Dim sum
Dim sum
"Dim sum" in Traditional (top) and Simplified (bottom) Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese點心
Simplified Chinese点心
Cantonese Yaledímsām
Literal meaningsnack

Dim sum (Chinese: 點心; pinyin: diǎnxīn; Cantonese Yale: dímsām; the literal meaning is debated, see the etymology section) is a style of Chinese cuisine. It is prepared as small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets or on a small plate. Dim sum is commonly viewed as Cantonese, although other varieties exist. Dim sum dishes are usually served with tea and together form a full tea brunch. Due to the Cantonese tradition of enjoying tea with this cuisine, yum cha (飲茶), which means "drink tea" in Cantonese, is also synonymous with dim sum.[1] Dim sum traditionally are served as fully cooked, ready-to-serve dishes. In some Cantonese teahouses, carts with dim sum are served around the restaurant.


The original meaning of the term dim sum is unclear and debated.[2]

Some believe that the term originated in the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420).[3][4] According to legends, an unnamed general ordered civilians to make buns and cakes and send them to the front line, in order to express his gratitude towards his soldiers after battles. Gratitude in Chinese is 點點心意; diǎn diǎn xīnyì, which was later shortened to 點心 (dim sum), while the term represents dishes which are made in a similar fashion.

However, the accuracy of the above account is not supported by any historical text. Some also believe this event happened in the Southern Song dynasty,[5][6] (960–1279) which existed after the earliest historical record of the term was written (see below), thus contradicts the notion that this event is its origin.

The earliest definite record of the term is the Book of Tang (唐書; Táng shū, written in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, 907–979),[4] in which dim sum was used as a verb instead of a noun. The exact quote is 「治妝未畢, 我未及餐, 爾且可點心」; "Zhì zhuāng wèi bì, wǒ wèi jí cān, ěr qiě kě diǎnxīn", which means "I have not finished preparing myself and been ready for a proper meal, therefore you can treat yourself with some small snacks". In this particular context, although 點心 (dim sum) literally means "to lightly touch (your) heart", a more accurate translation is "to barely fill (your) stomach".

Later texts used the term as a noun. For instance, the Record of the Northern Journey (北轅錄; Běi yuán lù, written in the Song dynasty) mentions 「洗漱冠飾畢, 點心已至」; "Xǐshù guān shì bì, diǎnxīn yǐ zhì", which means "dim sum has already arrived when the grooming is done". Dim sum can be understood as "snacks" in this quote.

In short, although its original meaning is unclear, the term has been commonly used to describe small dishes since no later than the Song dynasty.


A dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong

As stated in the etymology section, the term "dim sum" can be historically traced back to the Tang and Song dynasties, or even the Eastern Jin dynasty if legends were to be believed.

However, the history of dim sum dishes themselves is another matter.

Dim sum is usually linked with the practice of yum cha (Chinese: 飲茶; Cantonese Yale: yám chàh; pinyin: yǐnchá; lit. 'drink tea'), which is a much older tradition and can be conceptualised as a Cantonese tradition of brunch. It is believed that yum cha was associated with teahouses established along the ancient Silk Road which served as places for travelers to rest. People later discovered that tea can aid in digestion, so teahouse owners began adding various snacks and this eventually evolved into the modern yum cha practice.[7] The modern form of dim sum is believed to originate in Guangzhou (or Canton) and later transmit southward to Hong Kong[8], whose people over the centuries transformed yum cha from a relaxing respite to a formal dining experience.

Thus, the various dishes of dim sum can possibly have a longer history than the term itself.


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In Cantonese-speaking regions (such as Hong Kong and Guangdong), yum cha is sometimes described as 一盅兩件 (literally "one cup accompanied by two pieces"), in which "cup" refers to tea, while "two pieces" refers to two pieces of dim sum which were historically bigger in size and could fill up one's stomach. Nowadays, however, it is common that people would order much more than two dishes during yum cha.

Many Cantonese restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning, and each restaurant will have its own signature dim sum dish.[9] It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises. For many in southern China, yum cha is treated as a weekend family day. More traditional dim sum restaurants typically serve dim sum until mid-afternoon. However, in modern society, it has become commonplace for restaurants to serve dim sum at dinner time; various dim sum items are even sold as take-out for students and office workers on the go.

