Guide to eating Dim Sum

Nomadic Samuel Jeffery eating dim sum

One of the true joys of travel is sampling food for the first time and instantly falling in love. Unlike other exotic foods which are more of an acquired taste, dim sum was love at first bite.

I can still remember trying it for the first time one morning in Malacca, Malaysia at a popular little Chinese tea house. Elderly Chinese ladies wearing aprons pushed around carts filled to the brim with steaming trays releasing a mixed aroma of shrimp, pork, custard and red bean paste.

Men and women engaged in animated conversations at large tables while others sat alone sipping on tea while reading a newspaper.

Audrey Bergner of That Backpacker eating dim sum

Not knowing what to order (and without the aid of an English menu) I used hand gestures and pointing to select items that were placed on my table in delicate little trays.

Soon a pot of hot tea was placed on my table. With a tiny tea cup, chopsticks, a small serving bowl and sauce dish I randomly plucked at an ever growing spread of small bite sized food covering my table.

Nomadic Samuel Jeffery sipping on Chinese tea


What is Dim Sum?


Dim Sum is bite sized portions of Cantonese food served on tiny plates or in steamer baskets.

Traditionally, dim sum is wielded around in carts – pushed from table to table – where customers can select their order from the comfort of their own table; however, these days in Hong Kong, space is at a premium and unless you’re dining at a banquet hall style restaurant, you’re most likely to place your order on an slip of paper where you select your food items on a checklist.

To invite someone out for dim sum (点心 / 點心) is roughly translated in Cantonese as going out to ‘drink tea’ at a restaurant. It’s similar to etiquette in Korea, whereby you’d ask someone out for dinner by inviting them to join you for rice.

Dim sum literally translates as ‘touch the heart’ was originally intended to only be a snack; however, it is now a staple of Cantonese dining culture and restaurants can be found all over Hong Kong.

Chinese tea being served


What to order?


Dim Sum restaurants typically feature a menu with options galore; thus, it can be difficult deciding what to order. To simplify the process try sampling some of my favorites:

Dim Sum: Shrimp Dumplings (Har gow: 虾饺 / 蝦餃)

Shrimp Dumplings (Har gow: 虾饺 / 蝦餃)

These delectable transparent dumplings are stuffed with prawns and were instantly one of my favorites.  Apparently, dim sum masters are judged based on the skill of preparing this particular dish.  It’s such a delicate dish where the skin must be thin and transulucent yet sturdy enough not to spill open its contents when picked up by chopsticks.  This is one of the more expensive dim sum dishes often costing 1.5 times to double the price of others.

Dim Sum: Baked Barbecue Pork Buns (Cha siu bao: 叉烧包 / 叉燒包)

Baked Barbecue Pork Buns (Cha siu bao: 叉烧包 / 叉燒包)

If somehow I was forced to only ever one kind of dim sum to eat for the rest of my life (oh, what a tragedy!) I would select baked barbecue pork buns.  The baked variety (they’re also served steamed) features a crispy exterior that is browned and glazed with light sugar producing a delectable golden crust.  The interior is filled with saturated slices of slow roasted pork tenderloin combined with a syrupy concoction of hoisin, soy and oyster sauce, sesame oil and sugar.  When I sink my teeth into these baked pork buns I just let it roll around and melt in my mouth.

Sticky Rice with Chicken in a Lotus Leaf Wrap (Lo mai gai: 糯米鸡 / 糯米雞)

For those unfamiliar with dim sum, having a large lotus leaf wrap brought to your table could potentially raise eyebrows.  However, for those brave enough to peal away at the leaf wrapper will be rewarded with a sticky rice, chicken, Chinese mushrooms and sauce.  Considered a southern Chinese specialty, glutinous rice forms a base that is filled with chicken, Chinese mushrooms, sausage and scallions.  If you’ve ever tried eating Thai Mango Sticky Rice it is similar in terms of the way the rice is prepared.

Sesame Ball (Jin deui: 煎䭔 煎堆 - 麻团 / 麻糰)

Sesame Ball (Jin deui: 煎䭔 煎堆 – 麻团 / 麻糰)

Those with a sweet tooth will be rewarded at the dim sum table.  Be sure to try sweet sesame balls, a Chinese pastry, made with a lotus paste filling and crispy outer exterior consisting of glutinous rice flour coated with sesame seeds.

Dim sum set in Malaysia


Dining Etiquette

Dim sum is a social meal.  Friends from Hong Kong have mentioned the optimal group dynamic is 3-4 people considering dishes typically are served in portions consisting of 3-4 small serving sizes.

If you’re alone don’t let that prevent you from frequenting a dim sum restaurant.  In the past, I’ve gone solo and feasted on many trays of dim sum alone.

If you want to eat more like a local don’t fill up a sauce tray with soy sauce.  Dim sum ‘done well’ doesn’t require sauce.  You won’t notice locals eating at their favorite spot dipping their dim sum in any sauce.

Where to eat Dim Sum in Hong Kong?


Dim Sum Sqaure (Hong Kong Island)

This small family run dim sum restaurant is located in Sheung Wan.  We’ve typically had to wait for a table.  I’ve never tasted better barbecue pork buns (Cha siu bao) anywhere else.  Try to come in the late afternoon or before lunch hour to avoid the crowds.  Two can dine for 70-100 Hong Kong Dollars

G/F, 88 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan

Tim Ho Wan (Kowloon)

Tim Ho Wan has the impressive distinction of being the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in Hong Kong.  High quality dim sum at affordable prices is what brings in people by the droves.  We ended up dining here for the first time with a group of fellow expats based in Hong Kong.  We’ve ended up coming back many times considering it is located within walking distance from our hotel in Mong Kok.

