A Brief History of Dim Sum in China

Delicious Dim Sum
Delicious Dim Sum | © Nipapun / pixabay
Sara Jaaksola

The Cantonese people are known for appreciation for delicious food, including their traditional morning tea dim sum. What started as a breakfast tradition, has now evolved into an art of eating various small dishes while sipping Chinese tea. Dim sum culture started in Hong Kong and Guangdong province, but has since spread throughout the world. We take a look at its history.

What is Dim Sum?

In ancient China travelers along the Silk Road broke their journey by stopping at tea houses. It was discovered that drinking tea helps digestion, so small pieces of food were offered with the tea. The tradition of dim sum or yam cha (drinking tea) began.

The word dim sum is Cantonese and refers to small bite sized dishes that are served in bamboo steamer baskets or on small plates. The Chinese meaning of dim sum is commonly translated to “touch the heart”. These small portions of food can be savory or sweet and prepared steamed, baked or fried. The small size allows the customer to order a great variety of dishes, creating a banquet of different tastes and flavors.

Dim sum served in a bamboo basket

Pork and shrimp dumplings (siu mai) are shaped into a small cup and topped with mushrooms. This steamed delicacy is a must have item on the tea table.

Barbecue pork buns (char siu bao) can be steamed or baked including pork, shallots and dark sweet barbecue sauce. Buns are also popular take away breakfast items for busy people, and can be found in travelling food carts all over Guangzhou during the morning rush hour.

Phoenix claws (fung zao) or chicken feet might seem like an odd treat, but after deep frying, boiling, marinating and steaming they become a local delicacy. Black bean sauce gives flavor to the tender sticky tendon beneath the skin.

Congee (zuk) is savory rice porridge that can be served as is or with meat and vegetables. It’s a popular breakfast item whether made at home or enjoyed at a fancy dim sum restaurant.

Rice noodle rolls (cheong fun) are a must item at the breakfast table for any Cantonese. Different fillings like beef, eggs, pork or shrimp are rolled inside wide steamed rice noodles. A splash of sweet soy source is poured on top to maximize the taste.

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