While I do believe in the sanctity of fried eggs with a side of hashbrowns and a black coffee from a local diner, dim sum has recently surpassed a local fry-up as my breakfast of choice. (Well, it ties with Hong Kong-style deep-fried French toast, which is Heaven on a plate, truly.) Anyway! Dim sum is the best, and it’s a must. I started writing this and then had to run out and get a lai wong bao just to stop my drooling. Dim sum means basically “to eat a little” and is usually served only in the morning, but many restaurants serve it throughout the afternoon.
Some places will just bring carts around and you pick what you want, and at others you check what you want from the menu. Servers are usually harried; US-style customer service is a distant dream here. Dim sum places are also loud – between the families, clinking of dishware and desperate attempts to get a server’s attention, dim sum places are an auditory circus. Before eating, rinse all dishware and chopsticks with tea, and at the end, make sure to check the bill for any extra charges. Without further ado, here’s what you should eat, with a side of apps to help you figure out what to order if English is in short supply.
I don’t even know where to begin! Okay, how about savory? Try rice rolls stuffed with fried dough, shrimp or meat are meant to be dunked into congee (rice porridge) which can come plain, with fish and peanuts, pumpkin and corn, surprisingly good and tender liver, or about a million different add-ons. Char siu cheung fan, or pork wrapped in rice rolls and doused in soy sauce is also a good accompaniment to congee. Yueng san bo, or mashed fish stuffed in peppers, tofu or eggplant, is super greasy but totally worth it.
Dumplings are to be ordered en masse, as well. Har gow, or steamed shrimp dumplings, are my favorite, as are han shiu gok, glutinous versions stuffed with veg, pork and peanuts. Siu mai, open-top dumplings with shrimp and pork, are top-notch. Soup dumplings are a surefire way to test your chopstick skills and burn the hell out of your mouth if you’re not careful, but again – totally worth it.
Meat selections include chicken feet and pork ribs, both of which are better slathered in black bean sauce, meat dumplings that are either pan- or deep-fried, and pork puffs. Ngow pa yip is steamed tripe with ginger. I never thought I’d ever eat liver or tripe, but it turns out a dim sum makeover can make innards incredibly palatable. Another past turn-off, turnips, makes me always think of Molly from the American Girls, but Chinese turnip puffs are really great. Deep-fried wontons are a certifiable gut-buster, but unsurprisingly delicious.
Bao, or buns, are my favorite (as well). You can grab bao from the bamboo baskets with chopsticks or your hands, but make sure to poke holes in them with chopsticks and let them sit for a minute to cool down. I love lai wong bao, which is stuffed with creamy custard. Other glorious versions are char siu, or barbecued pork, chicken and veg, taro, sweet potato and lotus seed. There’s also plain buns with no filling. If you’re particular, peel off the outer shell of the bun where cooks have touched it.
Other desserts are not quite my cup of tea, including mango Jell-O molds, but the black sesame or sweet black bean soups and steamed sponge cake are good. You can also try egg tarts, but since you can get those at any bakery and grocery store, it might be better to stick to dishes that aren’t so readily available outside. Breakfast with built-in dessert – what’s not to love about dim sum?
A little help goes a long way when trying to figure out what exactly to get, and there are several apps built to help you. Dim Sum Assistant Free has a list of around 20 popular dishes with a list of ingredients, how it’s cooked, and the pronunciation in Mandarin. You can star your favorites, and there’s even a map that will show dim sum places near you.
HK-DimSum 101 is similar but way more detailed, with a calorie count, better photos, the traditional Chinese characters and a function to listen to the pronunciation in Cantonese. It also divides categories by how it’s cooked (steamed, pan-fried, etc.).
Finally, Dim Sum Calculator allows you to keep track of the cost of what you order, which is always handy when the check comes, but it only allows for the input of 5 items at a time. It does let you save your restaurants, so you can compare it with other places and then open it up again when you go back.
What’s your favorite dim sum dish?