with some fish roe on top), spare ribs in black bean sauce, "har gow" (shrimp in a light wrapper), sticky rice with bits of pork and veg wrapped in a lotus leaf, cheong fun (sheets of rice noodle rolled around various meats - they'll look like white cigars), char siu bao (a bun which is either steamed or baked, and filled with BBQ pork - my fave), taro or turnip cake - this is mashed up taro or turnip mixed in with some chopped veg, and then cut into rectangles and pan fried. Taro cake is usually served with a hot chili sauce - be careful!

    Other dumplings may be offered ( a common one includes pork and peanuts), and you'll probably see tiny spring rolls. Things that might set you back include chicken feet, and whole baby cuttlefish (often in a curry sauce). Some places offer deep fried squid and fried noodles off the cart; others make you order it as a "special". You can almost always get various types of congee - a rice porridge - again, usually as a special. If a dish requires a special sauce, it is provided with the dish, but usually, red chili sauce and hot mustard are on the table as well.

    Larger dishes are not offered on the carts, but can be ordered off the menu. However, the beauty of dim sum is most plates only have three or four dumplings, buns, etc. on them.If you don't like something, it's not like you wasted $10 on the dish; most are between $2-3 per plate. So it's not considered bad form to select something, try a bit, and just leave the rest if you don't like it. Note: If you're in a large party, people may ask for three or four plates of something at once because you never know if it's going to show up again!

    People tend to start eating as soon as the food hits the table. It's good form to refill your neighbour's tea cup before you fill your own. If the tea pot is empty or nearly so, lift off the top and place it to one side. If your chopstick skills need work, pick up the plate or steamer, move it close to your plate, and slide the item onto the plate; it looks pretty bad to lean halfway across the table and stab ineffectually at something. (And don't be embarrassed to ask for a knife and fork if you need it; no one will think the less of you.) If a dish is ordered for the table, it will usually be presented with its own pair of chopsticks or a serving spoon/fork. You use the provided chopsticks to transfer food to your plate or bowl, and then use your own sticks to eat it. It's considered bad form to use your own chopsticks to root around in the communal dish.

    Finally, if the place does have plastic tablecloths and it's busy, don't be surprised if, as you are standing up to leave, a waiter scurries over, picks up the corners, and clears the entire table in an instant, then motions over a waiting party before you even have your coats on. It's all about the turnover, baby!

    2 Replies
    1. re: FrankD
      Quine RE: FrankD Jan 15, 2010 01:21 AM

      WOW, I just had to jump in here re some chopsticks. NEVER "Stab" anything with chopsticks, it's considered so rude that a whole room can stop to stare at you in horror.
      And never place your end of the chopsticks in a community bowl to take something out, you reverse them to the end you did *not* put in your mouth (make sense now?) and use that to gently take out an exact piece, rooting around is very bad form true. That said.

      Be gentle on yourself, observe and let that help guide you. I am sure your friend will as well.
      I greatly prefer the cart service places. Depending on places and times, these can be loud and boisterous, in fun hectic large family dinner kinda way, focus is on food not decor. Do not be surprised if you are a party of two and you are shown to a table for 10. Other people will be shown to the table as well to fill it, or you will be shown to a table to help fill one. You politely share the space, most often gently being invisible to each other. Needless to say that observing is not staring. Do one not the other.

      Since you are very open to the experience both as a dining style and taste: if the food looks good to you, try it! If your friend says it is good, try it. If the cart woman keeps giving you a very subtle look of "You really don't want this", trust that. They have a good deal of experience knowing what "new" people might not like or want to try. chicken feet are obvious, snails are obvious, other parts you might not want to try might not be so obvious on the dishes. If you taste something you do not like, it's OK.
      yes assume MSG,

      I think you will have a great time and become a fan!

      Sorry for the writing style, I am up way too early in the Am by mistake.

