How I order dim sum
My approach to ordering dim sum when I bring a big group can best be described as.. benevolent dictatorship. It’s not like I don’t let people choose – I do pass around the visual menu when it’s available – but oftentimes, I hear from friends that there’s just too much choice, too much information to process. They’re hungrier than they are interested in learning the ins and outs of composing a dim sum meal. But because I never teach them how to fish/order, I’ve heard from multiple friends that when they venture out and try to order dim sum on their own, they end up ordering a random composition of food that ends up being plenty tasty, but just not what they had in mind.
So, here’s my guide to how I order dim sum. If you’ve ever been taken out for dim sum by a similarly Type A friend, I have a couple of good guesses as to what you probably enjoyed eating, and I’ll give you some tips on how to correctly order those menu items again.
Depending on how hungry your group is, my general advice is to order 2.5-3 baskets per person, to start with. When I am hangry and eating with my partner, we get 6-7 baskets for the two of us. Most dim sum places will let you put in a second round (if they’re not implementing a total continuous delivery model via the pushcarts) and you can strategically use that to order more of whatever you liked in the first round.
I generally prefer steamed dishes, over wheat dumplings or fried dishes. There are a few unmissible dumpling dishes at dim sum, but for the most part, dishes like “pork and cabbage dumpling” and “xiao long bao” are executed better at restaurants that specialize in dumpling-making. Steamed dishes are healthier in preparation obviously (if you care about that) but it’s also much harder to mask the taste of not-so-fresh ingredients when steam is your cooking method, so you’re more likely to get the freshest flavors by biasing towards steamed foods. There are always exceptions though! I include a bunch of exceptional pan-fried/deep-fried dishes here.
Also.. skip the “deep fried spring roll”, crab rangoons, and other greasy takeout staples.
Part 1: The Classics
In my opinion, the four classic, unmissible, came-by-yourself-can’t-order-that-much dishes are:
- Har gow (Shrimp dumplings)
- Siu mai (Shrimp & pork dumplings)
- Char siu bao (BBQ pork buns)
- Lo mai gai (Steamed sticky rice and meat in lotus leaf)
If you compose a round of dim sum made of only these four dishes, I promise that you will have a great meal. I would consider these dishes to be staples, and most dim sum joints should have them available.
Har gow (“xia jiao” in Mandarin) are translated as “shrimp dumplings”, “crystal shrimp dumplings”, “shrimp dumplings in glutinous wrapper”. The wrapper is traditionally made by using a dull cleaver to smear a ball of dough against a wooden surface, so the friction stretches out the dough into a thin wrapper. It is as labor-intensive as it sounds. Most restaurants buy their wrappers from third party suppliers, but the world-class dim sum restaurants make their own on-site. The filling is made of marinated shrimp and young bamboo shoots. In extremely good renditions, like Tim Ho Wan’s, the shrimp will be bouncy and sweet, and the wrapper will be translucently thin while still maintaining some chewiness. If you pick up a pleated corner with your chopsticks, the filling shouldn’t just fall out through the other side. When it’s over-steamed, the wrapper will start to disintegrate, and the shrimp will be mushy, and picking it up with your chopsticks will become more of an exercise in stabbing than cradling. When I was a kid, har gow was, by a wide margin, my favorite dim sum dish, and I still have to order at least one basket of har gow every time I go out - it’s actually the dish I use to gauge the quality of a restaurant. If you’re at dim sum for the first time, get one basket of har gow for every 2 people you have, at minimum - each basket contains 4 pieces, and you’re going to want at least 2.
Siu mai (“shao mai” in Mandarin) is the other type of dumpling that you typically cannot find outside of the context of dim sum, and therefore extremely worth ordering. Siu mai is typically translated as “steamed pork and shrimp dumpling”, sometimes “with fish roe” appended. This dumpling typically has a wheat wrapper (making it not gluten-free) and is filled with marinated, bouncy ground pork and shrimp, and topped off with a small spoonful of fish roe. Sometimes restaurants try to make a super fancy rendition of this dumpling by using iberico pork, caviar, etc… in my opinion, a well-executed siu mai doesn’t need that, it just needs to have the pork and shrimp flavors properly balanced. These usually come in baskets of 4, and you’ll want at least 1 siu mai for each diner!
