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How a Chinese working class meal conquered the world

DON’T TELL THE TEXAS TYCOONS! Foodies in the United States city of Houston, Texas, are waiting agog for the opening of a branch of Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-starred restaurant from Hong Kong. Within weeks, they’ll be spending their hard-earned cash on the eatery’s speciality: traditional dim sum.

But few people know that dim sum started as working class food for poor people.

Here’s the story.

In the late Qing dynasty, during the mid-1800s, a number of cheap teahouses started operating in Guangzhou. They were referred to as er li quan (二厘館), a term referring to cheap eateries for working class people. The teahouses served tea and small dishes at very low prices.

The workers, who had no money to spare for “proper” meals at real restaurants, would gather at these cheap tea shops soon after dawn, and have dim sum as breakfast before going to work as labourers. A customer would generally order one bowl of tea and two varieties of dim sum (一盅兩件) and call it a meal.

But it smelled great. Other people wanted to try it. Small tasty meals with a bowl of tea were surprisingly satisfying and soon people of all classes were muscling in on the workers’ food.

“And why not?” said restaurant staff, always happy for more businesses. Some restaurants complied by building a two-story operation. Working class people could eat their dim sum on the ground floor while richer people would eat upstairs (and pay a little more, of course) so they wouldn’t have to dine with labourers.

People from the relatively wealthy district of Xiguan (西關) in the western part of Guangzhou got hooked on the cuisine too. It became a social thing, with such tea meetings being called yum cha (literally “drink tea”).

Manchu ladies photographed dining in Beijing, 1869. Image by John Thomson, Wellcome Collection.

From the 1920s onwards, this “tea culture” spread, moving to Guangzhou and cities, including Hong Kong. Chinese who travelled abroad set up dim sum shops for workers elsewhere: the first dim sum cafe in the United States was opened in 1920 in San Francisco.

The Americans immediately loved Chinese food and it became a tradition to visit what they called “the chow-chow houses”. The most popular dish was “chop suey”, which the customers thought was an exotic delicacy – but was actually a word from Taishan in Guangdong meaning “leftovers” (sap seui or 杂碎 “odds and ends”).

As the cuisine became popular in the urban parts of Guangdong and Hong Kong, many teahouses competed fiercely with each other and chefs made a wide range of different dishes to grab popularity. And this “arms race” caused the development of a huge number of food options. (More on this below.)

Today, the term 點心 or dim sum is known widely around the world. People abroad may not know that it is a term referring to a Cantonese cuisine from Southern China, featuring a series of small, light dishes popular for breakfasts, lunches or snacks. But they know it to refer to good food, often featuring dumplings, served in small portions.

Dim sum is an addiction in Hong Kong

Most menus may have a few dozen choices, but dim sum as a cuisine is said to consist of a selection of more than 4,000 varieties of small-plate Chinese foods, including steamed and fried dumplings, steamed buns, spring rolls and many others.


When foodies enter a tea house, the first thing to do would be to order a specific kind of tea. Many Chinese choose the most popular style, a strong tea called pu’er, while tourists tend to be given the lighter jasmine tea, in the belief that it is more suitable for them. Another option is gokfa, made from the chrysanthemum flower.

Tea has fragrant smell and is good for health.

The old-fashioned way was to have your tea on the table with the tea leaves directly in them, kept warm by a lid. When you needed a top-up, you just removed the lid and the waiter would add boiling water from a big aluminium kettle (see pic below).

Traditional aluminium tea pot service. Image: Kimiyo.

However, the tradition has changed: the big metal pots have largely gone, and individual porcelain pots, one containing tea and the other just hot water, can be found on each table. 


Meanwhile, the four most famous dim sum dishes must not be missed. These are cha siu bao (steamed pork buns, 叉燒包), har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings, 蝦餃), siu mai (steamed pork dumplings 燒賣) and daan tat (a sweet egg custard tart).

Har Gow is a signature dim sum dish.

Indeed, har gow (above) is often considered the crown jewel of dim sum and many restaurants choose to perfect this as their top offering. To scrutinise the skill of a dim sum chef, foodies can look for the number of pleats in the wrapper. Preferably there should be at least 10 pleats, or up to 13 for real style.

A similar dish is siu mai (above) often served with har gow. These are tiny parcels of minced fish or porl with a yellow wrapping.

Chao siu bao (above) contains pork pieces in a sweet barbecue sauce. The steamed bread is always very soft-textured. How to achieve this? First you knead an appropriate portion of dough and then cut it into individual rolls. After wrapping the diced barbecue-flavored pork up, the cha siu bao should be made in a sparrow shape and put into the bamboo steamer. According to the old saying in Canton kitchens, steaming is the most crucial procedure as 30% of the time is is spent in preparation and 70% in steaming.

The dish is served in the bamboo steamer which keeps it warm and fresh, so it doesn’t have to be eaten immediately. The super-soft texture of the cha siu bao will not change, even hours after it is served.

These days, modern chefs in teahouses have harmonized Chinese and Western tastes and intermingled the dishes with Western ingredients and cooking styles. This has led to the development of fusion items like perigord truffle shrimp dumpling.

Dim sum is best eaten with a large group of friends and family, so that you can order a great variety of dishes: and create happy memories that will last a lifetime.

Image at the top by Marta Markes/Unsplash.

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