      1. re: Quine
        Silverjay RE: Quine Jan 16, 2010 03:18 AM

        This isn't a chopsticks etiquette thread- there's been a few of them the last couple of years. But (gently) stabbing items and using the business end of chopsticks for communal dishes is common for casual dining, public or private, with family or close friends. And actually, reversing your chopsticks in close company may be seen as an awkward hygiene fetish akin to passing a bottle to someone for a drink and having them make a scene of rubbing it clean with a napkin before they take a sip themselves. Rooting around for tasty items is of course bad form, but towards the end of the meal when people get full and have already tried the dish, it's not unusual.

    2. Chemicalkinetics RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 05:27 PM

      If you want to attend a dim sum mean in Chinatown, then you should go there with at least one person who is very familiar with it. If you are not an adventurous person, you definitely should not go alone.

      Dim Sum items have a good likelihood containing MSG.

      To be honest, I won't recommend you to go there just from the questions you have posts. Almost every single question is like a red flag.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Chemicalkinetics
        klyeoh RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 14, 2010 06:46 PM

        LOL! I agree with you.
        However, if alyseb decided to discount your advice & brave it, maybe she can look at this little dim sum guide (from SF's Ton Kiang): http://www.tonkiang.net/Dim%20Sum.html

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics
          KristieB RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 14, 2010 08:06 PM

          I completely disagree with you...If Alyseb never tries new things how will he/she expand her/his horizons?? Most of the dishes I've had for dim sum weren't scary or gross.

          Alyseb...you be brave and try this new experience of dim sum. Most of the waitress/waiters can steer you to dishes that you will enjoy. Good luck and happy eating.

          1. re: KristieB
            Chemicalkinetics RE: KristieB Jan 14, 2010 08:43 PM


            Did I actually say "Alyseb please do not ever tries new things"? Did I say "Dim sum dishes are scary and gross"? I grew up Yum Cha 飲茶 as young as I can remember and have great respect of it. I have eaten Hong Kong Canontese Dim Sum to Northern Chinese Dim Sum. I certainly do not think any is scary or gross. I enjoy the back fermented bean chicken feet as much as the vinegar dipping chicken feet. Of course, what I really love is the Pig & Chicken Blood (However, I must say I have not find any good Pig &Chicken Blood in the East Coast). So, please stop the straw man arguments about I told Alyset to never try new things or that Dim Sum dishes are gross.

            I am giving a honest reply. If a person said I like to try to "this" but also prefer not to have A, B and C, and yet A, B and C closely associate with "this"...

          2. re: Chemicalkinetics
            RGC1982 RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 15, 2010 02:40 PM

            I wouldn't go THAT far. Certainly the OP should be fine with things like steamed veggies and fried rice, and dumplings of different kinds.

            However, the OP needs to ask herself if this sensitivity to MSG is serious, meaning, will the OP will absolutely get a migraine from MSG, or is this something less than that. I have been known to get a headache myself from too much MSG (usually from Chinese soups), but it has never bothered me after eating dim sum. If it is a big issue, don't bother and I agree it is a big red flag. .

          3. howlin RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 06:25 PM

            my first time i was by myself ,dont be scared just follow these posts on ch and youll do ok .dont be afraid of chicken feet either ,theyre not bab ,but any dumpling of spring roll ,will do.experimentation is fun will dim sum.

            1. PeterL RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 06:38 PM

              By yourself? I suggest you go early, like when the place opens. A single person can't really enjoy too many dishes. You need at least another person, maybe 9 other persons, to share with you so you can taste as many different dishes as you can. Yes the regular menu will also be available, but why bother? MSG depends on which restaurant. If they don't specify no MSG, it's likely they'll use it.

              First thing they'll ask you is what kind of tea? You may want to have something in mind, such as jasmine, chrystimum, po'er, etc.

              Does this restaurant has cart service? If so you can ask to see what's inside the containers. Usually I order har gau (shrimp dumplings), shui mai (port dumplings), char shui bao (steamed or baked BBQ pork buns), sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, etc.

              1. ipsedixit RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 07:03 PM

                Going to dim sum alone would be a social faux pas.

                Other than that, pretty much anything else goes.

                And it would probably also behoove you to go with someone who is Chinese and speaks the language (either Cantonese or Mandarin). Mitigates the probability that you'll get shafted by the cart ladies, assuming it's cart-style and not menu-style.

