The history of dim sum restaurants is intertwined with the history of yum cha. Yum cha, which translates into “drink tea” in Cantonese , dates back to a time where travelers on the Silk Road needed a place to rest. Teahouses were established along the Silk Road as a relaxation spot or resting spot for farmers or travelers. It was a place where people could stop after a days’ work or travel to drink tea.
Originally teahouses didn’t serve food since it was said to be improper to eat food while drinking tea. People thought that eating food while drinking tea would lead to gaining weight and becoming fat due to a well known 3rd century Imperial physicians’ claims. After discovering that drinking tea actually assists digestion, tea houses began to serve food along with tea.
The food served along with the tea became known as dim sum, which translates into “touch the heart” in Cantonese. Dim sum originally came from southern China. At the start dim sum was only a light snack to touch the heart, but over the years dim sum has transformed. With the addition of food to tea parlors, they became known as dim sum restaurants. What was once a quiet, peaceful teahouse has become a loud, vibrant dim sum restaurant.
Dim sum restaurants are places for family and friends to gather to enjoy a meal together. They are open early in the morning, some as early as 5AM in the morning, to the late afternoon. Dim sum restaurants are open early in the morning because the elderly eat dim sum after morning exercises as a tradition. In the evening, dim sum restaurants serve other Cantonese cuisine rather than dim sum.
Dim sum restaurants have an assortment of dishes to pick from. Food in the restaurants range from steamed dishes to sweets with everything in between. There are dozens of choices of food to choose from; I’ll guarantee you’ll find something you like. There are many carts pushed around serving the different dishes; to order all you have to do is stop the waitress and ask for it.
Steps for dining in a dim sum restaurant
1. Gather a group of friends or family you want to eat dim sum with.
2. Ask for a table of (insert number of people here). If the restaurant is crowded, they usually give you a number and you wait for it to be called to be seated. It is usually crowded on weekends since it is a popular place for weekend lunches with the family in Chinese culture. In this case you may want to go to a neighboring dim sum restaurant, if any, and receive another number. Since you are in a group you can have two different group members waiting at different restaurants for a table.
3. When your number is called and you have finally been seated, you have a choice of different teas to choose from and you will be given a bill card.
4. Use the hot tea and napkins on the table to wash your chopstick and tea cup.
5. Pour tea for the people around you and tap with two fingers to thank the person.
6. You can now order food by simply giving your bill card to the waitress and asking for what you want. In return you will get a stamp to indicate the size of the dish. There are small, medium, large, and special sized dishes that vary in price.
7. You can now dine and conversate with your group. When the dishes are cleared off a waiter will come around and take the dirty plates. If you run out of tea you can move the lid aside to indicate there is no tea left and a waiter will come around to refill it.
8. If you have any requests such as wanting ice water or ordering a special dish that isn’t going around you can wave to a waiter and they will get it for you.
9. At the end of your meal you ask a waiter to calculate the total by giving them your bill card. After that you pay the bill at the front desk with your bill card. You leave the tip on the dining table for the waiter to pick up.
As for Chinese home cooking, food consists of rice, meat, and vegetables. To add flavor, you can use black pepper, chili peppers, cornstarch, five-spice powder, ginger, rice wine, salt, scallion oil, sesame oil, soy sauce, spring onion, sugar or vinegar. Rather than having dozens of dishes to choose from like in a dim sum restaurant, you only have a few set dishes. A meal at home usually starts out or ends with soup whether it be a bitter herbal soup blend or a sweet cream corn soup.
Chinese home cooking varies depending on the region but for this part I will discuss Cantonese style home cooking. Similar to dim sum restaurants, the dishes of food are placed in the center of the table to be shared with everyone. One difference between eating at home and in a dim sum restaurant is that when you eat at home you won’t have as much variety. Also, at home, though the dishes are fewer they are much larger than the small plates of food you get in a dim sum restaurant. A traditional meal in a Chinese home usually always consists of either rice or noodles. However in a dim sum restaurant, you just fill up on appetizers and snacks.
Compared to Chinese home cooked food, food in a dim sum restaurant is much more unhealthier. While at home you are the cook and you know what you put into your food and you try to make it taste good while still being healthy. While in a dim sum restaurant, the chefs focus more on taste appeal rather than health. Much of the food in dim sum restaurants is high in fat and salt but low on calcium and fiber. While some foods are steamed in a dim sum restaurant, some are deep fried which is unhealthy.
Although food in dim sum restaurants is unhealthy, many people say it tastes much better than their own home cooking. Home cooking is more bland and has less flavor, but in the long run it is more beneficial to your health. Dim sum food has more flavor but you really don’t know what is being put into it.
As stated before, home cooked meals usually consists of soup at the beginning or ending of the meal. In dim sum restaurants, soup is usually not served with meals since tea is served. Sometimes soup is ordered at dinner time, but it really isn’t considered dim sum food.
Another difference is pricing between dim sum food and home-cooked food. Of course cooking your own meals is cheaper than dining in a dim sum restaurant. Each plate in a dim sum restaurant can range from about one dollar to a few dollars. When you cook at home, you buy the ingredients in the market and with that, the food can last multiple meals and it is much cheaper.