The term ‘dim sum’ means ‘touch your heart’, which is the intended effect of the many dishes that you’ll encounter while enjoying this traditional Chinese cuisine. Dim sum is served much like Spanish tapas, with bite-sized portions of several dishes to be shared around the table. While traditionally eaten during the day, in modern times it's also common to have dim sum at night.
Among the dishes you can expect to sample at a dim sum meal are char sui bao (steamed or baked buns stuffed with barbequed pork), siu mai (steamed pork or shrimp dumplings), har gau (steamed shrimp dumplings), ham sui gau (glutinous rice dumplings with pork), and xiao long bau (steamed pork dumplings served with soy sauce, vinegar and shredded ginger).
Dim sum houses first started in Canton, as simple food for laborers and travelers. Many restaurants still serve dim sum in the traditional fashion, where carts of different dim sum dishes are wheeled around the tables and customers point out the ones they want. Others have paper checklist menus, where you order by marking the checkbox next to dishes you'd like to try.
One of the most well-known dim sum restaurants in Singapore is the Michelin-starred Hong Kong based Tim Ho Wan, but expect long queues most of the time. This isn’t a meal to be rushed, but to be enjoyed with good company – sampling the many varieties of dishes available and indulging in a few cups of Chinese tea.
Indeed, dim sum is tied inextricably with yum cha, which is drinking tea. You’ll be served tea when you sit down. When you’re serving tea, serve others at the table before yourself. If you turn the lid of the teapot upside down or leave the lid slightly off the pot, it’s a sign to your water that you would like a refill.
The traditional way to thank someone for filling your tea is to tap the table lightly. This practice comes from a an old tale that says that a Chinese emperor once went to a tea house dressed as a commoner. When he poured his friend some tea, the friend wanted to thank him but couldn’t have bowed as this would have revealed that he was the emperor. As a gesture of appreciation and respect, he tapped his fingers on the table.