Char siu bao (“cha shao bao” in Mandarin) appears on the menu most commonly as “BBQ pork bun”, “BBQ pork bao”, “steamed BBQ pork bun” (to distinguish it from “baked BBQ pastry” which sometimes appears on dim sum menus.) This dish is Cantonese-style barbecued pork slathered in more barbecue sauce, encased in a fluffy white wheat bun. Almost everyone (except non-pork-eaters) loves these buns - who can resist salty, sweet, umami pork chunks rolled up in the greatest texture of carbohydrates? A traditional BBQ pork bun will be carefully constructed with exactly three big splits on the top, created by a specific folding technique and being steamed at full blast for 10-15 minutes. There is a piece of paper at the bottom that you have to peel off before eating… I write this because I have seen people make this mistake before. I always eat these by splitting them in half and biting straight out of the middle (after blowing on it, because it’ll be hot!) This usually comes in a group of 3, and since it’s so popular, I always round up so that everyone can have at least one bun to themselves.
Lo mai gai is translated as “sticky rice with pork in lotus leaf”, “glutinous rice with meat in lotus leaf”, and variations on that – but usually “lotus leaf” is in the translation. This dish will usually take the form of two squares of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf. Embedded in the sticky rice will usually be some subset of marinated ground pork (flavored with garlic and oyster sauce), Chinese pork sausage, dried shrimp, chicken, shitake mushrooms, and – very occasionally! – salted egg yolk. I usually just use my hands to unwrap the leaf (don’t eat the leaf) and let it cool for a few seconds before digging in. I didn’t really order this dish much until I was an adult, because my mom didn’t like filling up on rice at dim sum. And on that note, this is a cheap and filling dish, which is something to consider. This is heats up extremely well for delicious leftovers. You probably won’t need a whole square for each person - I’d start with one order for every 4-6 people.
Part 2: More crowd-pleasers
If want to venture beyond the core four above and have the eating-power to support a larger spread, this is my short list of commonly-available dim sum items. Sometimes things in this list won’t be available everywhere.
Cheung fun (“chang fen” in Mandarin) is usually “steamed rice roll” or, oddly, “vermicelli roll” and I’ve had mixed success describing them as “Chinese enchiladas”. They’re enchilada-like in shape, kinda, but that’s really it. The classic filling is shrimp, but I’ve seen places offer beef, BBQ pork, chicken, duck, fish, vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, and even… fried dough stick. Carbs in carbs. The dough stick version is actually great though, because they pour a sweet soy sauce over it, and the dough absorbs the flavor of the soy sauce in a way that protein doesn’t. Cheung fun is made from big sheets of rice flour, which they make by pouring a slurry made from rice flour and water into a big, shallow rectangular pan and steaming it. Then they turn the sheet out, cut it into smaller squares, and gently fold those square sheets around whatever filling. There’s a restaurant chain called “Yin Ji Chang Fen” which specializes in this dish, and theirs are amazing and varied. Really well-executed cheung fun will be very light, you should be able to see distinct layers in the folds, and the carb-to-filling volume ratio should be around 50/50 or bias towards filling. I’d start with an order of cheung fun for every 3-4 people you have - they usually give you 3 long rolls, cut into halves or thirds.
Pan-fried honey garlic beef short rib, or grilled beef short rib, or pan-fried soy garlic short rib is a dish I started ordering in the last few years. There’s usually something like this in the “fried” section, or it turns up as a “chef’s specialty”. Anyway, if you ever go to a Korean BBQ place you’ll recognize this cut of beef - very thin slivers cut across the ribs, resulting in a chewy, rich piece of beef that comes with a tiny bone that you can pinch with your fingers while you undo your mother’s years of orthodontic investment and rip the meat off the bones with your front teeth. There are variations on the flavor profile (sweet soy, honey garlic, black pepper, etc.) but constant variable is a crispy, Maillard-reacted exterior, occasionally helped along by a deep fryer, underneath a sticky, umami sauce. This usually comes in a pretty big portion, so I’d start with one order for your whole table.
Grilled turnip cake (sometimes “pan-fried turnip cake”, “grilled turnip cake with preserved meats”) is actually slightly misnamed, because it’s made from pulverized daikon and not reddish Western turnips. I think the reason for that is that in Chinese, there’s one generic word for all root vegetables in this family (“lúo bù”) that sometimes gets translated as “turnip” because there’s no English equivalent. If you want to say “carrot”, you’d say “hóng lúo bù” which is “red turnip”, and “daikon” is “bái lúo bù” which is “white turnip”. Anyway, I really like turnip cake because it has a unique texture – crispy outside, starchy and slightly chewy inside – and it’s a great receptacle for chili oil. A good version of turnip cake will be loaded with bits of dried meat, Chinese sausage, maybe even tiny scallops and topped off with some XO sauce if you’re at a fancy place. I can eat a whole plate of turnip cake on my own, but I’d say one order for every 6 people at your table is good to start with - it’ll come in the form of 3 big pieces that people will usually split.
