Who has ever said no to dim sum? Not me! Dim sum is one of my favorite ways to share and eat food with friends and family. Not only do you get to choose from a vast array of delicious savory and sweet bites of food, but you get your items super-fast.
If you’ve ever looked at a dim sum menu and wish you had a translator, a guide to the entire menu to help decide what to order, look no further!
Table Of Contents
What is dim sum?
Dim sum has been around since the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) in China and it’s most associated with regions of Guanzhong and Hong Kong. The word dim sum translates to “touching heart” (referring to the snacks served) and is often associated with the term “yum cha” meaning to enjoy a brunch of eating dim sum and drinking tea.
If you’ve ever wondered why tea is always served with dim sum, it’s because it actually reflects the tradition of serving delectable snacks with tea in Chinese history. While you could find street vendors selling dim sum, you could also find tea houses serving various dishes for patrons to enjoy alongside steaming hot pots of tea.
I like to break down dim sum into two main types: savory and sweet. And in both of these categories, there are further distinctions: steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, and baked. Obviously, there are a lot more types, but these are my general distinctions.
My favorite local places to order dim sum locally in Southern California are Capital Seafood, China Garden, and Seafood Cove. Dim sum hours typically range from morning until mid-afternoon, although I prefer going as early as possible to make sure they don’t run out of my favorite dishes!
Ordering guide: How does dim sum work?
Start with the tea
Tea is paired with dim sum for good reason. Dim sum has a big significance and history in tea houses. Some of the best teas you can drink at dim sum are black, jasmine, chrysanthemum, and oolong teas. When pouring cups of tea, there is proper etiquette to follow: the youngest fills the cup of everyone at the table before their own, and it goes from oldest to youngest.
I like drinking tea with dim sum because the hot steamy tea helps wash down some of the greasy dishes. My mom would always do the same, seemingly alleviating her guilt of eating dim sum by having some tea afterward. To learn more about tea, visit my post on green tea vs. black tea.
Ordering food on the pushcarts
One of my favorite parts about most dim sum restaurants is the pushcarts! I’m a big “see food” eater and I love getting a menu in the form of delectable treats right in my face. When the pushcarts come to our table, I get to point and tell the pushcart worker my desired dish, and once they add it onto our table, they’ll mark our table check with a stamp or pen to indicate the price point of the item and move to another table.
Ordering food not available on pushcarts
It’s important to note that there are multiple carts with different items being carried, so if I ask for a specific item (i.e. my favorite xiao long bao) and the current cart doesn’t have it, you can sometimes request these items and they will bring it to you. I’ve also had one waiter motion another cart to come to our table next so I can get the dish. Sometimes restaurants don’t have pushcarts and you also can order from a dim sum menu–this obviously isn’t as exciting, but it gets the job done!
How much does dim sum cost?
But how much does it cost? Typically, when I eat at dim sum it ranges from about $12-$20 per person depending on where you are eating (restaurant and also region) and how many dishes you order. My group of friends and family get about 2-3 dishes per person.
Each dish has a sliding scale of price, for example, dishes like shrimp shumai can be about $4 per steamer basket, and bigger dishes like chicken sticky rice is about $6. Note that these prices are based on my region and can be different in other areas.
Dim sum is one of the best meals to go for group meals because you can share more items, but also it’s great for those “morning after” meals where everyone desperately needs some carbs. While dim sum is often on the less expensive side–it’s always nice to share a meal with more people. If you’ve ever been stumped about what to order at dim sum, or it’s your first time and you want some direction, here are some of my favorite dishes.
Steamed dim sum dishes
Shumai/siumai – steamed pork and shrimp dumplings
Shumai are dumplings that have a thin wrapper made of flour and hot water. These wrappers cup the filling of minced pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and many other seasonings like soy sauce and sesame oil that give it loads of flavor. They often look like they have a flowery shape on the top due to the minced carrot garnish. Shumai are a dim sum standard and have been around since the Yuan dynasty in North China. They’re best eaten with a soy sauce dip.
Har gow – steamed shrimp dumplings
Har gow is a steamed dumpling made up of marinated shrimp filling left whole encased in a delicately pleated, translucent wrapper that has a slightly tacky texture. It’s a traditional Cantonese dish and it was created by a chef from the Yizhen Teahouse in China. It’s often served with hot mustard and soy sauce.
