Dim sum, the Cantonese-Chinese twist on tapas, is unique among cuisines. Often served out of rolling carts, these delicate dishes emerged from a rich, centuries-old history, and today feature food as delicious as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is varied. There are thousands of permutations of dim sum—typically, they’re steamed, fried, and baked goods, recipes that have been mastered over generations.
It’s also finicky. If you’re not an early riser on weekend mornings, when it’s most commonly served, you might miss the good stuff. Why weekend mornings? Part of it is just logistics, as the detailed construction of the items disrupts kitchen flow, taking more time and painstaking attention than your typical wok-tossed Chinese meal. But mostly?
“Tradition, man,” says Wilson Tang, the owner of Manhattan’s critically acclaimed Chinatown eatery Nom Wah Tea Parlor. However, when he took over Nom Wah from his uncle in 2011—becoming only the third owner since it opened in 1920—he planned a big change: He’d serve the cuisine at all hours. Dim sum–craving New Yorkers have packed the place in droves ever since. Tang opened the first outpost of Nom Wah earlier this year, in Philadelphia. Clearly, a hankering for all-hours dim sum is spreading, and hopefully there’s a spot for it arriving near you soon. Until then, keep setting the Sunday alarm clock.
Photo by Liz Barclay
HOW IT GOT HERE
Dim sum’s origins date back hundreds of years to the Silk Road, when purveyors would set up roadside tea services for traveling merchants, with snacks. In modern times, tea serves as the traditionally social part of the meal, but also has a more pragmatic purpose: to cut through the grease and help digestion.
THE DUMPLING DIFFERENCE
On any dim sum menu, you’re bound to see all kinds of dumplings, with all kinds of stuffings, ranging from pork or chicken to shrimp and fish, or any number of land/sea/vegetable combinations. But there are a few key distinguishers: Siu mai (or “shumai”) usually bear an “open face,” or unsealed top. A wonton is typically sealed at the top with pleats, and is often served with broth (but you might see the term wonton used as a catchall). And har gow are typically sealed to the side, with a delicate, translucent wrapper.
WHAT IT MEANS
The literal translation of dim sum is “with a touch of heart.” According to Tang, it alludes to the tender care with which everything is made. “Everything is hand-pleated—it takes decades of culinary experience,” he says. But if you wanted to say you’re eating dim sum in Cantonese, you’d say “yum cha,” which means “drinking tea."