When you visit Hong Kong, there are many things you must do – go on the Lion Rock hike, visit the Big Budhha, take the Peak Tram, and many more. However, there is one activity in Hong Kong that many travellers miss – trying dim sum. Because of how complicated and intimidating dim sum restaurants might seem, many travellers avoid one of the quintessential experiences when travelling to Hong Kong.
This dim sum guide will help you prepare for your first dim sum visit, so you can come out with a new understanding of one of the oldest Hong Kong traditions!
What Is Dim Sum?
Dim sum simply refer to the large variety of small dishes that Cantonese people traditionally enjoy, usually for breakfast or lunch. You might have seen them in stacks of bamboo baskets. However, unlike what many people believe, not all dim sum are served in a traditional bamboo basket. Only dim sum that need to be steamed are served in the bamboo baskets.
Having dim sum is usually referred to as “yum cha’, or drinking tea in Hong Kong. That is because tea is usually accompanied by the dim sum, and many consider it as important as the dim sum themselves.
When comparing to food from other countries, dim sum closely resemble Spanish tapas in the way that they are meant to be shared. That is why when you visit a dim sum restaurant, you will often families and groups of friends. It is rare to see someone going to “yum cha” solo.
To local Hong Konger, yum cha is not just about indulging in the delicious food, it is also about gathering family and relatives together, especially on the weekends. In fact, this ability to bring everyone together is one of the reasons why dim sum is not going away anytime soon, despite their unhealthiness! After dim sum, everyone usually gathers up and play some mahjong, a traditional Chinese tile game!
Picking The Perfect Tea For Dim Sum
Like we have mentioned, tea is an important part of having dim sum, or yum cha (literally translates to drinking tea). The moment you sit down, the servers will ask you what type of tea you would like. If you have not read this dim sum guide, then you might say something like black tea or green tea, but it is not that simple.
Depending on the dim sum restaurant, there could be several different types of teas. The most popular types are Bo Lay, Chrysanthemum, Iron Budhha, or Sau Mei.
If you are a fan of black tea, you should try the Bo Lay tea. It’s bold, earthy and rustic flavor profile is perfect for greasy dim sum.
Chrysanthemum (Guk Fa in Cantonese), once the most popular tea for dim sum in Hong Kong, is becoming less common. Its floral and slightly sweet flavour is perfect for someone who is not too familiar with the different types of tea.
Iron Budhha (or Tit Kwun Yum in Cantonese) is personally my favourite type of tea. Rich in flavour but still possessing a smooth floral profile, it pairs well with any type of dim sum. However, it does have a hint of bitterness.
Last but not least is the white tea Sau Mei. Its bold and bitter flavours might not fare well with everyone, especially if it has been steeping for too long. Whereas the other tea is like drinking a black coffee, drinking (dark) Sau Mei is like drinking an espresso.
If it is your first time having dim sum, we recommend you to try either Chrysanthemum or Iron Buddha Tea!
Dim Sum Etiquette
When it comes to dim sum etiquette, there really aren’t too many. However, there are a few things that you should before your first time to dim sum.
If you are planning on visiting a dim sum restaurant during busy hours, there might be a chance you will need to share your table with another group of patrons, especially if you are a small group.
When you run out of tea in your teapot, simply put the lid on top of the teapot. It is to indicate that you ran out of tea and you need more hot water in your pot. Don’t wave your teapot around.
Like most of Hong Kong, you will be offered chopsticks for your meal. If you cannot use chopsticks, it is okay to ask for a fork or spoon. Don’t be embarrassed!
How To Order Dim Sum In Hong Kong?
Ordering Dim Sum in Hong Kong is quite easy, even if you are not familiar with the Chinese language. Historically, servers would offer customers different dim sum from steam-heated carts. The servers would push the cart close to your table and tell you what they have in their cart. Each cart offers something different – one might offer buns, another might focus on fried food, and another might specialize in sweets.
If there is something you like, you let the servers know and they will give it to you. In exchange, the server would stamp your dim sum card, something that is given when you first get seated. At the end of your meal, you bring the card to the cashier and pay according to the number and location of the stamps you have on your card.
However, this cart-pushing tradition is starting to fade away as everything become digitalized. Nowadays, it is more common to find a paper with a list of dim sum the restaurant is serving. Tick off the ones you want and hand it to the servers and your dim sum will come up shortly!
Since dim sum are still fairly unpopular with foreigners, the paper with the list of dim sum might not have English. If you could find one that still offers dim sum in carts, make sure to give it a try. There is nothing better than walking up to one of those heated carts, hovering over it with your face, and getting hit by a wave of steamy angelic goodness. Having the opportunity to see and smell what you are going to order will definitely help you, especially if it is your first time at a dim sum restaurant.
Popular Dim Sum Dishes
Though dim sum is forever changing, there are several staple dim sum dishes that you will see in every dim sum restaurant. Here are some of them:
Char Siu Bao (Pork Buns)
Steamed pork buns are some of the oldest types of dim sum in Hong Kong. Served in traditional bamboo basket steamers, char siu bao are a must when you visit a dim sum restaurant in Hong Kong. It usually comes in a basket of 3 or four, ideal for sharing! Nowadays, a newer baked version of the char siu bao is also available in some dim sum restaurants.
Siu Mai has been one of the most popular dim sum. A type of Chinese dumplings, Siu Mai is usually made with pork and shrimp wrapped with dumpling skin. Fish siu mais are also available at some restaurants, but they are a lot less common. These shareable bit-size dumplings usually come in 3s or 4s!
If you are going to order Siu Mai, you might as well order Har Gow as well. Har Gow and Siu Mai are like the Bonnie and Clyde of dim sum! Similar to Siu Mai, Har Gow are bite-size dumplings. But the difference between them is that Har Gow is usually just shrimp wrapped with a translucent wrapper.
Fong Zhao (Chicken Feet)
Chicken feet might not be the dim sum you are excited for, but it is one of the local Hong Kongers’ favourites! Steamed with primarily soy sauce, cooking wine, chilli sauce and salt, it is a bold savoury taste that will get some head nods. Having the tough part of the skin removed, the chicken feet are only left with soft skin and tendon, allowing the flavours to soak in thoroughly! The only issue is the visual component of the feet. They aren’t exactly the most appetizing dim sum!
Best Dim Sum Restaurants in Hong Kong
If you were to count the number of dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, you would be here for a long time. In Hong Kong, you don’t find dim sum restaurants, they find you!
If it is your first time having dim sum, we recommend you to visit the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan. Known as one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, Tim Ho Wan will not disappoint. Their menu is also in both Chinese and English, perfect for anyone coming from abroad.
Another one of our personal favourites is Dim Sum Here. Though you won’t find much of the traditional flair as other dim sum restaurants, the food here is extraordinary!
This concludes our guide to dim sum in Hong Kong. Hopefully, this has given you the information (and confidence) to walk into a dim sum restaurant and try one of the most popular foods in Hong Kong!
Author Bio: Hey, I am Sean Lau! In 2018, I left the comfort of my home and job in New York City to find out what truly inspires me. Since then, I have trekked through the Andes, tested my lungs at over 5,000 meters above sea level, encountered the world’s deadliest spider in the Amazon Rainforest, and explored the world’s most catastrophic nuclear disaster.
On LivingOutLau, you will find personal information, guides and travel tips as I share my discoveries of the world. This is me Living Out Loud (Lau)