The Time Out guide to Dim Sum

Our picks of the best dishes to order

In our book, there's no better way to kick off a weekend morning than by filling a table with steamer baskets and little plates of dim sum goodness and knocking back enough tea to counteract whatever we were knocking back the night before.   

If you're with us, this guide is for you. Do dim sum right by getting to know your Cantonese tea snacks: from how they're made to how to order them in Chinese.

When you're done, don't forget to check out our guide to Beijing's best dim sum restaurants.

Shanghainese soup dumplings
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Shanghainese soup dumplings

Don't waste the delicious broth inside these soup dumplings (or burn your mouth): put the whole thing on your spoon and pierce the skin with your chopstick to let out some of the liquid before slurping the whole thing down.   


Order it xiǎo lóng bāo 小笼包

Rice noodle roll
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Rice noodle roll

The first character of the Chinese name for these rolls means intestine because that's kind of what these long flat pieces of rice dough look like once they've been rolled into a tube. The filling is sometimes barbecue pork, sometimes shrimp and, occasionally, a deep fried crullers (yóutiáo  油条). Whatever the filling, the rolls are usually served swimming is sweet soy sauce.

 

Order it cháng fěn 肠粉

Shrimp dumplings
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Shrimp dumplings

The pretty translucent wrappers on these shrimp dumplings are made from a pliable, slightly sticky dough made by mixing rice flour with boiling water. Inside, the fillings are juicy. 


Order it xiā jiǎo 虾饺

Chicken feet
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Chicken feet

To the uninitiated, chowing down on a chicken's foot might not sound particularly appetising. 


Consider this your initiation: get over the fact that there's no meat to be had, the point is the mouthfeel of the chicken skin, fat and tendons, softened by hours of braising with garlic and black beans. Also, in Chinese they're called Phoenix claws which is pretty cool. 


When you do take the plunge, watch out for the small inner bones but don't try to eat around them, it's ok to spit them out into your bowl or spoon.  


Order it chǐ zhī fèng zhuǎ 豉汁凤爪

 

Pork dumplings with crab roe
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Pork dumplings with crab roe

Pork dumplings with crab roe are a quintessential dim sum order: the flavours are simple, they're perfectly sized for grabbing out of the steamer and they look great.


The thin round wrapper keeps the filling, usually, as here, a mix of pork, seafood and mushrooms or water chestnuts, in place and its pleated edges plus the topping of roe (as above), peas or Chinese ham are meant to make the dumplings look like flowers.  


Order it shāo mài 烧麦

Custard bun
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Custard bun

To get the delicious, sweet ball of custard into these custard buns, chefs make the custard thick enough to be pressed into balls that can be wrapped in Chinese steamed bread dough, and left to rise in the steamer.  


Order it liúshā bāo 流沙包

Short ribs in black pepper sauce
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Short ribs in black pepper sauce

For dim sum, pork spareribs are cut into bite-sized, chopstickable chunks and then steamed until tender. Often they're dressed with fermented black beans, stock and ginger, sometimes, as in this case, they're cooked in a pungent, warming black pepper sauce.   


Order it hēi jiāo niúzǎi gǔ 黑椒牛仔骨 

Chaozhou-style dumplings
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Chaozhou-style dumplings

The defining characteristic of Chaozhou-style dumplings is their thick, translucent wrappers, often made from glutinous rice flour. Inside you'll generally find a mix of pork, whole or dried shrimp and Chinese mushrooms, often seasoned with chives and garlic.  


Order it Cháozhōu fěn guǒ 潮州粉果

Steamed barbecue pork bun
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Steamed barbecue pork bun

Pork buns, properly bready and slightly open at the top to reveal their delicious barbecue pork filling, are a perennial dim sum favourite for good reason.


Order it chāshāo bāo 叉烧包

Hakkanese glutinous rice with pork and shrimp
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Hakkanese glutinous rice with pork and shrimp

Filled pastries made with glutinous rice flour are a dim sum mainstay. The outer casing is flexible and chewy, similar to a rice cake, but with a delicious filling.


Order it kèjiā xián chá guǒ 客家咸茶果

Yam pastry
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Yam pastry

Yam and Taro, two tubers very similar to the sweet potato, often pop up in one form or another in dim sum dishes. 


When you order dim sum pastries don't expect the them to be particularly, sweet, though Chinese pastry is fairly similar to puff pasty, in that it expands out to many crispy layers when its cooked, its made from lard rather than butter and rarely sweetened.  


Order it huáishān sū 淮山酥

Durian puff
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Durian puff

If you think you don't know what durian is a) we feel happy for you and b) actually you do. You know that really bad smell you sometimes encounter in Asian fruit shops? 99% of the time it'll be the soft, off-white flesh of a yellow, spiky durian.


But, oh durian, we can't stay mad at you. Not when you taste so good wrapped in flakey pastry.  


Order it liúlián sū 榴莲酥

Egg tart
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Egg tart

These custard-filled beauties are the delicious descendants of Portuguese custard tarts (pasteis de nata), bought over to Macau by the Portuguese who colonised it from the mid-16th century.


At dim sum, they're often served warm with their custard still pleasantly eggy-wobbly.   


Order it dàntà 蛋挞


Barbecued pork pastry
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Barbecued pork pastry

Cantonese barbecued pork, often written and pronounced in Cantonese (char siu) in Western Chinese restaurants, gets its distinctive sweet, smokey flavour from being heavily seasoned, usually with honey, five spice, fermented bean curd sauce, soy sauce and hoisin sauce, and then roasted in a covered oven.


Barbecued pork pastry is one of our favourite ways to enjoy it. 


Order it chāshāo sū 叉烧酥

Fried radish cake
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Fried radish cake

Fried radish cake is made from those large, white Chinese radishes you might have seen around your local supermarket (they look like turnips, hence this dish's other common name, turnip cake) that have been mixed with rice flour, steamed and then fried to give them their delicious, slightly charred flavour.    


The radish cakes above are a particularly fancy example of the genre: you're far more likely to get a straightforward, yet satisfying, wedge of white/brown cake with a red chili or vinegar sauce on the side.    


Order it jiān luóbo gāo 煎萝卜糕  



Congee
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Congee

Nothing warms the soul on a dim sum-worthy weekend morning than a bowl of congee, Chinese rice porridge. 


If that sounds unappealingly simple, it can be: many younger members of the Chinese Imperial family suffered malnutrition after being put on a congee-only diet to cool their 'inner fire'. These days, however, congee is rarely simple enough to leave you underfed: the rice is often mixed with broth instead of just plain water and its common for it to be served with cooked vegetables or meats, more like a delicious rice stew than plain porridge.   


Order it 粥 zhōu 

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