Steamed bean curd roll with meat and oyster sauce is a recent favorite of mine. It’s three pieces of bean curd sheet that have been wrapped around a filling of minced meat, bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, sometimes carrot, celery, cabbage, or shrimp, slathered in a translucent sauce that’s thickened with cornstarch and tastes sweet and salty, because it contains oyster sauce. I just really enjoy the crunchy and stringy texture of the filling, and the umami-forward taste of the sauce. Sometimes they have this as a fried dish, but I much prefer the steamed version. I feel like this is the closest I get to eating vegetables at dim sum. (Side note: It is totally acceptable to order a plate of stir-fried green veggies off the a la carte menu, if you’re ever feeling like carbs and meat are overrepresented in your spread.) I really only add this one to the mix if I’m eating with more than 6 people and need some extra variety.
Fried soft tofu, with some type of seafood. They don’t have this one everywhere, but they’ll probably have some form of deep-fried soft tofu, with either shrimp paste, fish paste, or a whole shrimp on top. I think this is a pretty plain dish on its own, so for me, the main utility of deep-fried soft tofu is to mop up sauces from other dishes that are pooling on my plate. Or I drown it in chili oil. This has to be eaten fresh, because it loses any crispy exterior when reheated. Like the previous entry, I’ll throw this one in if I’m ordering for more than 6 people, or if I have pescatarians at the table.
Part 3: For the adventurous eaters
If I’m with my family or a crowd of people that I know to be open-minded eaters, then I’ll start throwing in a few dishes from here. If dim sum is new to you, I’d probably not recommend ordering all of these things at once - it’s totally fine to try one new dish each time you go out, and slowly discover what you like, while filling up on your favorites.
Braised chicken feet in black bean sauce (“feng zhao” in Mandarin) is the most glorious and most divisive dim sum dish, and I love it SO. MUCH. Sometimes there are multiple chicken feet entries on a dim sum menu - the one that you’re probably familiar with is the braised one, which is bright red in color (because of food coloring, lol) and has been steamed and simmered for so long that the meat is literally sloughing off the bones. There will also be pieces of fermented black bean (you can eat them, they’re very salty, I usually don’t), little chunks of minced garlic, and sometimes boiled peanuts in the dish. There is sometimes a “stewed chicken feet” or “cold marinated chicken feet” or “soy sauce chicken feet” or “spicy vinegar chicken feet” which contain no mention of a black bean sauce – those will NOT have the same texture, they’ll have taut skin and cartilage, and you’d have to be pretty comfortable with gnawing small pieces of meat from small pieces of bone (which, btw, I do love doing). I don’t doubt your sense of gastronomic adventure, but I’m just trying to make sure that you’re ordering what you think you’re ordering!
A lot of people are put off by chicken feet altogether, which is fine - but I feel like there’s a population out there that’s cool with the concept of eating feng zhao but unsure of how to actually eat them. So, here’s my technique: I bite off a toe in its entirely, then I use my teeth and tongue to strip each knuckle of the cartilage. I spit out a knuckle or two into my hand discreetly, and put it onto my plate. When you’re left with the toeless stump, there is basically one more area that has a lot of flesh, which is the palm - I gnaw that off using my bottom teeth, but if you kinda put the entire stump in your mouth, you can hold the bottom of the bone and use suction to finish it off like a really death metal lollipop. I’ve never actually tried to describe my method before and on reflection… it does sound kind of gruesome. DELICIOUSLY GRUESOME.
I usually order one basket of chicken feet just for myself, it’s not one of the dishes that I want to foist on people (the way I will foist har gow or char siu bao).
Spare ribs in black bean sauce - This was my brother’s favorite dim sum dish growing up. This is just little bites of pork, but I put it here because sometimes people don’t like meat on bone, and this is basically 20 tiny pieces of meat on bone. It’s probably a choking hazard for small children. Tiny pork rib pieces are braised in a clear-ish sauce with garlic, ginger, scallion, black beans, probably oyster sauce. Most people like the flavor of the sauce. I sometimes throw one order of this in for fun, it’s not aesthetically offensive, but sometimes people find it more annoying to eat than it’s worth.
