An Introduction to Dim Sum and a Pair of Dim Sum Candles

Dim sum is an ancient Chinese form of fast food. The term “dim sum” literally translates as a “touch of the heart.” Instead of offering counter service or menus, diners sit at a table and servers pass with carts bearing all sorts of appetizers. The servers will stop at each table and diners may pick and choose what they want.

Chinese dim sum restaurant

Each table has an order pad and as food is served, the server uses an ink stamp to mark what was ordered. This makes it easy for the cashier to later ring up the order. When I was a boy back in the 60’s, many dim sum restaurants used different types of plates to represent different prices. This practice was largely ended after some unscrupulous diners began hiding plates to reduce their bill.

In the United States, Chinese-American appetizers might include egg rolls, steamed won-ton dumpling, and crab rangoon. Authentic Chinese appetizers include two thousand offerings, though most restaurants offer 150-200 selections.

An assortment of dim sum

Many of these selections involve all sorts of dumplings. There are also stuffed bao (steamed rolls stuffed with savory meats or sweet bean paste). There are fried Daikon radish cakes, sticky rice that was steamed and fried, and braised soy sauce chicken. Some restaurants even offer stir fried vegetables that are served with a drizzle of oyster sauce. Others offer soup and fried noodles.

The soy sauce chicken candle that I wrote about in an earlier post was inspired by the dim sum culinary tradition.

Soy sauce chicken candle

If you’re familiar with the Spanish tradition of tapas or the Lebanese mezze, the Chinese culinary tradition of dim sum is basically the same concept. Tapas, mezze, and dim sum are all types of appetizers. They’re all served in small portions. They also come in a wide variety of dishes. You could literally enjoy a complete meal while eating nothing but these appetizers.

Do’s and Don’ts for Enjoying Dim Sum

If you’re interested in trying dim sum, google search for a dim sum restaurant in your area. Dim sum is typically served for breakfast and lunch. It’s usually not available for dinner, though you could always call a given restaurant to see when dim sum is served.

Since dim sum consists of nothing but appetizers, it’s always best to go with a group of people so that you may enjoy a wider variety of dishes.

When you’re seated you’ll be offered tea. Although you could order a specific type of tea, the default for most Chinese restaurants is Oolong tea. The tea arrives in a pot and it’s considered good manners for the host or hostess of your dining group to serve tea to the others before serving tea to one’s self.

If you need more tea, the polite thing to do in a Chinese restaurant is to remove the lid from the empty tea pot. You could either offset it or place the lid on the table. A passing server will notice this and will bring you more tea.

If you’re having a conversation with your fellow diners when the tea arrives, good manners call for you to tap your fingers on the table while continuing to converse with your friends. It’s understood by the server that you’re saying thank you and you’ll likely get a smile for having observed this dining etiquette.

Dim sum restaurants do not have servers who are dedicated to serving specific tables. Any server is free to serve any table.

Although American dim sum restaurants are used to customers asking for a knife and fork, in Chinese etiquette knives and forks are considered weapons and are not allowed at dining room tables. This is why Chinese chefs make everything bite sized. This is also why Chinese eat with chopsticks.

According to the food magazine, Lucky Peach, the tradition of dim sum dates back to the late 19th century along the old Silk Road. After a long day in the fields, farmers would congregate in tea shops to rest and to talk about the day’s events. Since the farmers were often hungry, these tea shops began serving appetizers.

Different tea shops offered a variety of different appetizers. In time, these dishes evolved into the dim sum that we have today. Pictured above is my favorite type of dim sum; shu mai which are dumplings stuffed with pork and shrimp which are then steamed.

Zongzi (pictured above) is another one of my favorite dim sum dishes. My paternal grandmother used to make this for breakfast. It typically consists of sticky rice mixed with chopped Chinese sausages, peanuts, and vegetables which are then wrapped in banana leaves prior to steaming. After making the sticky rice, some restaurants fry the rice prior to steaming them.

After having made a new rice mold, I was inspired to make a dim sum candle by adding a pot sticker to the top of a fried sticky rice candle. Pictured below right is the wax pot sticker that I made. After removing the wax from the mold, the dumpling was hand painted to make it look as though it had been fried.

Here is the completed dim sum candle. Although I thought about using candle gel to simulate the drizzle of a chili pepper oil, I decided not to do this because of Chinese dining etiquette. Proper etiquette calls for diners to dip their food in condiments like chili pepper oil or soy sauce.

This candle smells of ginger, garlic, bacon, and a touch of hot peppers.

my dim sum candle

Since I had left over ingredients for the sticky rice and a soy sauce chicken, I made a second dim sum candle that features sticky rice topped with sliced chicken. Unlike the first candle, I did not wrap the rice in banana leaves.

This candle smells of ginger, garlic, brown sugar, bacon, and seasoned chicken candle fragrance oils.

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