Food Biz

How to Dim Sum Like a Pro

August 16, 2016

Chinese culinary expert Carolyn Phillips (All Under Heaven) has written the ultimate guide to enjoying Cantonese teahouse treats, The Dim Sum Field Guide. We got her to spill the beans on her secrets to getting the most out of this experience.

1. The Wise Way to Pick the Restaurant

Go to places that are filled with loud tables full of happy Chinese people. If there are lots of elderly people with their entire families in tow, the place gets extra points. When it comes to quality and value, you can’t fool the old folks.

2. Pick Your Tea Before Anything Else

You are in a teahouse, so of course there is going to be tea. Decide what you want to drink before you get to your table, because that is the first thing your waitperson will ask, sometimes even before you’ve sat down. Jasmine? Green? Oolong? Black? Maybe try the author’s go-to brew: pu’er with chrysanthemums. Don’t order wine or beer or anything else. Dim sum goes with tea. Period.

3. Check Out Your Neighbors

If you haven’t dined in this place before, peruse the tables as you walk in—as well as the ones that are sited near you—to see what others are ordering and devouring most rapidly. You can always unobtrusively point to things that appear tasty, ask what they are, and request an order for your table.

4. Peruse the Menu

The best teahouses will have listings of their dim sum, often with pictures, and you can order from that. Translations will vary from place to place, which is where the Dim Sum Field Guide comes in handy, as you will find illustrations in there, as well as the names of each dish in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, along with the Chinese characters. Easy peasy.

5. Scan the Carts

Not every dim sum restaurant has carts being pushed through the aisles, but if they do, carts are a good way to get an idea of what looks particularly delicious. They will generally offer specific types of foods, such as deep-fried items, roast meats and braised poultry, steamer baskets, and sweets. Steamed dishes in particular are best when they are freshly made as the texture in the wrappers and fillings will be perfect. So when you order things like siu mai and fun gor from your waitperson, ask that they be steamed to order.

6. Graze

It’s easy to go crazy and fill up your table within five minutes, but don’t. Get one or two items at a time so that they are still hot when you eat them; this will also give you time to revel in their individual flavors and textures. Strive for variety in the ingredients, cooking methods, temperatures, and types of dim sum, as this makes each round exciting. Then, when you start to get full, ask for new plates and begin to order a couple of your favorite sweets.

7. Be Adventurous

Patronize a number of different places until you find that lovely handful of restaurants that really pleases you. Try something new with every visit so that you don’t fall into a rut. Once you’ve mastered the basic repertoire, become daring. Jellyfish, chicken feet, duck tongues, goose intestines, and suckling pig are all mighty tasty, but you won’t know that as a fact until you have given them a fair chance.

8. Take a Stab at Chinese Manners

Dining with Chinese people is easy, as they tend to be some of the nicest people in the world. But you’ll make them more comfortable if you know a few ground rules:

  • Serve others tea before yourself
  • Never lay claim to any one dish, but share
  • Finish a dish only if everyone else declines the last piece
  • Take only a bit at a time
  • Use a serving spoon or the top ends of your chopsticks to serve yourself or others; no one likes cooties

9. Eat Like the Chinese

Once you have the food on your plate, this is the way to look like your mom raised you well:

  • Use chopsticks or forks as required; a few items can be picked up with your hands, like large buns, but not many
  • Never leave your chopsticks stuck in your food
  • Make sure your utensils don’t have food glued to them
  • Remove any bones or shells with your chopsticks and arrange them in a tidy pile on your plate
  • Rest your non-dominant hand on the edge of the table, not in your lap
  • Signal that you are full by setting your chopsticks parallel to you across the top of your plate

10. Fight to Pay the Bill

Unless you’re out with good friends who have agreed to go Dutch, be aware that Chinese courtesy requires you at least try to pay for the meal. Chinese friends who are not cheapskates will almost invariably be generous and attempt to foot the bill, but you can gain great face if you manage to snatch the check away from them. Be gracious if you succeed, and of course expect to be treated the next time around. Even then, offer to pay—it’s all part of the experience. And if your friends are tightfisted, find yourself some new dining partners.