                20 Replies
                1. re: ipsedixit
                  howlin RE: ipsedixit Jan 14, 2010 08:08 PM

                  a social faux pas? no. who wrote that rule?aint true.the more the better but you should not feel ashamed about going alone,anyone that has a problem with that would get my middle finger right in there face.simple as that ,who the hell is thinking that....snobs

                  1. re: howlin
                    taiwanesesmalleats RE: howlin Jan 14, 2010 09:17 PM

                    The origin of dim sum came from communal times of drinking tea. The food was meant to accompany the tea as snacks. Dim sum is very much a bonding time and it's very traditional for people to do so in families. Even though dim sum is more enjoyable with a group, I find that a group over 6-8 is difficult, especially when it's filled with less adventurous folk who are not willing to dive into the really good stuff like phoenix talons and stewed intestine. This isn't to say you can't go alone. It's just more fun.

                    1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                      howlin RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 14, 2010 10:52 PM

                      thats why i said the more the better.but i felt that ipsedixits statement was oppressive .i travel a bit alone and am always hesitant to try someplace because im solo,usaully i force myself,but when somebody actually says its"wrong"to do something like that i get ....miffed..comprende?

                      1. re: howlin
                        taiwanesesmalleats RE: howlin Jan 15, 2010 08:46 AM

                        It isn't wrong per say. It's just against norms. Sure you might get funny looks, but whatever. Enjoy the tea and food.

                        1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                          limster RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 15, 2010 09:27 AM

                          Optimal number of people is usually a multiple of 3, a serving sizes come in 3 or 4.

                          1. re: limster
                            ipsedixit RE: limster Jan 15, 2010 09:55 AM

                            By that logic, the optimal number of people could also be 6, 8, 9, 12, etc.

                            1. re: ipsedixit
                              limster RE: ipsedixit Jan 15, 2010 11:04 AM

                              Yep, that's why I wrote "a multiple of 3" above, which covers all the numbers you mentioned.

                              1. re: limster
                                ipsedixit RE: limster Jan 15, 2010 11:13 AM

                                Actually, I wonder ... is there an optimal number of diners for dim sum?

                                Would it be 3 because many dishes (i.e. shumai, baos, etc.) come in multiples of 3 -- although many dishes are not so easily divisible like the bamboo wrapped glutinous rice or the Chinese brocoli (gai lan).

                                Would it be something like 8-10 so you can get one of this big tables with the lazy susan?


                                1. re: ipsedixit
                                  Chemicalkinetics RE: ipsedixit Jan 15, 2010 11:42 AM


                                  In my opinion, 3-4 is still the optimal numbers, not really just from the food point of view, which really is secondary. It is also about the chance to get a table and the ability to talk to each other and all. The idea of getting exactly the same number of foods for everyone is overrated because that in fact, goes against the Yum Char spirit. We are not talking about Western dining where everyone has to get the same number of foods. If you get 4 Siu Ma for 3 people, I am sure somone can have an extra piece. If you have order a two lotus leaf wrap glutinous rice, I am sure people can share that and someone may not even want it anyway. (Is that what you mean by bamboo wrapped glutinous rice?)

                                  Seriously. Think about any challenge you have experienced in Yum Char. How many times have you gone home and say "Man, someone ate two Siu Ma and I only ate one!" vs "Man, we stood there for 25 min because there was no table for party of 12" vs "Man, I couldn't see what the carts were carrying because I was sitting on the far side of the huge 12 people table" vs "Man, I couldn't hear what Joe was saying because he sat so far away and the restaurant background was so loud"

                            2. re: limster
                              taiwanesesmalleats RE: limster Jan 15, 2010 10:02 AM

                              Which is why when I posted above, I prefer 6-8 people max.

                            3. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                              FrankD RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 15, 2010 03:48 PM

                              Oh, foo. I've gone to many dim sum places in Hong Kong, and seen single businessmen come in, bury themselves behind a newspaper, and eat for a while without anyone seeming to notice or care.

