Dim Sum Do's and Don'ts

Time to stop playing the guessing game when the dim sum cart rolls around! Everyone at your table will thank you. Here, Carolyn Phillips, author of the "The Dim Sum Field Guide," shares tips, etiquette, and seven must-eat dishes for feasting on an epic Chinese brunch.

Most Popular

Tip #1: Pick Your Tea. It's a Big Deal.

You can't go wrong with tea...at a Chinese tea house. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"Before you even set foot in a dim sum restaurant, know what kind of tea you want to order," suggests Phillips. "Your waiter will probably ask you before your bottom has even hit the chair. Green, oolong, black, compressed, chrysanthemum, jasmine—they're all delicious. Confer with your fellow diners, and order with confidence."

"Aim for different ingredients, cooking styles, and seasonings for each round of ordering."

Tip #2. Balance the Menu. This Part's Easy.

"Before you even set foot in a dim sum restaurant, know what kind of tea you want to order," suggests Phillips. "Your waiter will probably ask you before your bottom has even hit the chair. Green, oolong, black, compressed, chrysanthemum, jasmine—they're all delicious. Confer with your fellow diners, and order with confidence."

"Aim for different ingredients, cooking styles, and seasonings for each round of ordering."

Most Popular

Tip #2. Balance the Menu. This Part's Easy.

Balance is fun when your options look like this. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

"Aim for different ingredients, cooking styles, and seasonings for each round of ordering," says Phillips. "What this means is that your first order should be for just a couple of items: a steamer basket with shrimp or vegetable dumplings alongside a fried dish, like spring rolls, or radish cakes. Next time around, get roast duck to accompany a bowl of steamed pork ribs. Try to get just a few dishes at a time—that way you're not overwhelmed by too many things crowding the table. This guarantees your food stays hot, too. You can—and should—always order more."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Tip #3. Pace Yourself. Yeah, This Part's Hard.

The dim sum turtle wins the race. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

"Linger over each dish as much as possible," explains Phillips. "Tea houses are all about enjoying a pot of tea with friends and nibbling on good food, not chowing down. Don't let anyone rush you or make you order everything at once. Try a bit of this and that, be adventurous, and order more of whatever makes you happy."

"Chinese meals are almost always shared, so take only small portions and make sure everyone gets a taste."

Tip #4. Learn to Share. You'll Be Better Off.

There's always plenty of dim sum to go around. So pass the pork bun. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

"Chinese meals are almost always shared, so take only small portions and make sure everyone gets a taste. Have the waitstaff cut bigger items in half, and encourage fellow diners to serve themselves. And don't take the last piece of anything, unless everyone has politely passed."

Tip #5. Eat Like the Chinese. That's Why You're There.

Practice makes perfect. The more dumplings you eat, the better you'll get. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images

"Learn to use chopsticks—there are plenty of how-to videos online to help you master the technique," urges Phillips. "Serve yourself and others by first turning your chopsticks upside down, and then wipe off the tops before you start eating. Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of food, and only use your hands if a certain dish clearly can be eaten neatly without chopsticks. Eat fried rice from a bowl, or use a fork when there's only a plate—it sounds weird, but that's how it's done in China."

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

And now for the main attraction: seven different beloved dim sum dishes.

Siu Mai

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"These tiny cups of egg dough usually contain a tasty mixture of pork and shrimp, with a touch of crunchy vegetables to make things even more interesting. These are not super juicy, but rather bouncy and packed with interesting textures. Use your chopsticks to dip these in a bit of soy sauce mixed with Chinese mustard."

Char Siu Buns

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"Springy white bread wrapped around sweet roasted pork? Yes, please! This is one seriously addictive take on the sandwich. Almost required eating at any dim sum restaurant. Steamed char siu buns offer luscious, meaty fillings that contrast perfectly with the steamed dough. Remember to peel the paper off of the bottom, and pick it up with your hand."

Har Gow

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"One of the finest of all traditional dim sum offerings, har gow—literally 'shrimp dumplings'—are often the hardest to pull off, so feel free to judge a tea house by the quality of these fat little purses. The shrimp should be sweet and fresh, while the delicate wrappers need to be resilient enough to hold together, yet so delicate that they melt in your mouth."

Deep-Fried Shrimp Pouches

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"If you prefer your dumplings crunchy, this is what you should order. Fresh shrimp are packed into wonton-style wrappers with deeply frilled edges. These crisp up into brittle bits that contrast perfectly with the juicy filling. Served with mayo, or even a drizzle of condensed milk, you'll find yourself on a new road to utter hedonism."

Most Popular

Sticky Rice Chicken in Lotus Leaves

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"Comfort food taken to stratospheric levels, this dish hides plush chicken inside a mound of creamy, seasoned rice wrapped into lotus leaves. These little packets are steamed and offered as individual servings. You'll probably find slivers of black mushroom and sweet Cantonese sausage or pork in there to amp up the flavor, as well as other savory bits."

Coffee Pork Ribs

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"Try to locate a dim sum restaurant that offers these! They're utterly addictive. Hot, fried ribs are tossed in a thick coffee syrup that cools off into a glass-like coating. Porky, savory, sweet, slightly bitter. There's no good reason why you can't have a good cup of joe with your ribs, no reason at all."

Custard Tarts

Illustration courtesy of Carolyn Phillips

"No dim sum meal would be complete without someone suggesting that these help finish the meal on a high note. And no wonder: the best tea houses make these fresh every morning, so the sweet, eggy filling is warm and creamy, while the flaky pastry shatters with each bite."

The Dim Sum Field Guide by Carolyn Phillips (Ten Speed Press) is out August 30, $15, barnesandnoble.com.

Reprinted with permission from The Dim Sum Field Guide by Carolyn Phillips, copyright © 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

More from sweet: