You’ve arrived in the San Gabriel Valley early one Sunday morning, braved the elbowing hordes of impatient Chinese grandmothers, and managed to find an open table. Now what?
It’s a Tea Party
The true heart of dim sum may be the pot of tea in the center of the table; in Cantonese a dim sum luncheon is known as “yum cha,” which translates as “drinking tea.” It is considered polite to fill other guests’ cups at the start of the meal, beginning with the eldest member. If someone is filling your cup and your mouth is full of food at the time, tap two knuckles on the table as a gesture of thanks.
Pick Your Plates
Once you are seated, dim sum carts start making the vigorous rounds, presenting a staggering array of dishes: some sweet, some fried, others cooked tableside in theatrical fashion. The “cart ladies,” as the servers are known, are typically patient; don’t be afraid to peruse the selections. Choose dishes by pointing with your finger and nodding your head. It may seem rude to outsiders, but this signal is the preferred means of communication. If for some reason it appears that a server is missing your section, try to signal her with a gentle wave, or as some more daring patrons do, walk across the dining room and pick up the dish yourself.
Don’t Forget Your Papers
When you order, the server takes a small paper card from the table and stamps it with the name of each dish you receive. This is your bill. Keep it handy and free of tea stains, lest you be chided by management. Dim sum plates range in price, with some costing as little as $2 and more elaborate dishes going for around $5. The servers will continue to offer you food until your table is completely covered with dishes. Let them know you’re finished by placing your chopsticks horizontally on your plate.
Maintain a Group Mentality
Dim sum is intended as a communal experience shared with good company. For many in southern China, the meal is treated as the primary weekend family gathering. The larger the group, the better. An entire table can eat for well under $15 a person. Bring the whole clan, and not only will you be able to enjoy a wider variety of dishes, but you’ll also see whether Aunt Doris is brave enough to sample chicken feet.
One of the greatest delights of dim sum is that even seasoned veterans may occasionally be offered a dish that is completely unfamiliar. When in doubt, try it out.
Photograph by Alex Farnum