Xiao long bao – soup dumplings
Xiao long bao is one of the most famous dumplings recently, especially due to the popularity of Din Tai Fung. The name is translated as “little baskets” due to its plump sack-like shape, which holds juicy minced pork and melted jelly stock. It has a delicate skin, so the bao is meant to be carefully placed onto a soup spoon filled with ginger slices and vinegar to season. Then you gently use your chopsticks to tear a small hole on the dumpling to release the soup, cooling it off before gobbling up these tasty bites.
Cheung fun – steamed rice paper with filling
Cheung fun or cheong fun are thin rice noodles wrapped around various fillings, like char siu or shrimp. There is often a soy sauce-based sauce drizzled on top of the noodles right before it’s transferred from the pushcart to your table. It’s easiest to slice the noodles in half and pick it up with your chopsticks on your plate. Cheung fun has origins in Guangdong province and Hong Kong.
Char siu bao – steamed bbq pork buns
Char siu bao (also called bbq pork bun) is one of the most popular steamed dumplings. It’s made of a soft and fluffy steamed dough made of flour, starch, sugar, and sometimes milk and a sweet and savory stewed pork filling called char siu. This bright white baozi (or filled bun) often looks like it has a swirl top or floral shape due to the torn top breaking in the steamer.
Gailan – Chinese broccoli
Gailan is a fresh steamed vegetable that’s also known as Chinese broccoli. This dish is steamed or blanched very quickly, plated on an oval dish, and drizzled with a simple oyster sauce before it’s served. This dish was first created by the founder of Lee Kum Kee in Hong Kong in the late 1800s.
Lo mai gai – steamed sticky rice
Lo mai gai is a dish made up of sticky rice filled with various ingredients of meat, savory seasonings (soy sauce and oyster sauce), ginger, green onions, and more all wrapped in dried lotus leaves and steamed. These lotus leaf packets are very filling for a dim sum dish and often come in pairs or just one large piece.
Black bean spare ribs
Black bean spare ribs are made of chopped spare ribs steamed in fermented black beans, garlic, ginger, wine, and other seasonings. The spare ribs cook to such ultra-tender and juicy morsels that you can disregard the bones as an impediment. This dish typically does not need extra dipping sauces because it’s so flavorful.
Congee – rice porridge with toppings
Congee is a simple rice porridge that comes with toppings like scallions, salted duck egg slices, sliced crullers, and various types of proteins. It’s typically made of rice cooked in large amounts of vegetable or meat stock (like chicken) or water. Often, the porridge is not seasoned until you add the condiments and toppings. Congee originated from Guangzhou, but every Asian cuisine has its version like Vietnamese cháo gà.
Deep fried & stir-fried dim sum dishes
Fèng zhǎo – braised chicken feet
Chicken feet, or fèng zhǎo meaning phoenix talons, are fried and braised whole chicken feet sauteed in a garlicky, black bean fermented sauce with a kick of heat from the chili oil. This dish is very popular in China for its super soft and tender skin and chewy tendons.
Fried spring rolls
Spring rolls are quintessentially Chinese and originated during the Jin Dynasty where they celebrated the Spring Festival by eating pancake-like wrappers with fresh vegetable fillings. Since then, spring rolls have changed in variety and the dim sum specialty typically comes in the form of a smooth and thin, deep-fried wrapper with minced meat and vegetables.
Haam sui gau – fried “footballs”
Haam sui gau, or also colloquially known as shrimp footballs, are deep-fried morsels of crunchy rice-dough ovals with a mixture of meat, shrimp, and vegetables. It’s often cut in half once you order it and you can dip it in soy sauce or mustard if needed. It originated in Guangdong province teahouses.
Sheng jian bao – pan-fried buns
Pan-fried buns, or sheng jian bao, are dumplings wrapped in a similar sack-like shape like xiao long bao with a filling of minced pork and vegetables, but they are steamed straight onto the pan instead of using a steamer. They get this golden crust at the bottom of the bun and go well with the smooth and soft texture of the top of the bun. These buns often have a soy sauce, chili oil, and sesame-based sauce drizzled on top.
