Deciding how to choose a Dim Sum tea is a topic similar to a Dim Sum cart – It’s fully loaded! What makes your tea selection so important? Dim Sum is a pleasurable social gathering lasting 2 to 3 hours. So picking the right pot of tea matters. Infuse yourself here with Dim Sum delights to tuck away and share at your table. We’ve even added Cantonese terms to help you enjoy an authentic experience.
What is Dim Sum?
Aka “Yum Cha,” meaning “drink tea” in Cantonese, this tradition comes with sumptuous savory and sweet treats called Dim Sum or Dian Xian “點 心” in Mandarin. Dim Sum means “delicate hearts.” The practice of Dim Sum runs deep in Cantonese culture.
I grew up in Hong Kong, where families and friends eat Dim Sum and swap stories every Sunday. Business people meet over Dim Sum to seal deals. On a pre-Covid trip back to Hong Kong, I had the great pleasure of revisiting Lock Cha Tea House in Hong Kong Park. This elegant establishment hearkens back to the olden days of classic Cantonese tea tasting.
Savory snacks, washed down by fragrant golden Wuyi Oolong, accompanied by authentic tea music. Fellow tea lovers filled the antique house, eating, drinking, listening. Each of us quietly dwelled to our delicate hearts’ content. Together, we were alone with our dumplings and tea. What a beautiful and unique experience!
Dim Sum is a food religion for the Cantonese.
One of the marvels of traditional Dim Sum is the endless cadre of food circling from table to table. Dim Sum ladies energetically push shiny silver carts. They enthusiastically hawk their precariously stacked bamboo steamers. Inside each basket hides a savory or sweet treat. It’s rowdy and fun. The indoor equivalent of a Cantonese tailgate party. And the Cantonese don’t even play football. You see, Dim Sum is our Food-Ball. ;-D
For maximum enjoyment, it’s important to pair the right Dim Sum tea with delights such as:
- Shrimp dumplings (Har Gow)
- Pork dumplings (Siu Mai)
- Soup-filled dumplings (Xiao Long Bao)
- Pork buns
- Bamboo shoots
- Egg custards
- Chicken feet, anyone?
Origin of Dim Sum
Dim Sum started in Canton (now Guangzhou), a metropolitan coastal city near Hong Kong. The dialect spoken in this southern region of China is Cantonese. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), Canton played a significant role in the tea trade. Historically, Canton has been hailed as China’s food capital. “Eat in Canton” is a famous phrase in China.
The custom of tea drinking began in China’s southern regions, where tea cultivation originated thousands of years ago. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the Southerners snacked on chestnuts, walnuts, pinenuts, and almonds while drinking tea. From then on, the food menu expanded and evolved into Dim Sum. This Cantonese cuisine received a Royal following when the imperial court fled to southern China during the Mongol invasion.
The British took their first sips of Chinese tea around the mid-1600s. Two hundred years later, Afternoon tea bubbled up in London. This is when the English first paired food with tea, their version of Dim Sum with fancy hats.
What are Dim Sum tea offerings?
First, let’s explore the six traditional Chinese tea types.
Six Types of Tea
- White tea: Yi Zhen, Bai Mei, or Bai Mu Dan
- Yellow or Scented tea: Jasmine tea
- Green tea: Dragon Well or Long Jin
- Oolong tea: Wuyi Oolong, Da Hong Pao (from Wuyi Mountains), Dong Ding Oolong (Taiwan)
- Black tea: Lapsang Souchong, Yunnan Black tea
- Pu erh tea: This is my father’s favorite.
Depending on the restaurant owners’ tea savviness, the cha menu can vary. Traditional Dim Sum establishments provide a selection from each tea category, plus a few from below.
Other Dim Sum Teas
Here is some off-menu insider information.
Nearly all Cantonese restaurants offer this caffeine-free herbal tea, brewed from the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum. Called Gok Fa Cha in Cantonese, this refreshing drink is hugely popular in the southern regions of China.
Chrysanthemum flowers come with lots of health benefits! For example, this tea has a cooling property for lowering internal heat and reducing inflammation.
Did you know that inflammation is the primary culprit for most illnesses? Chrysanthemum tea is my mother’s favorite.
Peasant tea means hot water. No joke. During the Cultural Revolution (1949-1976), tea was abolished as a feudalistic practice. Teapots were destroyed, factories shut down, tea fields abandoned. The government prohibited tea drinking. I often wonder how a billion Chinese managed to survive for nearly three decades of tea-less days?!?
Without tea leaves, people boiled water and pretended to drink tea. So drinking hot water (or Guan Shui) became an unshakable habit.
Although I can not imagine life without tea, there’s a silver lining to drinking hot water. For one, it’s better for you than iced water. The Cantonese prefer hot, warm, or room temperate water because iced water abruptly cools down the internal system. The intensely (maybe a bit too intense) health-focused Cantonese always try to keep the core of their bodies warm.
Should you pour Pu erh?
Pu erh (or Bo Lei) is the favorite Dim Sum tea for older Chinese. It’s an easy choice since good Pu erh tea is delicious and packed with health benefits.
Although I’m a fan of Pu erh and drink it often at home, I recommend that you avoid it in Chinese restaurants. Here’s why:
Pu erh has a dark tea soup. The bottomless crimson color makes Pu erh vulnerable to tampering. It’s difficult to tell the quality of Pu erh until it’s brewed and tasted.
Pu erh tea is Known as "HEI CHA" OR "black tea" in China.
To help cut costs, many restaurants use low-grade Pu erh. Consider this: a well-aged Pu erh can cost between $50 to $100 per gram. High-quality Pu erh commands over $500 per gram among collectors. Each pot takes about 4-8 grams of tea leaves, depending on the desired strength.
Since Dim Sum restaurants charge $3 to $5 per person for hot tea, what is the likelihood of getting a quality Pu-erh?
My tea policy is to stay clear of Pu erh in Chinese restaurants because of the inconsistent quality.
My Dim Sum Tea recommendations
If you have a personal preference, that’s great. For those interested in my thoughts – thousand times Dim Sum Alum – I recommend:
- Oolong tea: this is my fave Dim Sum tea!
- Scented Green tea
- Chinese Black tea such as Lapsang Souchong
- Chrysanthemum tea
Oolong is my perfect Dim Sum tea, as it helps digestion, removing grease. Enjoy the feast of Dim Sum while keeping the skinny jeans buttoned.
Dim Sum is an incredible social experience. From Hong Kong to Honolulu, London to Los Angeles, Sydney to Singapore, great Dim Sum can be enjoyed. Thanks to the creativity of chefs, Dim Sum menus now serve up more than 1,000 delicacies. Here are a few more Cantonese classics:
- Rice porridge (Jook),
- Fried noodles (Chow-mein )
- BBQ buns (Cha-Siu Bao)
- Sticky rice
- Deep-fried egg rolls
When your teapot is empty, simply place the lid sideways on the pot. The Chinese server will know it’s time to refill your teapot with hot water.
Let’s face it: Covid’s forced isolation affected all of us negatively. Dim Sum is a perfect way to celebrate and immerse yourself in energetic humanity. When the restrictions are lifted, run with sincerity and dispatch to your nearest Yum Cha place, and join the Dim Sum Fun. Share your own #DimSumFun and mention @9DragonsTea or @ChristyHuiChat.
— Love Christy