                      2. re: ipsedixit
                        PeterL RE: ipsedixit Jan 15, 2010 09:33 AM

                        No social faux pas indeed. Generations of residents in HK regularly go dim sum alone, with their caged birds and newspaper. It is indeed tradition.

                        1. re: PeterL
                          Chemicalkinetics RE: PeterL Jan 15, 2010 09:49 AM

                          Well, that is a much older generation. It is not normal to see people carry bird cage to restaurant anymore. You are talking about a time when people have bird sing competitions and even bird fighting competitions.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                            PeterL RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 16, 2010 11:11 AM

                            Aside from the bird cages, it's still totally acceptable for single dim sum diners. And those birds are highly valued, they certainly don't fight.

                            1. re: PeterL
                              Chemicalkinetics RE: PeterL Jan 16, 2010 12:37 PM


                              I know. It is accepted to have single diner, but often you will get paired up with other people if you are in a busy Dim Sum place.

                              As for birds, there are two kinds, the singing kind and the fighting kind. If you think highly valued bird = no fighting, then I like to ask you think: "Dog Fighting". Dogs which participate in dog fights are extremely valuable. They worth much more than normal dogs. Same as cock fighting, cocks which fight actually are sold at much higher price than a normal chicken.

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                PeterL RE: Chemicalkinetics Feb 26, 2010 06:33 PM

                                I only know of fighting chickens, and chickens are birds. The kind they bring to dim sum don't fight.

                          2. re: PeterL
                            ipsedixit RE: PeterL Jan 15, 2010 09:57 AM

                            Just because it might be tradition (and I'm not saying it is tradition), doesn't make it necessarily socially acceptable.

                            1. re: ipsedixit
                              K K RE: ipsedixit Jan 15, 2010 01:18 PM

                              I've seen some old dudes (who appear to be regulars) hog a table for two all to themselves, and all they have is a pot of tea at least for the first 1.5 hours, with newspaper (no bird), and this is in the USA. Bird or not, there are cultural exceptions.

                              Also eating dim sum solo isn't a bad thing. I've done it a few times, although yes it is more fun to have another person so you can have more variety.

                              On the flipside, Northern dim sum, let's take that example. How many of you have piggeg out and consume one whole steamer of xiaolongbao to yourself at a Shanghainese type restaurant? Japanese tourists who travel solo do this at Din Tai Fung Taipei, and I've seen some big hungry dudes eat two steamers of DTF at the one in Arcadia. It is also perfectly acceptable to have northern dim sum by yourself...whether it's a hot soymilk with fried cruller stick, or a sticky rice roll.

                              I think in terms of practicality, it is more challenging being able to go to a hot pot restaurant and eat the meats and vegetables all by yourself (unless it is Taiwan or China or HK, where you can have a personalized mini hot pot, or some shabu restaurant in the US that offers individual size). Dim sum at least going solo you can control yourself.

                              1. re: K K
                                DallasDude RE: K K Jan 15, 2010 01:53 PM

                                Truly the optimal number is one. I did today and ordered what I liked, and ate it all.

                          3. re: ipsedixit
                            gloriousfood RE: ipsedixit Jan 16, 2010 01:39 PM

                            Really? I've had dim sum from Manhattan to Sydney and have always found senior citizens eating by themselves and reading the newspaper. No one gave them a second glance. I always thought that was pretty cool.

                          4. monku RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 07:06 PM

                            As soon as you sit down the waiter will come over and mumble what kind of tea you want. There is a tea/set up charge of a buck or two per person (includes kids and infants), no way around it.

                            Don't be afraid to say "no thank you,' if there's something you don't like or afraid to experiment with. You didn't say if you were going alone or with other people, but it's pretty easy to over order. Looks like feet or organ parts it probably is. If you see something you might like just get it because it might not come around again. The regular menu is always available so if you want something off the menu order it from the waiter and expect to wait for it.

                            Assume everything will have MSG in it, don't even bother to ask...you've been warned. Consume plenty of water, I hear that cut's down on the MSG effect. Or make sure you have your Tylenol with you.

