Dim sum, or “touch the heart”, is a light Chinese meal traditionally taken with family or friends in the morning or early afternoon. The meaning is understood to imply generosity, that you should eat until your heart is content; but through persistent usage it has come also to mean “morsel” or “snack”. So common is this second usage that in Cantonese areas the actual meal is now commonly referred to as “yum cha”, or “tea drinking”; while “dim sum chan” flirts with becoming a Chinese-style fast food. Thus in China and Chinese-influenced areas it is often possible to buy only a single, portable dim sum, such as dumplings or meatballs served on a bamboo skewer, which is intended to be eaten on the go in a manner similar to hotdogs from vending carts.
However, the point of dim sum is to sample a wide variety of dishes in individually small portions, which are most commonly served from a cart on small plates or steamer baskets. High end Chinese restaurants may require you to pre-order, and then bring the dishes directly to your table. The wide variety, intended to be taken with friends, has turned North American dim sum into a popular Sunday brunch ritual.
When you first enter the restaurant, you are handed a card listing all the types of dim sum available and their respective prices. The card keeps track of what you order. Most of these cards divide the food possibilities into four separate categories: small, medium, large, and special. (In China, “special” includes American foods.) Different categories may be available at different times of day; and the prices may also vary depending on time of day. Different dim sum include everything from vegetarian choices to meats and seafoods and even desserts. Common dim sum choices are steamed dumplings of various kinds, congee (a classic breakfast rice soup in much of the far East), steamed stuffed buns, rice noodles, and of course rice.
When the cart comes over to your table, tall the cart pusher which dishes you want. Usually four or five dishes will be ordered at the same time. Many of the most common dishes will already be on the cart, in which case the cart pusher marks off your selections on the card and hands over your meals. Less common choices may require the cart pusher to return to your table with the rest of your order.
A waiter will also ask you what you wish to drink with your meal. Several choices will probably be available, but tea is traditional. As with most tea rituals, it is customary to first pour tea for your guests.
At the end of your meal, the waiter will total your bill based on the selections marked off on your card. Depending on the specific restaurant, you pay the waiter or at the main cash register. Tip as you would normally tip: and your dim sum experience is complete … until the next time!