How to Order Dim Sum

Have you ever been invited to lunch at a dim sum restaurant but didn't know how to order dim sum?  Were you ostracized by your peers and forced into a lifetime of take-out and delivery?  It's time to step outside of the box and get to know your way around the dim sum world.

  1. Know the environment.  Ordering dim sum should be fun.  Traditionally served in the morning or early afternoon, dim sum comes as small portions of a variety of foods commonly served in carts.  It's unique method of preparation and service should be an enjoyable experience for first-timers, but it can be a bit overwhelming- the noisy setting, language barriers, and unfamiliar food ingredients come with a learning curve.  It's important to be open-minded during your inaugural voyage into dim sum dining.
  2. Getting seated.  Dim sum restaurants rarely take reservations; if you don't get there early, you may find your name at the end of a long list.  Fear not: turnaround comes pretty quickly in these parts- seating will happen when there is room, so don't feel slighted when a couple standing behind you gets seated before your party of five.  Many dim sum restaurants have extra large tables to group multiple parties together.  Don't be afraid to mingle with some new eating acquaintances: your new tablemates may have a wealth of experience to share with a novice dim sum dabbler like yourself.  And the best seat in the house?  The one next to the kitchen, of course!
  3. Preparation.  As soon as you're settled, find the closest waiter (they're all your waiter) and supplement your meal beforehand.  Many dim sum servers are more concerned with the food and plate transitions than the table settings.  The basics: hot tea, water (a full pitcher is helpful for larger parties), condiments (duck sauce, soy sauce, spicy mustard- you name it), rice, and above all, utensils.  Not everyone is comfortable with chopsticks, and it's as good a time as any to learn, but don't be ashamed to ask for a fork in preparation for some expected wrist-aching.  In a dim sum restaurant, it's up to you to be prepared.
  4. The menu card- what is this?  If a waiter hasn't provided you with your menu card, it will be on the table somewhere.  It's not as complicated as it looks.  Generally, the different dim sum courses are separated into groups.  There may even be price points listed on the menu to which the dishes will refer.  In order to keep track of the cost, simply match the Chinese character next to the dish with the price point next to the same character.
  5. The art of the carts.  When the food carts start wheeling your way, it's off to the races.  It's first come first serve, so the closest tables to the kitchen will always have first dibs.  When the cart arrives, the server will most likely showcase each dish that is on the cart, and it's up to you to gesture whether you want it or not- a simply nod or hand motion should suffice.  If you want multiple items, just gesture for more.  When you are finished with your choices, the server will tally the items and mark them on your menu card.
  6. Vigilance wins.  Stick to your guns when making your choices.  If an item looks appealing, go for it.  Dim sum portions are small enough and usually inexpensive enough to warrant your curiosity and consumption.  The best dim sum experience happens when you take some chances.  But don't hold up the carts!  There are always more carts coming, so if one cart doesn't do it for you, the next one might.  You will find that being vigilant and adventurous provides the most satisfaction when ordering dim sum.
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