Shop 72, Ground Floor (Outside), Olympian City 2 | Olympian City Mall, Hong Kong, China (Mong Kok)

More dim sum in Malaysia

(Dim sum in George Town, Penang, Malaysia. A different experience where push carts are still used to serve customers)

Have you tried dim sum before?  What are some of your favorite dishes?  Any favorite spots to eat dim sum?  If you’ve never tried it before is it something that looks appealing to you?

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  1. says: rick

    I love the Dim Sum in Hong Kong, it is amazing to see that even a small tea house at the corner of the street can serve very delicious snacks, no wonder many people regard Hong Kong as a gourmet paradise…

  2. Great post! We luv dim sum – and have enjoyed lots of it on our trips to Hong Kong! We’re also very fortunate that here in Vancouver (Canada), we have hundreds of great Asian restaurants to satisfy our dim sum cravings whenever we want :-).

  3. says: Julia Busch

    I like Sticky Rice becase I like Rice from my childhood ,But I my country peoples did not eat but i like this way thank you for sharing and remanaing me

  4. says: Renuka

    What an awesome cuisine! Dim-sum sounds interesting! I have been to Malaysia once for a few hours, didn’t get a chance to explore its food. But after reading this, I think I need to go back!

  5. says: Majida

    Looks adventurous and tasty. My go would be the sweet one, with the sesame seeds 🙂

    If they would not be sticky, they remind me of the Idli of south India made of Legumes and rice flour, in different varieties, eaten with different chutneys, my favourite being a coconut chutney! They do need a chutney or a sauce to go along, as they hardly have any flavour.

  6. says: Nicole

    Those are some crisp photos of dumplings! We went to dim sum just the other day in Vancouver. And again nearby our house. Love it every time, but we’re kind of thinking Vancouver’s food scene is pretty awesome. =D

  7. says: Mary @ Green Global travel

    Yum! Fabulous post and wonderfully educational videos! Thank you! I have to admit to not really knowing the definition of dim sum 20 minutes ago and to being quite certain that I will now have it for dinner tonight – even if I am far from Asia!

  8. says: Kerri

    Great post – I actually tried Dim Sum for the first time this past weekend in my home city at a fantastic place called Baby Buddha Chinese Teahouse! The pork buns were amazing!

  9. says: Alex | Partial Parallax

    I love Dim Sum so much, although I’ve not been down to Hong Kong yet (I do need to visit) I had some wonderful Dim Sum in Shanghai from street vendors and shops alike. There is so much variety in Dim Sum its great!

  10. says: foongpc

    Yummy!! Drooling at all the dim sums here! I have yet to try Dim Sum Square and Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong! Must give it a try next time I go there! I love har gow best! Oh yeah, still have push carts at dim sum restaurants in Malaysia but they are disappearing fast! : )

  11. Everything looks yummy. I’ve never had dim sum in Asia but I’ve had tons in Toronto due our large Asian population. It’s so good and such a fun thing to do with friends! I’d totally be intimated to go at one of these meals alone though …

  12. We lovvve dim sum ~ it has always been a favorite. We blogged about eating it in Chinatown, San Francisco a year ago. The most fun place that we ate dim sum was Lima, Peru on Christmas day when everything else was closed ~ you can always count on dim sum to delight. Many cities in the world have Chinatowns, worth seeking out. Luckily for us, we are living in SE Asia now, so dim sum like food is all around.

  13. Dim Sum is the absolute greatest thing in the universe for people who have no idea what’s going on and just want to point to things and eat them and they’ll be amazing. I wish other cultures would steal this idea and serve food like this all over the world. I mean, we stole gunpowder and fireworks from them, so why not snag their food serving culture too?

  14. says: Anwesha

    Lovely pictures and videos. They made me salivate. I love dimsum as well. In India, the Tibetan momos are quite popular and commonly found. I love to eat them steamed or fried. 🙂

  15. says: Corinne

    Surprisingly I think this is one of those foodie/travel thingies that I haven’t done, at least done right. I don’t know why. With your handy dandy guide, I think I’m going to have to dive in again. Going to Malaysia in December…I’ll try and find a good Dim Sum restaurant.

  16. says: Agness

    Great guide Sam. You have no idea how much I enjoyed our last dim sum dinner. Next time I need to be more careful as I burned my mouth when trying the fried balls stuffed with mince 🙂

  17. says: Heather

    I love dim sum! My friend’s father is a native Hong Konger and took me to one of the old school places where the ladies still serve the dishes from push carts. Shrimp dumplings and pork puns are two of my favorites, along with deep fried yams stuffed with roast pork. Delish!

  18. says: Maria

    Where I live, Dim Sum is a Sunday brunch favorite… meet your friends and spend a couple of hours catching up – the pace of service and the small bites are perfect for such a gathering.

  19. Great overview Samuel,
    I’m a dim sum fan also, but I have to fly to Honolulu or San Francisco to even get my hands on some of these puppies, if you love har gaw, then you would probably also love the deep fried shrimp balls with sweet mayonnaise or even Sui Mai with pork and shrimp…missing it already!

  20. Sam & Audrey, thanks for reminding me how good it was in Hong Kong! My sister and brother in law took me to their favourite places in Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay, Happy Valley (HKJC, actually), and Tai Koo.

  21. Handy resource, especially if you are not with a local! I LOVE Dim Sum and especially those moments when you drop something from your chopsticks and you quickly place said food between them like it never happened 😉 I can’t do a lot of Dim Sum in one bite.

  22. says: Kay

    Almost all of my favorite memories of Hong Kong involve food, and with good reason too! The first thing we decided do do once we got to the city was drop our bags and get dim sum out by the harbor 🙂