COMMENTARY, Dec 5 – Everyone loves dim sum.

Certainly all my friends do. Those at home and those from abroad. In fact, it is my friends living overseas, friends with their curious questions, who have helped me contemplate more deeply what was previously just a normal weekend morning ritual.

What do we order first? Can we mix fried and steamed dim sum? Must it always be hot tea or is adding some ice permissible?

Basically what they are asking me is: How do we order and enjoy dim sum the right way?


The more spirited amongst us might laugh at such an inquiry. Why, you just order whatever you want!

And that is not a bad answer. There is some truth to the contemporary adage "You do you.”

But I think one might miss out on a lot if one were to just order willy-nilly, treating dim sum as mere sustenance.


Yes, dim sum is food, clearly, but it can be so much more than that.

In this, I recall my weekend visits to the neighbourhood dim sum restaurant with my grandfather when I was a kid. My late paternal grandfather, my Ah Yeh. Cantonese and old-school, which meant rules.

There was always a right way and a wrong way of doing things. And this applied to everything, including dim sum.

First, go early. As early as possible, when the dim sum restaurant opens.

This might have less to do with FOMO (fear of missing out) given there will be carts after carts of bamboo steamers filled with fresh dim sum from the kitchen and more to do with the fact my Ah Yeh likes to be early.

I like to think I get my punctuality from him, something the rest of my family struggles with, alas. So perhaps, while I inherited my Ah Yeh’s punctuality, I need to work on acquiring his patience with the stragglers in my life.

Order your pot of tea before hailing the 'har gao'.
Order your pot of tea before hailing the 'har gao'.

Secondly, for my fellow coffee addicts, take a day off your kopi O or your cappuccino. You must drink tea with dim sum. In fact, you should order a pot of tea as soon as you are seated at your table, before you hail the har gao.

After all, yum cha literally means "drink tea” in Cantonese and is synonymous with dim sum. Choose the tea that everyone at the table enjoys, whether it is a poh lei (pu’er tea) or gok fa cha (chrysanthemum).

Best hot, of course, though the small children might be forgiven their ice cubes. Or if you’re a grown up who wishes to let your inner child out to play, then by all means enjoy your oolong or jasmine tea chilled.

We won’t judge you.

Thirdly, while it might be very, very tempting, do not – and I repeat, DO NOT – order all the dim sum you see, all at once.

Bamboo steamers of fresh 'dim sum'.
Bamboo steamers of fresh 'dim sum'.

The last thing you want is an entire table groaning under the weight of two dozen bamboo steamers. Though this might make for a great Instagram top-shot, chances are more than half the dim sum you ordered will get cold before you even get to them.

And no, don’t gobble up your dim sum. Take your time to savour each morsel, pause to sip some tea, and engage in conversation rather than the usual glued to your phone shtick we have become accustomed to.

Which brings me to my fourth piece of unsolicited advice on dim sum etiquette: Remember that dim sum is a social activity. Go in a group, never alone.

Yes, you can order more dim sum in a group but that isn’t really why you want a full table of people. It’s the enjoyment of dim sum as a communal meal that gives this food its cultural importance.

You’re not making up the numbers with more people; having more people is the entire point. Yum cha time is time to catch up with friends and family, and to reconnect. To strengthen bonds.

(Or check on how well we are doing in school, if you took charm lessons from my Ah Yeh, without reprimanding. No one brings a report card to dim sum; you can always say, "Not bad” and mean it.)

Of course, more people means you can share more dim sum. But which dim sum to order?

My fifth and last instruction (courtesy of my Ah Yeh): Stick with the classics.

Making classic 'dim sum' such as 'har gao' is a test of the 'dim sum' chef’s skills.
Making classic 'dim sum' such as 'har gao' is a test of the 'dim sum' chef’s skills.

If the dim sum chef at that establishment does a poor job of basic items such as har gao (steamed shrimp dumplings) or siu mai (dumplings with shrimp and pork), chances are the more eclectic options won’t fare much better.

If the 'siu mai' is good, then try ordering the 'lorbak gou' too!
If the 'siu mai' is good, then try ordering the 'lorbak gou' too!

Making basic dim sum is a test of the dim sum chef’s skills. So order those first. If the siu mai is exemplary, then you can try ordering the lorbak gou (pan-fried turnip cakes) or the chasiu sou (barbecued pork pastry).

My personal favourite is the wu gok or deep-fried taro pastry. The mashed taro, the minced pork and diced mushrooms, the feather-light crust.

My personal favourite: 'wu gok' or taro pastry.
My personal favourite: 'wu gok' or taro pastry.

(And yes, to answer an earlier question: you can mix fried and steamed dim sum. It’s not a course-by-course meal.)

There is always a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Except when there isn’t.

For it’s not the dim sum itself that touches our hearts but the actions we take to show that we care. (Dim sum in Cantonese, pronounced dím sām, literally means "touch the heart”.)

It’s how we order the favourite dim sum of our loved ones, and not our own favourites, that is meaningful and truly touching.

Yes, we might end over-ordering but when it is for someone else, it isn’t greed or gluttony; it’s love.

And that might, ultimately, be the best way to order dim sum. At least according to my Ah Yeh, not what he told me but what he showed me.

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