A traditional dim sum brunch includes various types of steamed buns such as cha siu bao (a steamed bun filled with barbecue pork), rice or wheat dumplings and rice noodle rolls, which contain a range of ingredients, including beef, chicken, pork, prawns, and vegetarian options. Many dim sum restaurants also offer plates of steamed green vegetables, roasted meats, congee and other soups. Dessert dim sum is also available and many places offer the customary egg tart. Dim sum is usually eaten as breakfast or brunch.

Dim sum can be cooked by steaming and frying, among other methods. The serving sizes are usually small and normally served as three or four pieces in one dish. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party. Because of the small portions, people can try a wide variety of food.


Dim sum brunch restaurants have a wide variety of dishes, usually several dozen. Among the standard fare of dim sum are the following:

Dumpling (simplified Chinese: 饺子; traditional Chinese: ; pinyin: jiǎo zi; Cantonese Yale: gáau)

Dim Sum Dumpling

Roll (Chinese: ; pinyin: juǎn; Cantonese Yale: gyún)

Bun (Chinese: 包子; pinyin: bāo zi; Cantonese Yale: bāau)

Cake (Chinese: ; pinyin: gāo; Cantonese Yale: gōu)






Tea service

Chrysanthemum tea with the leaf
A typical dining set for yum cha

Main article: Yum cha

The drinking of tea is as important to dim sum as the food. The type of tea to serve on the table is typically one of the first things the server asks dining customers. Several types of tea are served during dim sum :

Chrysanthemum tea – Chrysanthemum tea does not actually contain any tea leaves. Instead it is a flower-based tisane made from chrysanthemum flowers of the species Chrysanthemum morifolium or Chrysanthemum indicum, which are most popular in East Asia. To prepare the tea, chrysanthemum flowers (usually dried) are steeped in hot water (usually 90 to 95 °C (194 to 203 °F) after cooling from a boil) in either a teapot, cup, or glass. However, Chrysanthemum flowers are often paired with Pu-erh tea, and this is often referred to as guk pou (Chinese: 菊普; pinyin: jú pǔ; Cantonese Yale: gūk póu).

Green tea – Freshly picked leaves only go through heating and drying processes, but do not undergo oxidation. This enables the leaves to keep their original green color and retain most natural substances like polyphenols and chlorophyll contained within the leaves. This kind of tea is produced all over China and is the most popular category of tea. Representative varieties include Dragon Well (Chinese: 龍井; pinyin: lóngjǐng; Cantonese Yale: lùhngjéng) and Biluochun from Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces respectively.

Oolong tea – The tea leaves are partially oxidized, imparting to them the characteristics of both green and black teas. Its taste is more similar to green tea than black tea, but has a less "grassy" flavor than green tea. The three major oolong-tea producing areas are on the southeast coast of China e.g. Fujian, Guangdong and Taiwan. Tieguanyin (Chinese: 鐵觀音; pinyin: tiěguānyīn; Cantonese Yale: titgūnyām), is one of the most popular choice of tea. It is originally cultivated in Fujian province and is a premium variety of Oolong tea with delightful fragrance.

Pounei tea (Cantonese) or Pu-erh tea (Mandarin) – The tea has undergone years of fermentation, giving them a unique earthy flavor. This variety of tea is usually compressed into different shapes like bricks, discs and bowls.

Scented teas – There can be various mixtures of flowers with green tea, black tea or oolong tea. Flowers used include jasmine, gardenia, magnolia, grapefruit flower, sweet-scented osmanthus and rose. There are strict rules about the proportion of flowers to tea. Jasmine tea is the most popular type of scented tea, and is often the most popular type of tea served at yum cha establishments.

