Dim Sum is a classic Cantonese cuisine that evolved from a 10th-century tea tradition in Southern China. This popular cuisine is a gastronomical destination, social gathering, and a quintessential tea experience all roll into one. I grew up in Hong Kong, where every Sunday, families, and friends go “Yum Cha” (“drink tea” in Chinese) and swap stories. Business people meet over Dim Sum to seal deals.
“Dim Sum is a food religion for the Cantonese.”
Hundreds of small plates in bamboo baskets: soup dumplings, pork filling buns, bamboo shoots, sticky rice, egg custards (chicken feet, anyone?) reveal in a steamy fashion by dim sum ladies pushing the carts. For such a sumptuous meal, you want to pick a pot of tea that aids digestion and removes grease. So let’s take a closer look at the types of tea served to help you make this a tasty tea-time yet still fit into your skinny jeans afterward!👖
Origin of Dim Sum or “Dian Xin” 點心 in Chinese
Yum Cha aka Dim Sum (“delicate touching hearts,” in Cantonese) is a classic tea tradition complemented by savory or sweet dim sum dishes. How is Dim Sum originated? Dim Sum’s tradition started in Canton, now Guangzhou, a metropolitan port city located on China’s southern coast. The Canton port played a significant role in the tea trade during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Historically, Canton has been hailed as China’s gastronomic capital.
The custom of tea drinking began in China’s southern regions, where tea cultivation originated thousands of years ago.
By the 10th century (Song dynasty), the Cantonese people started to take food with tea. And Dim Sum was born. By the Yuan dynasty, 13th century, Dim Sum received a royal following as the imperial court fled to southern China during the Mongol invasion.
On the other side of the globe, the British took their first sip of Chinese tea around the mid-1600s. Two hundred years later, Afternoon tea bubbled up in London.
Which tea is best for Dim Sum?
Picking a perfect pot of tea is essential for Dim Sum. Because you’ll drink this tea for the entire meal, often lasting 2 to 3 hours. So making a wise tea choice is essential. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
First question, what are your restaurant tea choices? Tea comes in six major types: White tea, Yellow tea, Green tea, Oolong tea, Black tea, and Puer (or Pu-erh) tea.
Depending on the restaurant owner’s savviness for tea, the offering of tea or “cha” in Cantonese varies. Let’s look at some popular choices offered in traditional Cantonese Dim Sum restaurants.
Traditional tea types
- White tea
- Yellow or Scented tea: Jasmine tea (aka Jasmine Green tea) or some other flower-scented Green teas.
- Green tea: Chinese Green tea, such as Dragon Well or Lone-Jin in Chinese.
- Black tea: Lapsang or other Chinese Black tea such as Yunnan Black tea, etc.
- Oolong tea: Oolong from China or Taiwan, such as Dong Ding Oolong.
- Pu-erh tea: “Bo Lei” in Cantonese. Pu-erh tea is a popular choice, my father’s favorite tea for Dim Sum.
Other Cantonese tea choices
Aside from the above teas from the six tea categories, Cantonese classics listed below are always available for choosing:
Nearly all Cantonese restaurants offer this caffeine-free herbal tea, brewed from the dried flowers of Chrysanthemum.
Called Gok Fa Cha in Cantonese, this tea is hugely popular in southern China. Why? Because Chrysanthemum flowers come with lots of health benefits, and it’s also caffeine-free.
According to Chinese herbal medicine, Chrysanthemum tea offers a cooling property that lowers one’s internal heat and reduces inflammation, the primary culprit for illnesses. Read more about the health benefits of Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum tea is my mother’s go-to tea at any Chinese restaurant.
Peasant tea equals hot water. This is no joke. During the Cultural Revolution (1949-1976), tea was shunned, abolished as a feudalistic practice. The government shut down all the tea factories and prohibited tea drinking. I find it mind-boggling and ironic how the Chinese people managed to survive the Cultural Revolution without drinking tea after thousands of tea-sipping?
Back in those tea-less days, people boiled water to pretend it’s tea. Drinking hot water or Guan Shui in Cantonese became an unshakable habit.
There are health benefits to drinking hot water. For one, it’s better than iced water. Cantonese people would only drink hot, warm, or room temperate water. So no iced water. Why? Because iced water cools down the internal system, where it should be kept warm.
Popular tea choices
For Chinese, especially the older generation, Pu erh tea or Puer or Bo Lei in Cantonese is the go-to tea. Because of Pu-erh’s legendary health benefits.
Chinese people believe Pu-erh tea can cut grease like no other teas. More importantly, Pu-erh is known to lower cholesterol, among many other health benefits. Learn more about Pu-erh tea’s health benefits here.
Despite this popular belief, I recommend taking the path less traveled and skipping Pu-erh in Chinese restaurants. Here’s my rationale:
Pu-erh tea has a dark tea soup. The bottomless crimson color tea makes Pu-erh vulnerable to tampering. It’s difficult to tell the quality of Pu-erh until it’s brewed and tasted.
To help cut costs, many restaurants use low-grade Pu-erh tea. Consider this: a well-aged Pu-erh tea comes with a luxury price tag, costing $50 to $100 per gram, some even more than $500 per gram (for collectors). Each teapot takes about 8 grams of tea leaves, depending on the desired strength.
Since Dim Sum restaurants price tea at $3 to $5 per teapot or per person, what is the likelihood of getting a quality pot of Pu-erh tea in a mid-ranged restaurant?
My personal tea policy is to stay clear of Pu-erh in Chinese restaurants because of the inconsistent quality standards.
My tea recommendations
If you have a personal preference, that’s great. For those who are interested in suggestions, I recommend the following teas:
- Scented Green tea, such as Jasmine Green tea.
- Chinese Black tea, such as Yunnan Black tea. Or,
- Oolong tea. A personal favorite.
- Chrysanthemum tea makes the perfect herbal, caffeine-free choice.
Oolong tea is excellent for removing grease after a meal.
For people who want decaffeinated or herbal tea, Chrysanthemum tea is a pure delight, as chrysanthemum flowers are known for their “cooling” property.
Today, Dim Sum is a gastronomic experience worldwide. Thanks to Chinese chefs’ continuous innovation, the Dim Sum menus serve more than 1,000 delicacies and offer a wide array of regional favorites and famous local treats.
Cantonese dishes, such as Har Gow (shrimp dumplings), Siu Mai (pork dumplings), and Jook (rice porridge), have become household names. Cities like Singapore, Los Angeles, and Honolulu offer excellent Dim Sum restaurants.
I hope this article helps you better select your tea in a Chinese restaurant. To follow my tea adventure, sign up for my newsletter here. Happy sipping.