                            When you're finished flag down the waiter for you bill, don't wait for it. They won't automatically bring it because many people linger around. When the waiter presents you with the bill be prepared to pay right then and there if it's a busy place.

                            25 Replies
                            1. re: monku
                              alyseb RE: monku Jan 14, 2010 07:58 PM

                              Thank you all for your explanations. I appreciate your responses and helpful hints. I read the link to the guide, it was great.

                              The must- have dishes sound delicious. I love dumplings. Do they have soup dumplings at dim sum? But, I'm not so sure about the chicken feet though.

                              I apologize for asking "red flag" questions. To clarify, I am willing to try new experiences--I have just not had the opportunity to go to dim sum and am really looking forward to it. Although I am not an adventurous eater, I will try *most* things once for the experience.

                              I will be going with someone who has been to Chinatown dim sum before and he selected the restaurant so that it an advantage.

                              And, as for the MSG, I will risk a headache for the experience, it certainly seems like it's going to be interesting and delicious.

                              Thanks again.

                              1. re: alyseb
                                taiwanesesmalleats RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 09:19 PM

                                I assume by soup dumplings you mean xiao long bao. Dim sum places will serve them on occasion, but almost never do them correctly. Dim sum is very Cantonese focused whereas soup dumplings are Shanghainese in origin.

                                1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                  Chemicalkinetics RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 14, 2010 09:43 PM


                                  There are different soup dumplings. There are the dumplings where they bath in soup, wonton is as such, right?


                                  There are the xiao long bao you mentioned.

                                  Those are not really unique to dim sum as you know. The infamous ones are the soup filled dumpling (灌湯餃). This includes for example, shake fin soup filled dumpling (魚翅灌湯餃) and others. Absolutely wonderful. Considered the elite of Dim Sum. I highly recommend you to try it, Taiwanesesmalleats.


                                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                    taiwanesesmalleats RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 15, 2010 08:44 AM

                                    Sigh. This why I am annoyed when people call xiao long bao soup dumplings. Only confusion ensues. I know what wontons are. And I know exactly what those shark fin dumplings are too.

                                    I surmise that 90% of the time on the boards when people ask about soup dumplings, it isn't for dumplings in soup. It's for xiao long bao which are NOT dumplings. I also personally don't call wontons, soup dumplings, even in soup. I call it wonton soup.

                                    1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                      ipsedixit RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 15, 2010 08:56 AM

                                      Finally! Someone that actually shares my angst towards the term "dumpling" as used vis-a-vis things like XLB and shumai ...


                                      1. re: ipsedixit
                                        Chemicalkinetics RE: ipsedixit Jan 15, 2010 09:24 AM

                                        Hi Taiwan and ipsed,

                                        Well, "dumplings" are probably a good easy way to communicate with people who have never had Chinese foods. You got to start somewhere. Calling Wonton as dumplings is not bad, in my opinion. But calling Xiao Long Bao as dumplings is a bit too much for me because Xiao Long Bao are really more buns than dumplings, so I think it is probably not the best term.

                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                          taiwanesesmalleats RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 15, 2010 10:00 AM

                                          The problem is if people start calling all those things "dumplings" you run into problems when if they go into a restaurant and ask for dumplings. It creates this idea in people's heads that a dumpling is a catch-all when it really isn't. I'd much rather teach people the correct term so they can distinguish the various food items. What's difficult about teaching someone what a wonton is? I'm just personally a fan of doing things correctly the first time around.

                                          1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                            harryharry RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 15, 2010 12:03 PM

                                            Can you explain why "soup dumplings" are not dumplings? It's a very general term and seems to describe the item pretty well. And, I've only ever gotten "soup dumplings" when I've ordered soup dumplings ;-)

                                            1. re: harryharry
                                              Chemicalkinetics RE: harryharry Jan 15, 2010 12:07 PM


                                              They are dumplings of course, by definition in fact. As you pointed out, it is a very general term which describes many international foods from Italian to Chinese to Indian to...

