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.
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.