It never occurred to me that the most straight-forward translation of the two Chinese characters “dim sum” is “to touch one’s heart.” If I am asked what dim sum is, naturally I will say it is a Cantonese cuisine that serves small dishes and tea. In countries like Taiwan, this dining experience is called “yum cha,” which literally means “to drink tea.” So when I was in Taiwan, I would invite friends to go yum cha; I would not say “let’s have dim sum.” But the only reason I would want to go yum cha is to eat the dim sum dishes, not to drink the tea.
Almost all of the dim sum restaurants I have been to in the States are crowded and clamorous during the weekends. Some bigger, more popular restaurants hand out tickets to customers who fill and pack the waiting area with their family members of all generations. Sometimes even a microphone has to be used to get the crowd’s attention.
The teas served at dim sum restaurants are always loose-leaf teas, but some are of dubious quality. Seldom do tea enthusiasts frequent dim sum restaurants for a cup of well-brewed tea. Interestingly, the last few times I asked the server for the restaurant’s tea selection, I was told that only oolong, jasmine (“heung peen” in Cantonese), and chrysanthemum teas were available and was never offered the choice of pu-erh, which should be readily available at all restaurants. (Perhaps the language barrier played a role in my not being presented with the full list.) Customers can also request a tea blend, such as pu-erh and chrysanthemum, or chrysanthemum and sau mei – a white tea. A subtle way to request a tea refill is to place the teapot lid upside down or half way open. Of course, a verbal request is fine as well.
I prefer spacious restaurants where servers wheel dim sum trolleys up and down the aisles; if I am not familiar with a dish, I can always ask the server to show me before ordering. On the other hand, some restaurants that ask customers to order from their photo-laden menu serve very good dim sum dishes, but the ordering process is not as unique and spontaneous as it is from the trolleys.
Dim sum is said to have originated from roadside eateries along the Silk Road where weary travelers could rest and have a cup of tea and something to eat. How did it become mainly a Cantonese cuisine?
Ideally dim sum should be enjoyed with a bigger party, so more dishes can be ordered and tasted. Chinese restaurants that serve dim sum do not serve it all day long. For dinner, the menu is purely a la carte with traditional Chinese dishes.