                                              The challenge comes from it is indeed a very general term. So there are many things in Chinese cuisine which can fit easily to the word dumplings. As such, you may not get exactly what you want when you ask for "dumpling". Imagine if I go to an Italian restaurant and ask for "pasta", well, I will probably get different kind of pasta evey time.

                                              1. re: harryharry
                                                taiwanesesmalleats RE: harryharry Jan 15, 2010 04:52 PM

                                                That's because the phrase soup dumplings has become ingrained into how people order and Chinese restaurants have followed suit in order to sell their product. The reason soup dumplings should not be known as dumplings is because they are xiao long bao. When one speaks of dumplings in the Chinese sense, they are meant to refer to jiao tze which end up either boiled, steamed or pan fried. Dumplings are more a Northern item using flour dough. Xiao long bao are Shanghai in origin. The weird thing is that bao or buns as they're translated into English, tend to use a risen dough but xiao long bao do not use risen dough. They are neither true dumplings in the jiao tze sense nor fully baos. They are xiao long bao, a unique creation.

                                                1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                                  thew RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 16, 2010 05:47 AM

                                                  how are they not "true dumplings?"

                                                  1. re: thew
                                                    Chemicalkinetics RE: thew Jan 16, 2010 01:34 PM

                                                    Because Taiwanesesmalleats said so. Period. End of story.

                                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                      ipsedixit RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 16, 2010 06:28 PM

                                                      This is really a cultural and language thing; unless you grew up eating and making Chinese dumplings, wontons, XLB, baos, etc. it would be hard to understand, much less appreciate, the differences.

                                                      1. re: ipsedixit
                                                        Chemicalkinetics RE: ipsedixit Jan 16, 2010 07:26 PM


                                                        :) Why addressing to me? I agree with you. I think people can use whatever terms they like, as the English names for these Chinese items are still evolving. I was being funny when I said "Because Taiwanesesmalleats said so. Period. End of story"

                                                        1. re: ipsedixit
                                                          thew RE: ipsedixit Jan 17, 2010 08:09 AM

                                                          that is the most condescending possible answer. try to explain it to me, and allow us both to see if i could understand, or shockingly, even appreciate the difference.

                                                          if the only difference is the words used in chinese, then there is no real difference. if there is an actual physical difference i think you should be able to state what those differences are.

                                                          1. re: thew
                                                            taiwanesesmalleats RE: thew Jan 17, 2010 08:43 AM

                                                            I already explained the difference in my above posting. It's a matter of type of dough used and an issue of shape. Xiao long bao are neither fully "dumplings" nor are they fully baos. In my mind they're a weird hybrid of the two and as such, I prefer using their specific name rather a generic term that doesn't tell the full picture. Therefore, I call them xiao long bao.

                                                            1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                                              Chemicalkinetics RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 17, 2010 08:54 AM

                                                              Yet, Xiao Long Bao's Chinese name is as confusing as it can be. They are not the typical "bao"/buns, yet they are called as such. So how come it is ok to refer it using a generic Chinese word: Bao, and not a generic English words like dumplings. In fact, it is more of a dumpling than a bun, isn't it?

                                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                taiwanesesmalleats RE: Chemicalkinetics Jan 17, 2010 09:12 AM

                                                                That's probably a better question than why aren't they dumplings. I think it's because they actually look more like baos than a dumpling. If you were to bring XLB and ask a Chinese person if they were dumplings, using Chinese, I'd think you'd get a funny look. They'd probably say it's more reminiscent of a bao, but with unrisen skin. I don't know the full evolution of XLB, but I think it's a derivative of the tang bao, or soup bun.

                                                                1. re: taiwanesesmalleats
                                                                  limster RE: taiwanesesmalleats Jan 17, 2010 09:44 AM

                                                                  To add to the confusion, in Shanghai, where XLB comes from, they're more often called xiao3 long2 man2 tou2.

                                                                  1. re: limster
                                                                    Chemicalkinetics RE: limster Jan 17, 2010 02:17 PM


                                                                    ha ha ha ha.

