What Is Dim Sum?

You've probably come across dim sum while searching for the best Chinese restaurant in your city, but what exactly is it? Dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine that consists of small plates of steamed dumplings and is often enjoyed with tea. The phrase "dim sum" literally means "touch the heart" in Cantonese and is often associated with another phrase, "yum cha," which means "to drink tea."

Dim sum first originated in Hong Kong and Guangdong province when ancient Chinese travelers and farmers journeying along the Silk Road needed a rest. These travelers would stop by tea houses and were often offered small plates of food along with their tea. The food served at came in a wide range of flavors from sweet to savory and were either steamed, baked, or fried.

Today, dim sum is still very prevalent in Hong Kong and is beloved all over the world.

What's The Difference Between Dim Sum And Dumplings?

Dim sum is a style of cuisine that encompasses a large variety of tea and dishes, which includes dumplings as well as buns, rolls, chicken feet, congee, and other favorites. Dumplings, on the other hand, are simply just a particular dish that can be found in different cuisines all over the world with different names, like gyoza in Japan, pierogies in Poland, and so on.

steamed bamboo basket with dim sum dumplings

How To Order Dim Sum

Before you order any food, it is important to get your tea order squared away. The most common types of teas are Jasmine, Oolong, Chrysanthemum, Sau Mei, and Bo Lei. Once you have your tea, it's time to start ordering food.

In the United States, dim sum restaurants often present the small plates of food on carts after parties have been seated. The plates are typically served family style and shared with everyone at the table. To those who have never ordered dim sum before, it may seem intimidating and you might want to let a more experience friend take the lead. Or you could be bold and just try whatever looks good to you. The nice part about dim sum is that since the portions are small, you have the opportunity to try multiple foods.

dim sum variety eating with chopsticks

Popular Dim Sum Dishes

Though the menus at dim sum restaurants may vary, these items are commonly served at most places. Familiarize yourself with them now so there's less intimidation the next time you order dim sum.


As previously stated, dumplings are a major component of dim sum. Dumplings come in many forms including:

  • Har Gow - steamed shrimp dumplings with a translucent wrapper
  • Teochew - steamed dumplings with pork, dried shrimp, Chinese mushrooms, peanuts, garlic, and chives
  • Xiao Long Bao - sometimes called "soup dumplings," these dumplings are filled with meat or seafood and a rich soup broth
  • Shaomai - steamed dumplings filled with prawns and pork, often garnished with crab roe and mushroom
  • Taro - deep-fried dumplings stuffed with shrimp and pork and wrapped with mashed taro
  • Haam Seui Gok - deep-fried dumpling with a sticky wrapping and filled with pork and vegetables
  • Dumpling Soup - soup with two or three dumplings


Buns, sometimes called Bao, are similar to dumplings, but are more bread-like than dough-like. Buns can come in many forms, but the most popular kind is a barbecued pork bun. This type of bun is stuffed with a barbecued pork filling and can either be steamed or baked.


Rolls are an essential part of Asian cuisine at large, so it's no surprise that dim sum has its own take on them. Typically, dim sum rolls are filled with meats and vegetables, but may be rolled with different ingredients like tofu skin or rice noodles.

Turnip Cake

Turnip cake, sometimes called Lo Bak Goh, is a steamed cake made with Chinese turnip. The dish is especially popular during the Chinese New Year.

Rice Porridge

Often called Congee, this dish can either be eaten plain as a side dish or with additional ingredients, like meat or fish.

Chicken Feet

Sometimes called Fung Jeow, chicken's feet have a long preparation process. First they are stir-fried or deep-fried, then marinated in a black bean or oyster sauce, and then finally steamed.

Sesame Balls

Sesame balls are chewy, deep-fried dough balls filled with sweet red bean paste and covered with sesame seeds.

Mango Pudding

Mango pudding is a sweet and refreshing dessert made with mango.

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