Tripe with ginger and scallion - Another somewhat divisive one, that I happen to LOVE. Ginger and scallion are nature’s answer to pungent, raw flavors, and I think they complement tripe really well, because there is none of that iron-rich taste that many people associate with eating offal. This isn’t honeycomb tripe, it’s small strips of “book tripe” which has a finer grain and softer texture. This is a chewy texture food - tripe is kind of inherently leathery - so just a heads up if you haven’t had it before. The sauce tastes light, clean and salty, and honestly - the first time I tried it and my mom didn’t tell me what it was, you could’ve fooled me that it was stewed squid. I’ll order one only if I know that there is a fellow offal-fan at the table.
Deep-fried baby squid - it’s like calamari, but with emphasis on the tentacley pieces. This is pretty hard to find these days, it was easier in the 90’s in New Jersey pushcart joints. They basically take baby squid, lightly dust it with corn starch, deep fry it, and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Which, incidentally, is one of the most delicious cooking methods ever - you’ve likely had crispy salt & pepper shrimp at one point, which is the same basic method. I can’t get enough of these crispy bad boys, and when I was growing up, my mom had to get me and my brother our own (enormous) plates so we wouldn’t fight over these!
Round 4: Dessert
You can find a lot of the dim sum desserts in any Asian bakery, so I personally don’t get that excited by dessert at dim sum, but I understand that for a lot of people, this is the best part. I think there are three dessert dishes that are quintessential to dim sum. Also just be aware that dessert will arrive randomly with the other dishes which is fine for most things - but if you want the steamed custard bun, I suggest putting that in as a second order so it’s not sitting on the table, getting cool, while you’re finishing your savory dishes.
Egg custard tart (“dan ta” in Mandarin) is a sweet, even-colored egg custard baked inside a mini pie tart crust. If you’ve been to a Portuguese bakery, you might notice some resemblance between these and pasteis de nata… that’s because of colonialism! Cantonese and Hong Kong-style egg tarts were influenced by Europeans in the mid-20th century. I think food fusions were the only good outcome of colonialism. These usually come in 3 and are hard to divide so just go ahead and get one for everyone.
Steamed custard buns (“nai wang bao” in Mandarin) - I personally don’t eat these much but a lot of people seem to love them. Remember the fluffy white dough of the char siu bao from earlier? There are a few desserts that use a similar dough but different folding technique, different steam aggression level, slightly different ingredient composition, but overall produce a similar texture and vibe. Egg custard buns are one of those - imagine that char siu bao from earlier, but with a filling that tastes like a sweeter, runnier, creamier version of the filling of egg custard tarts. This is one that has to be eaten immediately, because as soon as it cools, the interior will congeal and it won’t be anywhere near as fun to eat.
Sesame seed and red bean paste OR lotus paste balls (“zhi ma qiu”) might appear just as “sesame seed balls” or “sesame balls”, to the delight of any 12-year-olds in your dining party. Sometimes these are 1 inch in diameter, sometimes they’re 3 inches. I have no idea why. They can cut them in half for you with a pair of scissors if you request. These have a crispy exterior, a chewy mantle layer made mostly from tapioca starch, and a center filling made from sweet red bean or lotus paste. The chewy texture is very similar to boba or Japanese mochi - if you like either of those foods, you’ll like this one. This was, and continues to be, my 90+ year old grandmother’s favorite dessert, and transitioning to being a full-time dentures user has somehow not been a blocker to her continued enjoyment of this dim sum staple. It’s also gluten-free, which I recently learned!
Example order sheet
I leave you with a sample ordering sheet that I’d realistically submit for a group of 6 people with mixed dim sum experience. The idea here is to load up on crowd pleasers, get a couple of interesting things on there if people want to try something new, and leave open the possibility of a second round. Historically I over-order by a lot and this is about what we get through, but maybe you have hungrier friends than me.
For a party of 6 people, I’d aim for 15 baskets:
- 2x har gow
- 2x char siu bao
- 2x siu mai
- 1x lo mai gai
- 1x fried donut rice roll
- 1x grilled turnip cake
- 1x pan-fried beef short rib
- 1x fried tofu with shrimp
- 1x chicken feet OR spare rib
- 1x egg tart
- 1x custard bun
- 1x sesame seed ball
The best part of dim sum is that the bill for something like this will shake out to around $20/person, or even less. Happy ordering!