Dim sum is one of the most unique and entirely accessible experiences in food. The literal translation for dim sum is ‘touch your heart’ – a term chosen to describe the style which is suppose to be small, packaged, and dare I say ‘bite-sized’ to tickle your fancy rather than cure a ravenous appetite. Dim sum is interchangeable with ‘Yum Cha’ – which simply means ‘let’s go for tea’. So the saying goes (according to my old bar manager) that in the same way an Englishman can hold his pint, a chinese guy can hold his tea… well quite the same thing but you get my drift.
This culture of going for tea still exists today as you can find dim sum places serving as early at 6 am in parts of Asia. The older generations would tell you that dim sum or yum cha is a time for them to catch up with the week’s worth of current affairs (especially the men). As this is the only time when busy folks have the opportunity to sip tea, read the paper, and to take the whole family out for a meal. This is also the same reason dim sum is a breakfast/brunch meal, usually on the weekends. What was once simply a way of describing ‘drinking tea and hanging out’ is now a full blown restaurant experience in itself, some even say a cuisine. As a simpleton, I cling to my conservative preconceptions about dim sum, and that this is primarily a time for family and close friends to catch up. Dim sum is all about warm laughs, sharing and that feel good factor. The particular style of food is usually based on the original Cantonese iteration, and I say usually because depending on where you are, other variations have been introduced to dim sum menus, particularly shades of Shanghai style cuisine. Broadly speaking though, dim sum dishes come in small portions, with the dishes being shared by the entire table. There is confusion as there are parallels with other sharing style pseudo-cuisines such as tapas for example. Where in truth, sharing has always been part and parcel of Chinese cuisine, and this has been going on for centuries. The difference being that for a full blown Chinese dinner, the dishes are larger, and touch your tummy more than your heart.
Typical dishes usually fall in two categories : fried or steamed. As far as I know, the ‘old’ way of serving dim sum is to have a manned trolley that goes around the restaurant floor. I think the old romantic scene of a waitress announcing the contents of her cart by shouting ‘Charsiu bao, Charsiu bao’ has long since vanished. Instead, waitress will wheeled over a trolley of fried stuff first. Usually, it is a mobile glass cabinet, so you can peek into it and see what’s available. Typical fried dim sum include prawn croquettes, yam croquettes and you will usually also find triangular shaped baked roast bbq pork puffs (char siu sou). If you think of this as a ‘course’, then this would be the starters. After that, the waitress would bring over a heated trolley filled with the recognisable bamboo steamers. It is part of the experience (if you will) to ask for to see her stuff – she’ll then give you a peek under each steamer. Typical steamed dishes include har gao, shui mai, chicken feet, spare ribs in black bean sauce, char siu bao and steamed chicken with ginger. The other famously typical dim sum dish which is usually ordered off the menu is of course the cheung fun (made from rice noodles) filled with either prawns, charsiu or youtiaw (fried dough). For pudding, it’s got to be the egg tarts, sometimes custard buns as well, or tofu fa (silky tofu in warm syrup). And that to me is a pretty typical, and traditional dim sum meal. One needn’t necessarily follow this formula as there are plethora of dishes which I’ve not mention, including lo mai gai (stuffed glutinous rice).
Speaking now on the contemporary way of serving dim sum, I think there is generally a shift toward trolley-less service (you certainly won’t see trolleys in London) which are quickly becoming archaic. In fact I haven’t seen one in the last five years either in London or elsewhere. There are several reasons for going trolley-less, chief among them is that food would be more fresh when made to order. As opposed to a trolley which might be keeping food which could have been going around the restaurant floor for hours. I prefer having dim sum steamed to order, food is alot more appetising when it lands on the table piping hot.
There is another one crucial topic to speak of which is the cha. While tea is part of the ceremony of dim sum, there is no obligation to do have it with dim sum, that’s a myth. I’ve quite happily had iced coffee and iced milo to go with my dim sum in the past, then agian that could just be that I like breaking the rules. Though if you must have tea, then my tip is to never ever ask for just ‘chinese tea’. While this isn’t explicitly written in the menus, generally speaking, chinese restaurants stock a range of popular teas ranging from something lighter say Xiang Pian (Jasmine tea) or Te Quan Yin (a type of Oolong) to something hardcore like Po lay (a black tea). If you’d like to try something alternative, I suggest giving Chrysanthemum a try (with abit of rock sugar if they can manage). More of a floral hot beverage, it carries a mild nectar sweetness to it as opposed to the usual roastness of teas.
Living in London, there’s actually a good range of dim sum restaurants. Generally speaking, not very many are exceptional, but across the board, many serve dim sum to a good standard. I can’t say that I have been to every single dim sum place in town, but I have been to enough to put together a list of what I think are stand outs:
1. Pearl Liang Paddington – This is my benchmark dim sum in London. Food is good across the board, prices are reasonable and the dining room is atmospheric. Bog standard, in a good way.
2. Yauatcha Soho – As much as I loathe the idea of Alan Yau turning what is supposed to be a relaxing family affair into a high nose, high culture, highly snobified excuse to charge money, I actually think that food in Yauatcha is very good. I’ve been about a dozen times over the last few years and each visit has also been positive. Their juuk (congee) in particular, I rate it highly, as good as you’d find in Hong Kong. And their venison puffs (a twist on the charsiu sou) is expertly crafted. Very expensive though, and I still dont understand dim sum for dinner…
3. Royal China Bayswater – This place used to be my benchmark, the shui mai was once the best in town in my opinion, but I think standards have declined in recent time. Still, very good, and constantly packed out on weekends.
4. Yum Cha Camden – Not to be confused with Yum Chaa, based in Camden, the food is excellent and might actually be better than Pearl Liang. Their egg tarts in particular are great, and they also serve very capable xiao long baos.
5. Leong’s Legends Chinatown – If you order well, you can have a great meal at Leong’s Legends. Taiwanese influenced dishes are found on their dim sum menu as well, so they set themselves apart from the pack with this twist. Although, there are howlers on their menu – their shui mais are torrid, but their juuk is benchmark material. I think this is Chinatown’s best offering, many restaurants along Gerard street are average at best.
6. Wing Yip Cricklewood – Touted as a Chinese ‘Superstore’, the restaurant is attached to a big warehouse supermarket. Abit out of the way, but on the weekends, one of the few places I know which has the bustling, oversubscribed family atmosphere that is part of the dim sum experience. Food is good but not exceptional, though it really is the ambiance that makes this place special. Also, the restaurant is done up in the old fashion grandesque banquet style which adds to the overall experience.
This list is not meant to be definitive, just some personal favourites. There are others out there who write more extensively regarding the range of dim sum places in London. Further reading includes World Foodie Guide also the food section of DimSum.co.uk which is the official British community website. Anyway, hope you find this little write-up useful, do let us know how your next dim sum quest turns out and do make sure you tap your fingers on the table when somebody pours tea for you, it’s only etiquette.