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What You Must Know About Eating Dim Sum and Proper Etiquette

What Is Dim Sum?

Dim sum, which means ‘touch the heart’ in Chinese, is a unique culinary tradition that began thousands of years ago. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular in the Western world. Small, bite-sized snacks are served communal-style (usually from a cart) with as many as 150 Cantonese dishes to choose from, and nearly 2,000 dishes in total.

Drinking tea is as much a part of the ritual as the eating is–to such a degree, that dim sum has become inextricably linked with the phrase ‘yum cha’, or the act of drinking tea. For brunch or for lunch, with families or friends, as part of group get-togethers or co-worker outings, dim sum is a gathering of sorts centred around good food, hot tea, and great company. Cheers to yum cha.

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What to drink at a dim sum restaurant

Photo: Joey Chung/Shutterstock

Photo: Joey Chung/Shutterstock

Before tackling the expansive array of dim sum on the menu, order a pot or two of tea. Dim sum is intended to be enjoyed alongside tea; it should not be treated as an afterthought. In fact, dim sum is so closely linked to tea that the term is sometimes used interchangeably with yum cha. However, yum cha is technically the phrase for a meal eaten in the morning and early afternoon, consisting of tea and dim sum.

The most common variety of tea at a dim sum restaurant is jasmine. If in doubt, stick to the basics. But if you want to branch out, there are other options available: A potent black tea — another traditional staple at the dim sum table — cuts through the oily dim sum dishes while a refreshing chrysanthemum tea has a slightly sweeter flavor. You might also find the much more familiar green tea (commonplace at most Americanized Chinese restaurants) on the menu.

Once the teapot is empty, prop the lid open so the top is uncovered to indicate you’re ready for a refill. Traditional etiquette dictates that your companions always refill your cup of tea during the meal, but if you slip up, don’t feel as though you’ll be dragged out by your collar for violating the rules of the restaurant. These traditions take some getting used to.

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