Shrimp wontons are deep-fried bubbly wrappers of wontons encasing a marinated shrimp filling. While wontons are common in China, this fried version is actually much more prominent in Asian American restaurants. When eating fried wontons, you may eat them with a sweet and sour sauce to dip them into.
Wu gohk – taro wrapped pork dumplings
Taro wrapped pork dumplings, or wu gohk, are made of mashed taro root dough wrapped over a minced meat, mushroom, and scallion filling and then deep-fried to get a crisp, honeycomb-like outer crust. It’s best eaten with a side of soy sauce or hot mustard. This dish originated in Guangxi, which is nearby Guangdong.
Pan-fried turnip cake
Pan-fried turnip cakes, or lo bak go, are made from a simple radish and rice flour mix with meat, mushrooms, shrimp, and other ingredients. They’re made on hot steaming griddles that give it a golden-brown crust with a tender center and served with a side of oyster sauce.
Shrimp or Crab lollipops
Shrimp and crab lollipops are one of my favorite dim sum dishes to eat because it comes with its own stick! This treat originated from Guangzhou and is typically made from a de-shelled crab claw or minced shrimp that’s coated in a breading layer, and deep-fried. The crab claw is kept intact and the shrimp is molded over a sugarcane stick. The claw and the sugarcane are used as “lollipop” holders and can be dipped into soy sauce.
Baked dim sum dishes
Baked char siu pork buns
Baked char siu buns are similar to char siu bao except it’s made of traditional flour dough that is baked to a golden brown and has a slightly sweet and tacky coating. It’s filled with minced char siu and seasoned with a variety of savory sauces like soy sauce and Shaoxing wine.
Char siu sou – pastry puff
Like char siu bao and baked char siu buns, char siu sou is also filled with the same sweet and savory minced char siu filling, but this time it’s encased in a flaky and buttery pastry shell. Its egg-wash coating and sesame seed topping also give this pastry a crispy and nutty flavor. This is one of my all-time favorites.
Dim sum desserts
Egg tarts are a super popular sweet and savory dessert that is made from an egg custard filling and super flaky, shortbread-like crust. This style of egg tarts originated in Guangzhou and Hong Kong with influence from Europe’s custard tarts. Another variety that some are familiar with are also Portuguese egg tarts that are much sweeter and have a burnt topping.
Coconut and red bean Jell-o
Coconut and red bean Jell-o is a layered dessert with alternating coconut layers and red bean pieces. It typically comes in a small cake-like serving. This chilled dessert has both smooth, silky textures from the coconut jello and al dente textures from the red bean bites. Although I don’t see this in every dim sum restaurant, it’s worth trying!
Fried sesame balls w/ mung bean filling
Fried sesame balls, or jian dui meaning “fried pile,” are deep-fried balls of sticky rice-flour dough with a sweet bean paste filling and rolled in sesame seeds. The sticky rice-flour dough gives it an ultra crunchy crust and chewy inner layer when it’s fried. There are also many variations of this dessert, like Vietnamese bánh cam that has a mung bean center. This dessert dates back to the Tang Dynasty in Chang’an (or modern-day Xi’an) in the Shaanxi province.
Bo lo bao – baked pineapple buns
Pineapple buns, otherwise known as bo lo bao, have a thick and crispy crust topping over a sweet egg-dough and filled with a silky custard center. Like its namesake, the crispy topping resembles a pineapple’s rough and textured skin. It’s so popular in Hong Kong that it’s officially labeled as part of the city’s cultural heritage.
Nai wong bao – steamed custard filled buns
Custard buns, or nai wong bao, is a type of baozi that is filled with a silky, sweet, and savory center made of salted egg yolk custard. It’s recognized by its bright white, smooth dough that’s sometimes marked with red dots on the top. This bun was most likely influenced by British colonizers and travelers, which is how custard was introduced to China. The incorporation of salted egg yolks made this uniquely Chinese.
Mango pudding is a chilled dessert that is made with basic ingredients of fresh mangoes, coconut milk, and sugar. This bright orange dessert is a very popular dish in Hong Kong and most likely was influenced by British colonizers via India.