In the Canton provinces, many people gather at tea houses during the morning and early afternoon to socialize or conduct business over small meals. In China this is most popularly called ‘yum cha’ – going to tea – because the art of drinking tea is so strongly associated with the snack foods served. In the United States, however, we are most familiar with the term dim sum to describe these small meals. Dim sum, literally translated from the Cantonese language, means ‘dot-hearts’ – small treats that touch the heart
WHAT IS SERVED
Most dim sum foods are savory pastries, either steamed or fried dumplings, filled buns, and noodles. There are also sweet pastries, vegetables, and meats.
The portions are bite-sized, and they are served in small quantities, usually three or four to a plate. This allows the diners to enjoy a variety of foods, whether they eat very little or indulge in a huge feast. Variety is one of the key features to dim sum. Some restaurants offer over 100 different items on a busy day.
HOW DIM SUM IS SERVED
The presentation of the dim sum meal has no equivalent in the West. Servers push carts loaded with a variety of foods through the dining room. These carts go passed the customers who keep an eye out for appealing dishes. Once a desired item is in sight, the diner flags down the car and points out what they want.
The dining room bustles with the activity of carts wending among tables, calls for attention and the clatter of plates. The idea is to choose things continually throughout the meal, rather than to gather all the food at once before eating. Sweets are woven through the savories dishes. The Chinese custom does not practice saving sweets for the end of the meal, rather, they are reserved for special occasions such as the pauses between courses in a banquet or indulgences like dim sum.
Just as the arrival of food is ongoing, the supply of tea is endless. When a teapot is empty, the guest leaves the lid of the pot open to signal that it is ready to be whisked away for a refill. One story told to explain this custom involves a poor student who hid a bird in his teapot.
When the waiter came to refill the boy’s teapot and lifted the lid, his valuable bird flew away. According to his plan, the student made a loud fuss. “It was a very valuable bird”, he said, and the restaurant owed him recompense. After this, the restaurant – and all others – decided to wait for customers to lift the lid of an empty teapot when a refill was needed.