                                                            2. re: thew
                                                              ipsedixit RE: thew Jan 17, 2010 10:06 AM


                                                              Apologies if you took my post the wrong way; certainly not meant to be condescending in any manner. Just trying to point out that unless you grew up eating dumplings and making them it's really hard to explain it in English.

                                                              It sort of like asking an Italian why focaccia isn't technically considered pizza.


                                                              1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                thew RE: ipsedixit Jan 17, 2010 12:14 PM

                                                                just say - the dough is thicker, or slicker, or lighter, or whiter, or chewier or gooier. it's not that hard

                                      2. re: alyseb
                                        klyeoh RE: alyseb Jan 14, 2010 09:45 PM

                                        If you're with a friend who's done it before, you should be okay. FYI, the "Big Four" items to have in a dim sum restaurant are:

                                        1) siu mai - usually come in a basket of four. These are steamed little dumplings made of a mixture of minced pork & shrimp, topped with the minutest dollop of orange shrimp roe;
                                        2) har kow - these come in a basket of three: steamed shrimp dumplings wrapped in pretty, translucent rice-flour wrappers;
                                        3) char-siu bao - come in threes as well: steamed barbecued-caramelised pork buns;
                                        4) loh mai kai - steamed glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf, the rice is flavored/filled with stewed pork/chicken.

                                        Besides starting off with these 4, you may want to try these other basic options:
                                        5) Cheong fun, long rolls of steamed rice noodles. These may contain either barbecued pork (char-siu) or shrimps, or even scallops in some restaurants.
                                        6) Rice congee - these are savory Chinese rice porridge, usually flavoured with chicken/pork/ginger.

                                        1. re: alyseb
                                          Jennalynn RE: alyseb Jan 16, 2010 01:30 PM

                                          Go to dim sum... alone or with friends. Don't let any of the naysayers here dissuade you.

                                          Unless you grab food off the carts (although I have seen older Chinese women do that when something that sells out fast comes around) or stand up and scream "What the hell is all this crazy food?!"... You really won't make any mistakes that are of any consequence.

                                          You're not Chinese, I'm assuming, so no one will expect you to understand everything , especially the language.

                                          I'm a white Jewish girl from NYC now living in LA... I eat dim sum monthly. Alone or in groups. You'll LOVE it. Go... point at what looks interesting... try stuff even if you have no idea what it is. You'll have fun and be full I guarantee!

                                          1. re: Jennalynn
                                            EWSflash RE: Jennalynn Feb 26, 2010 05:45 PM

                                            What Jennalyn said!

                                      3. l
                                        lemons RE: alyseb Jan 15, 2010 09:04 AM

                                        Watch for the little custard tarts. These are not at all exotic, but the pastry is often exquisite and the most reluctant eater should be very happy with them, no exotica at all in their flavors. A big yes, also, to the char siu bao, fluffy white bread-type things that because they're steamed don't brown. Inside is barbecued (Chinese-style barbecue, of course) pork, absolutely yummy. It's a good way to explore the food.

                                        And for crying out loud, if you're by yourself, go right ahead. The first maybe ten times I ate dim sum, I was by myself, in cities across the US and London, and I never got any strange looks or ill treatment. A little brusque at times, but that seemed to be being true for the tables around me. Go for it!

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: lemons
                                          DallasDude RE: lemons Jan 15, 2010 09:29 AM

                                          I do dim sum often by myself and my ipod. I prefer to be with friends, but when I have a hankering I go. In fact, I will go for dim sum now. Or perhaps my go to xlb place...

                                        2. thew RE: alyseb Jan 15, 2010 09:55 AM

                                          don;t worry about social faux pas. just enjoy. try anything. allow yourself permission to try extra weird items, and allow yourself to not eat any you dont like.

                                          1. parabolicaer RE: alyseb Jan 16, 2010 09:01 AM

                                            I agree with the posters who recommend the "just go and enjoy yourself" route. As many have mentioned, dim sum is an informal type of service, not much different from Sunday brunch for a number of American families. Unless you're picking your nose at the table, there's really not much in social faux pas that you need to worry about. When my Chinese family and I used to go out for dim sum, we were usually too busy talking or flagging down the cart ladies to notice what people at other tables were doing.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: parabolicaer
                                              thew RE: parabolicaer Jan 16, 2010 09:47 AM

                                              i'll go even further. dim sum, or 5 star - why worry about what strangers at other tables think?

                                              1. re: thew
                                                parabolicaer RE: thew Jan 16, 2010 09:55 AM

                                                You are correct, of course. I limited my example to dim sum to hopefully alleviate any concerns the OP may have had.

                                            2. Quine RE: alyseb Jan 17, 2010 08:14 AM

                                              OK, it's Sunday!! How was it? Did you have fun? enjoy? Can't wait to go back?

                                              8 Replies
                                              1. re: Quine
                                                BarmyFotheringayPhipps RE: Quine Jan 17, 2010 12:24 PM

                                                Also, which place in Boston's Chinatown did you go to? China Pearl? Hei La Moon? Winsor?

                                                1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps
                                                  harryharry RE: BarmyFotheringayPhipps Jan 17, 2010 02:17 PM

                                                  Which is the one that is small (ish), upstairs and doesn't have cart service? I thought it was really good!

                                                  1. re: harryharry
                                                    alyseb RE: harryharry Jan 17, 2010 07:06 PM

                                                    It was a success! I am now proudly say that I have had dim sum. And, I appreciate the coaching of the CH Experts.

                                                    I must admit that it was a very enjoyable experience. It is a chaotic scene, but it was nice.

                                                    China Pearl was the destination.

                                                    My personal favorites:

                                                    About six different shu mai. Some were pan fried, some were steamed. All were delicious.

                                                    spring rolls

                                                    crispy fried squid

                                                    dishes of noodles with shrimp and veggies

                                                    a water chestnut cake

                                                    sweet cream buns

                                                    char siu bao ( the BBQ pork one.)

                                                    Yes, they had xiao long bao...I was very excited. (and, thank you Chowhounders for teaching me to not call them "soup dumplings.") But, I love them. I really do.

                                                    I avoided the chicken feet. I wanted to like the congee, I really did. I would try it again, but I found the texture to be unpleasing...almost gloppy for lack of a more articulate descriptive term.

                                                    Best of all, no headache from the MSG. An added benefit!

                                                    And, I'm looking forward to a return trip.

                                                    1. re: alyseb
                                                      monku RE: alyseb Jan 17, 2010 07:30 PM

                                                      Glad to hear it went well. You probably need a little help with the terminology.
                                                      Char sui is BBQ pork
                                                      There is only one Shu mai the basic minced pork dumpling.

                                                      Glad to hear there were no MSG headaches.

                                                      1. re: monku
                                                        alyseb RE: monku Jan 17, 2010 08:20 PM

                                                        You are totally correct that dim sum flashcards would be wonderful given that I do not speak any Asian language and attempting to discern precisely what I am eating with servers who do not speak English is a challenge.

                                                        To clarify, I enjoyed the shu mai and other types of dumplings filled with shrimp and chive, vegetables, pork and shrimp, and pork and water chestnut, I believe.

                                                        1. re: alyseb
                                                          Chemicalkinetics RE: alyseb Jan 17, 2010 08:36 PM



                                                      2. re: alyseb
                                                        FrankD RE: alyseb Jan 18, 2010 07:01 PM

                                                        Just curious as to what type of char siu bao you had. It comes in two forms:

                                                        steamed, where the "bun" is a fluffy white, quite thick, doughy covering, and

                                                        baked, where the "bun" looks more like a traditional roll (probably like your sweet cream bun).

                                                        I like both, but I've found I prefer the baked style these days, but even my Chinese friends have difficulty telling me how to order it specifically!

                                                        1. re: FrankD
                                                          Chemicalkinetics RE: FrankD Jan 18, 2010 07:16 PM

                                                          I like the traditional one. I find the traditional ones take more skill to make. The traditional steam one is called "Char Siu Bao / 叉燒包". Bao means bun. The sweet, western influenced baked bun is called "Char Siu Chan Bao / 叉燒餐包". Chan Bao means meal bun --- referring dinner roll.

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