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A gourmand’sguide to dim sum

Jun 17, 2003 2:46 AM

Asian restaurants have always been a popular place to dine, especially when you’re trying to impress your dining partner. But with all the sushi bars, take-out joints, Mongolian barbecues and Japanese teahouses all over town, it’s sometimes hard to pick the right spot.

One of the best ways to eat Asian food is in a "dim sum" restaurant, where servers circulate the dining room with carts, passing out small doses of tempting dishes. In addition to providing an entertaining evening, a dim sum meal can be satisfying, without busting your wallet or your spandex waistband.

In Chinese, the words "dim sum" mean a "point on the heart," or "something that delightfully touches the heart." Those are perfect descriptions for the ancient tradition of serving appetizer-like dumplings.

A good Chinese restaurant may tempt you with 100 different dishes on a busy night. Steamed spare ribs, sweet pork buns, braised chicken feet and fried turnip cakes are traditional favorites, but newer dishes like seaweed salad, bacon-wrapped shrimp and soft-shell crab claim a loyal following as well.

Most Chinese restaurants only serve "regular" menu meals, but you can find good dim sum at some of the better quality dining rooms. No matter where you find it, here are a few tips to ensure you at least appear to know what you’re doing:

Unlike most restaurants, the prized tables are near the kitchen. These tables get a first shot at the carts, ensuring a good selection of dishes. Plus, by the time some carts reach the intimate corner, the food is cooled.

Request something other than the house tea. A good, robust blend will clear the palate and keep your taste buds on alert. Try a fragrant jasmine tea, or one made with chrysanthemum blossoms.

Unless you’re adept, don’t try to use the chopsticks. Fumbling with them only draws attention to your ineptitude. There’s nothing wrong with using the more primitive knife and fork.

It’s possible you’ll be given a menu so you can identify the various dishes, or the wait staff will call out what they’re offering. The latter isn’t very helpful ”” there’s no way you will understand what they’re saying, unless you’re a native of Hong Kong.

In order to avoid some shocking surprises (like an appetizer that’s still moving!), here are your best bets from the dim sum carts:

Har gau (shrimp dumplings): Half-moon shaped pieces of translucent dough around a shrimp filling.

Wor tip (potstickers ): Steamed or pan-seared, these crescent-shaped dumplings enclose a pork or shrimp filling.

Char siu bau (steamed buns): These soft, fluffy white rolls are filled with sweet red pork and vegetables.

Bok far (stuffed mushrooms): Mushroom caps filled with shrimp and bamboo shoots then steamed.

Jun jui kau (rice pearl balls): Rolling small balls of seasoned ground pork in uncooked kernels of glutinous rice before steaming creates these pearly dumplings.

Don tot (custard tarts): Tender egg custard baked in a flaky crust is a perfect ending with jasmine tea.

Siu mai (pork dumplings): small, round steamed dumplings with a juicy, gingery pork and shrimp filling.

Chun geun (spring rolls): flaky, crisp rolls often filled with pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.

Don’t worry about trying to pronounce names. If things get a little hectic, just wave over the cart, take a look at what’s being served and pick what looks appetizing. But make sure the selection isn’t still moving!