Dim Sum 101 and Etiquettes

This is a Dim Sum 101 according to Ben. I don’t profess myself to be a dim sum expert but to those unfamiliar with dim sums, I might … I just might come across to you like an expert. ๐Ÿ™‚

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The word Dim Sum is a Cantonese word and that by itself implies that dim sum is a cuisine from the southern part of China. In Cantonese, the name literally translates to “touch the heart”. I guess it came from the fact that “you select to your heart’s desire” what you want from a wide variety of choices.

Dim Sum is normally eaten at breakfast, sometimes during lunch time and almost never for dinner. The beauty about dim sums are that it comes in various kinds of small servings.

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Dim Sums are either steamed or fried, but mostly steamed. They are steamed in small steamer baskets like the ones above.

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The steamer baskets are stacked high one above another, sometimes as high as 10 baskets.

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Table settings consists of a tea cup, a bowl, a small plate, a soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks. The one thing you can be always assured of seeing is the chinese tea. There is nothing to stop you from having a can of Coke or (heaven forbid!) coffee but it will turn up as really odd. Go with the crowd … just have chinese tea. Besides, its meant to clear your palate as you try different items.

Tell me if I am doing it correct … I had always used the bowl to hold the food and the plate to for the discards like lotus leaf and bones. Is that right or should it be the other way round?

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One other thing about the tea … they are served in small tiny cups. I am not sure why the cups are small or what the practicalities of that are … but they are so small, you will empty it in three sips. So that means that in a sitting, you will have a lot of refills.

It is considered uncouth to pour your own tea. If you want to fill your cup, you must always fill the others around you first before you do yours. If you have a big table, it is OK to just fill the cups of those seated immediately next to you.

Oh, I meant to share with you that many Dim Sum restaurants uses disposable plastic tablecloths. They are practical and these days, the plastic does not look too plasticky. Higher end restaurants uses real tablecloths.

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I believe it is only the Cantonese who does this. When someone pours tea for you, you don’t say “thank you” … you just have to tap the table 2 or 3 times with the index and middle fingers. You normally tap it in the area near your cup so that the pourer notices that.

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When the teapot is empty, you just need flip open the lid like shown above. You don’t really need to ask the waitresses for a refill. Once the waitress sees an open lid, they will come and refill it with hot water. That is why a sign of good service in a dim sum place is how fast the tea pot is refilled after the lid is opened.

So there you go … Dim Sum 101. Consider yourself educated now. If you had never been to a dim sum place, you should go try it. Print this blog entry out and use it as your cheat sheet. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  1. Ray

    I eagerly await Dim Sum 201.

  2. Jessica

    There was a show on the Food Network a couple weeks ago (at 3AM!) on dim sum ettiquette

  3. RobynT

    i think most folks i know use the bowl for rubbish. i am third-generation chinese and my family is cantonese, but my dad is japanese so who knows if this is “authentic” or whatever. i don’t think it’s a big deal to do it wrong. i actually never thought about this before, but just now thought about what i’d seen others do. i think some restaurants don’t even have bowls, but i’m not sure.

    i think maybe the tea cups are small so the tea stays hot? again, not sure, but this is the purpose the cups serve for me anyway.

    again, i have heard that about pouring tea for others, but i think most folks i know (eg. other third generation chinese americans) wouldn’t really think it was rude… we are just told it is custom.

  4. Anonymous

    Hi Ben & Suanne,

    Regarding whether to use the bowl or plate for discard, here’s what I learnt:

    I was brought up in a traditional Chinese family. When meals were served (breakfast, lunch & dinner),we each would have a set of soup bowl/ soup spoon, rice bowl, a small plate for discard, a bigger plate(like the one in your pic) to hold the food we got from the serving dishes.It was considered rude to pile up the rice bowl w/ lots of food.

    However, since most restaurants only have table settings of a tea cup, a bowl, a small plate, a soup spoon and a pair of chopsticks, the small dish would be to discard food.

    Mind you, this was the tradition of my family:P

  5. M.

    I don’t even profess to know the true traditions. But it’s nice to pour tea for others beside you. I won’t attempt to do the whole table!!

    I thought the small bowl was for congee & the plate is for the rest of the dim sum. If u have bones, then don’t u just leave it on the table?

    (ha.. i always leave my bones on the plate)

  6. Emily

    Thank you for sharing all this dim sum knowledge. I’m definitely going to try the tea pot technique to check for good service the next time I go to a Chinese restaurant.

  7. Michelle Hui

    Expressing thanks for a cup of tea after it has been poured for you is a custom that dates back to the Qing dynasty ard 300-400yrs ago.
    The Emperor, Qing Long often travelled incognito with his servants and one day sat down with his servants in a restaurant.
    It is a Chinese custom that if a pot of tea is placed in front of you, it is you that pours the tea for everyone else and then for yourself. The tea pot was placed in front of the emperor and so he had to serve his servants tea. The servants struggled the desire not to let the emperor do this, but because the emperor was in disguise, the servants could not reveal his identity. Neither could they show the honour they felt by this gesture by bowing to the emperor and had to let him serve them all tea. So instead of bowing, a finger gesture was given by tapping two fingers on the table in order to express thanks and respect towards the emperor. This gesture has become a customary action in Chinese culture when someone is thanking another person for being served tea. There are now many variations which can be used, for example, two fingers tapping twice, one finger tapping twice or either one or two digits tapping once.

    Taken from : http://www.cmha.org.uk/oralhistory/english/culture/tea.asp

  8. Michelle Hui

    One more last one which I thought u might want to incorporate to the previous post ๐Ÿ™‚
    Taken from :
    http://www.santaferelo.com/ecs/data/sfguide/CHE/SocialCustoms.htm

    Another interesting local custom is associated with drinking tea: the “three-finger tap” on the table. This is a sign of appreciation, like saying thank you. The story goes that this gesture was invented by a Qing Dynasty emperor. While touring Canton, the emperor visited a teahouse as an ordinary member of a party of travelers. The emperor took his turn to pouring tea for his companions. Recognizing the emperor, they started bowing in acknowledgement of this astonishing honor. The emperor would have none of it, so he told them to simply tap the table with three fingers – two of which represented their prostrated limbs and the third finger symbolizing their bowed heads. The custom survives in Chengdu as a silent token of thanks.

  9. Wow Michelle.. i never knew that!

    @Suanne
    I think mostly the people in Hong Kong use the bowl for the dimsum and the plate to discard the rubbish. Though my friend from Singapore uses the plate for dimsum.. I’d stick with the bowl :).. Ooh in Singapore they don’t even give you a bowl at dimsum restaurants.. (if i remember correctly)

  10. Opus

    The tapping of the fingers is a uniquely Cantonese tradition, I think. Being a northern Chinese I don’t think I have seen anyone doing this gesture until I moved to Vancouver,

  11. Carina

    Just browsing through your reviews. The tapping fingers on table for tea is not uniquely cantonese. The Hakka do this too, its polite.

    Carina UK

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