Chinese style afternoon tea (dim sum)

What’s an afternoon tea blog without a tribute to dim sum, a Chinese tea tradition that predates the English afternoon tea tradition by a millennium?  And not to mention, tea originated in China …!

Though I experienced my first English style afternoon tea in 2006, I realized I have more accurately been enjoying “afternoon tea” since I was a kid but never really appreciated the ritual because I didn’t drink tea at the time (I wasn’t allowed to!) and going out for dim sum was always a big, loud family affair–the opposite of an intimate, quiet English afternoon tea which is more in line with my personality. 😉

Vegetarian egg rolls

“Dim sum” is also known by its Cantonese name, “yum cha” (飲茶) which literally means “drink tea.”  According to some sources, Chinese tea houses first appeared along the Silk Road in the 10th century as rest stops for weary travelers where they could refresh themselves with drink and food.

As luck would have it, I attended a dim sum luncheon today that featured dishes that are the standard of measure for every dim sum restaurant.

Oolong tea is the traditional tea served at dim sum.  When I was 12 years old, I had dim sum in NYC’s Chinatown.  My 15-year-old cousin M. told me that tea was a digestive that helped counteract and cut the grease in dim sum foods.  Since M. was 3 years my senior, I thought she was super smart and cool and devoured her every word.  I remember being amused by how enthusiastically M. drank tea to justify eating a lot of dim sum. 😉

Traditionally, dim sum is served from roaming rolling carts in a restaurant.  Customers choose small tapas sized dishes that are displayed on roaming rolling food carts.  The choice of foods is dependent on where you are seated in the restaurant, location, location, location!  The closer you are seated to the kitchen, the better chance you have of nabbing the hottest (temperature), freshest, and most popular dishes.  If you are unlucky enough to get seated at some remote corner of the restaurant, trying to flag down a cart will be an exercise in frustration and futility.  Not many restaurants offer the cart service anymore but if you can find a restaurant that offers cart service, you are in for a treat.  It is simply not as fun to order off a menu because part of the fun is taking a chance and choosing a dish on whim, based solely on how it looks and smells.  [NOTE: The dim sum luncheon featured in this blog post took place at Emerald Chinese Cuisine which doesn’t offer cart service]

Daikon turnip cake

Gai lan (Chinese broccoli) with oyster sauce

“Dim sum” (點心) translates literally to “touch heart.”  When I hear “dim sum,” the first image that comes to mind is sui mai, pork and shrimp dumplings with a touch of red in its center, the red representing the heart.  As a kid, sui mai was my favorite dim sum food.

Sui mai (pork and shrimp dumplings)

Vegetarian soy sauce fried noodles (chow mein)

Steamed chicken bao (buns) [NOTE: Char sui bao or BBQ pork buns are usually the standard but these were chosen specially for this luncheon]

Whereas my favorite dim sum foods were sui mai and joong/zongzi/ (lotus leaf variety), my sister’s favorites were har gow and don tot (egg tarts).

Don tot (egg tarts): I think these were the best don tot I’ve ever eaten!?

My biggest frustration about dim sum is that there are very few vegetarian offering 😦 but it’s special enough for me to make the occasional exception! 🙂  Even dishes that are seemingly vegetarian-friendly have hidden non-plant ingredients.  For example, egg tarts.  The pastry of egg tarts is traditionally made with lard.  Chinese broccoli is served with oyster sauce (but you can ask for it on the side).  The pan-fried turnip cakes usually have tiny bits of minced sausage or dried shrimp.  However, I am in awe of the art of the dim sum chef.  I read that dim sum chefs often start their training early and train for years for a career that is shorter than the normal chef.  Making dim sum is labor intensive since everything is made by hand and chefs may retire earlier as a result.  With that knowledge, I have a new appreciation for dim sum since I find it challenging to put together English style afternoon tea foods which are just as dainty but nowhere near as complicated or complex as dim sum! 🙂  My (tea) hat’s off to all the dim sum chefs out there.  Thank you for doing what you do and keeping a tradition alive.  In another lifetime, I would love to be a dim sum chef!Disclaimer: Tastes Like Tea is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to


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