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Jan 14, 2010 10:36 AM

dim sum questions

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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  1. 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

      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

        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. 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

        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):

        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

          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.

 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


            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

            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. 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. 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. 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

                  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

                    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

                      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

                        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

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

                          1. re: limster

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

                            1. re: ipsedixit

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

                              1. re: limster

                                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


                                  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

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

                            3. re: taiwanesesmalleats

                              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

                        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

                          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

                            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


                              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

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

                          2. re: PeterL

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

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              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

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

                          3. re: ipsedixit

                            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.