For even info on how to dine like you were Chinese in your last life, check out the Dim Sum Field Guide. All illustrations by Carolyn Phillips.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • dgk
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    Fred Rickson
  • Lisa
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    Ali Worthalter
  • TT
Carolyn Phillips is a food writer, scholar, and artist. She is the author of the fully illustrated All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China (McSweeney’s + Ten Speed Press, August 2016) and The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialties of the Chinese Teahouse (Ten Speed Press, August 2016). Her work has appeared in such places as Best Food Writing 2015, Lucky Peach, Gastronomica, Buzzfeed, Alimentum, Huffington Post, Food52, Zester Daily, and at the 2013 MAD Symposium in Copenhagen. She and her husband were cultural consultants on the third Ghostbusters movie, her weekly blog is Madame Huang's Kitchen (, she Tweets as @madamehuang, and Instagrams as @therealmadamehuang. Carolyn’s art has appeared everywhere from museums and galleries to various magazines and journals to Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas series. She worked for over a decade as a professional Mandarin interpreter in the federal and California state courts, lived in Taiwan for eight years, translated countless books and articles, and married into a Chinese family more than 30 years ago.


dgk August 20, 2016
@Lisa, it's not the writing that's the problem -- it's your interpretation. What is wrong with a dim sum restaurant full of happy Chinese people talking loudly? That's the restaurant I want to go to -- and have gone to repeatedly -- as someone who's Chinese. And I'm also not presumptuous enough to suggest that Chinese people are the only ones who can speak knowledgeably about dim sum.
Fred R. August 17, 2016
That was one of the great things about passing through Hong Kong (or any foreign city/local food scene for that matter) for many, many years...all the big dim sum joints were filled with happy, loud, smiling Chinese. Just enjoy and don't overthink the experience.
Lisa August 16, 2016
"Go to places that are filled with loud tables full of happy Chinese people."? Really? Would you ever say "Go to a Mexican restaurant filled with loud happy Mexican people."??? Please consider the way your writing comes off next time around. Why are you not promoting dim sum books written by actual Chinese Americans who grew up with dim sum? Seems like they would be a lot more knowledgeable and authentic about the culture.
Ali W. August 16, 2016
As a Mexican, I have to say that yeah, for sure I would walk into a Mexican restaurant only if it's full of Mexicans, and the happier and louder they are, the better! If I saw a Mexican joint with only a couple of tables occupied by anyone who isn't Mexican, I'm pretty sure the food is not authentic Mexican
TT August 17, 2016
Hey - that advice is totally legit. Unless you're looking for Americanized / fusion food. Then, by all means, go to the Chinese restaurant without Chinese people in it.
HalfPint August 17, 2016
@Lisa, I have often advised people to go find a restaurant/food truck that have a lot of loud, happy,[insert any ethnic group]. It's good advice because who else but these native-eaters would know the good from the mediocre. Especially those elderly aunties :)
To your second question, The Dim Sum Field Guide will be released on August 30, 2016. That's why this book and its author are being promoted in this article. From a quick skim of Amazon, the last time a dim sum book from a Chinese American author (if going by the author name) was released was 2014. I'm sure that if there is a dim sum book by a person of Chinese heritage , we would be reading about that book. I thought this article was fun (it's pretty spot on) and will be informative for those new to dim sum. Authenticity and knowledge are not necessarily genetic. I know plenty of Asian Americans who don't know food beyond pasta, pizza, and burgers. Just because Carolyn Phillips is white does not negate her knowledge of dim sum. I mean, the woman speaks Mandarin well enough to be an interpreter in Federal and State court!
Crosby L. August 15, 2019
i linked my facebook to this random food site just to say.. go home lisa.