Restaurants and pricing

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A dim sum seller at Gongguan night market

One aspect unique to dim sum is its method of serving in specialized dim sum brunch restaurants or teahouses.[11] Here, dishes are pushed around the restaurant in steam-heated carts, with servers offering the dishes to customers.[11][12] Pricing of dishes at these types of restaurants may vary, but traditionally the dishes are classified as "small", "medium", "large", "extra-large", or "special". For example, a basket of dumplings may be considered a small dish, while a bowl of congee or plate of lo mai gai may be considered a large dish. Dishes are then priced accordingly by size, with orders typically recorded with a rubber stamp onto a bill card that remains on the table. Servers in some restaurants use distinctive stamps, so that sales statistics for each server can be recorded. Menu items not typically considered dim sum fare, such as a plate of chow mein, are often available; they are typically branded as "kitchen" dishes on menus and are individually priced. When done eating, the customers simply call the waiters over and the bill is calculated based on the number of stamps in each priced section.

Another way of pricing the food consumed is to use the number and color of the dishes left on the patron's table as a guide, similar to the method used in some Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Some newer restaurants offer a "conveyor belt dim sum" format, similar to the conveyor belt sushi eating places.

Other Chinese restaurants may not offer dim sum on moving platforms, and instead take orders, generally on a pre-printed sheet of paper, and serve à la carte, in a manner similar to a Spanish tapas restaurant. Prices of each dim sum dish may then vary depending on the actual dish ordered. This procedure may be used at less busier times in specialized restaurants, as it saves time and resources by chefs not having to anticipate which dishes would be ordered and prepare them in advance; though for the customer, it may take longer for the dishes to be delivered after ordering.

Fast food

Frozen dim sum are widely available at convenience stores

Instant dim sum as a fast food has come onto the market in Hong Kong,[13] Mainland China,[14] Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia. People can enjoy snacks after a three-minute defrosting or reheating of the instant dim sum in a microwave oven.[13]

In many cities, "street dim sum" is sold from mobile carts and usually consists of dumplings or meatballs steamed in a large container and served on a bamboo skewer. The customer can dip the whole skewer into a sauce bowl and then eat while standing or walking.

Dim sum can be purchased from major grocery stores in most countries with a Chinese population. These dim sum can be easily cooked by steaming or microwaving. Major grocery stores in Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Australia, United States, and Canada have a variety of frozen or fresh dim sum stocked at the shelves. These include dumplings, shaomai, baozi, rice noodle roll, turnip cake and steamed spare ribs.

In Singapore, as well as other countries, dim sum can be purchased from convenience stores, coffee shops and other eateries. There is halal certified dim sum available (with chicken taking the place of pork) which is very popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.


See also


  1. ^ Wong, Adele (1 November 2016). Hong Kong Food & Culture: From Dim Sum to Dried Abalone. Man Mo Media. ISBN 9887756008.
  2. ^ "點心點解叫「點心」?". Bastille Post. 2016.
  3. ^ 施, 莉雅 (2013). 精選美食王. 萬里.
  4. ^ a b 蘇, 建新 (2011). 人人都要學的三分鐘國文課5: 常用詞語篇. 如果出版社.
  5. ^ 劉, 利生 (2015). 影響世界的中國元素 - 中華美食. 元華文創.
  6. ^ "吃「點心」與「閉門羹」的典故". 每日頭條. 2018.
  7. ^ Parkinson, Rhonda. "Delicious Dim Sum – Chinese Brunch". About.com-Chinese Food. About.com. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  8. ^ Tam, S. (1997). Eating Metropolitaneity: Hong Kong Identity in yumcha. Australian Journal of Anthropology, 8(1), 291-306
  9. ^ 梁廣福. (2015). 再會茶樓歲月 (初版. ed.). 香港: 中華書局(香港)有限公司
  10. ^ Albala, Ken (2011). Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. ABC-CLIO. p. 89. ISBN 978-0-313-37626-9 – via Google Books.
  11. ^ a b Phillips, C. (2016). The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse. Ten Speed Press. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-1-60774-956-1. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  12. ^ Guides, R. (2010). The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia On A Budget. Rough Guides. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-4053-8686-9. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  13. ^ a b Wu, D.Y.H.; Tan, C.B. (2001). Changing Chinese Foodways in Asia. Academic monograph on Chinese food culture. Chinese University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-962-201-914-0. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  14. ^ Ball, S.; Horner, S.; Nield, K. (2009). Contemporary Hospitality and Tourism Management Issues in China and India. Taylor & Francis. p. 91. ISBN 978-1-136-41459-6. Retrieved 5 November 2016.