The dim sum definition is actually fairly simple: a dish of small dumplings served as a main course or snack. But while dumplings are a huge part of any dim sum meal, in practice the tradition actually incorporates many different types of small, sharable dishes. It’s often compared to the Chinese version of Spanish tapas.
Dim sum’s history dates back to the ancient Chinese teahouse tradition, when travelers on the Silk Road would stop for tea and small snacks on their journey. The ritual grew over time, becoming more and more focused on food.
While you can occasionally find dim sum served during the week, it’s more commonly considered a weekend meal. Similar to brunch, it is typically served from morning until mid-afternoon.
As mentioned above, dim sum is meant to be shared, so each dish will typically have several pieces. Depending on where you’re dining, a paper dim sum menu may be present and include photos of each dish, accompanied by a number and the item’s name in both Chinese and English. If there is a language barrier between you and your waiter, you can simply point to the items you want!
Often, though, dim sum restaurants feature waiters who wheel a selection of dishes around on a cart. This allows you to eyeball dishes that look good to you, although, unless you’re an experienced dim sum diner, it might not be totally clear what you’re pointing at until you take a bite. Many adventurous eaters consider this part of dim sum to be the most fun, though you can almost always request a paper menu if you don’t like to take risks with your meal.
Most dim sum menus will cater to both Western and traditional Chinese tastes. It’s a great opportunity to try unfamiliar—yet delicious—dishes like chicken feet or squid dumplings, especially since you can simply move on to something else if you don’t like the first thing you sample.
If you’re intimidated, however, don’t fret. During her visit to the famous Phoenix restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown, one of our writers identified dishes like pork siu mai dumplings, crispy shrimp rolls, and sweet mango pudding. Custard tarts and buns filled with barbecue pork are also favorites that typically show up on most dim sum menus.
This article was originally published in a different format and has since been updated by our editors.