Dim Sum: A dim sum primer

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Part of me wishes I'd never had dim sum before. The traditional Chinese brunch includes many delectables, but I doubt I'll ever have a more rapturous culinary experience than putting my face into a white, puffy barbecue pork bun for the first time. That bite was a one-time kind of revelation, and now I'm a bun addict for life.

Luckily Columbus has two restaurants that will sate diners' dim sum desires the traditional way, on push carts - just like in Hong Kong and Chinatowns across the U.S. So although I'm no longer a dim sum virgin, I can live vicariously throughyou, dear Alive readers, as you experience it for the first time at Sunflower or Lee Garden.

Dim sum isn't intimidating if you know what to expect. Here's what you need to know so you can worry about leaving room for dessert rather than trying to figure out what the heck is going on.

Dim sum is a brunch synonymous with the Cantonese yum cha, or tea tasting. The meal, typically served in America on Saturdays and Sundays, originated as a light snack to accompany tea, so it's customary to order the hot beverage while dining.

Think of dim sum as tapas on wheels: All sorts of small goodies are served on metal steamer carts and typically come in small servings of four. For that reason, it's best to try dim sum in groups of four, but the more the merrier.

Don't expect to find Americanized standards like sweet and sour chicken. Dim sum offers dishes you can't normally find on a Chinese restaurant's menu, most of which are steamed or fried and include pork or shrimp.

And while there are options like pig's blood cake and chicken feet, most of the food isn't scary in the least. It just may not be obvious exactly what you're eating.

"It's suited to adventurous eaters," said Bethia Woolf, owner and chief guide of Columbus Food Adventures. "You're not always going to know what everything is."

There's no menu, so you'll order by pointing at an enticing dish on the cart to let the server know you want it. If the dishes are covered, ask the server to lift the lid off each steamer. And you can always ask for an explanation if you can't figure out what you're looking at - just know that there's sometimes a language barrier.

Dim sum is great for indecisive diners who have a hard time settling on one entree. Almost all the small plates are in the $3-$5 range, so you can order many of them and ignore a dish if it doesn't interest you.

"You really can't make a mistake ordering dim sum," assured Nida's Thai on High bartender Vivian Loh, who blogs about food at lipshmack.wordpress.com. Loh became a dim sum expert while living with her family in Hong Kong during the late '80s and early '90s.

"We'd go out to dim sum every Sunday instead of church," she said.

Loh suggests beginning your dim sum experience by ordering chrysanthemum tea. The sweet, floral notes will contrast nicely with the rich, heavy pork and shrimp dishes.

It's common to feel bombarded by the carts once you're seated, but you should resist the urge to order everything in sight.

"It's like conveyer-belt sushi. It's really easy to overdo it at the beginning," Woolf advised.

Loh suggests ordering only two or three steamers at a time.

"That way you don't overload on food," she said, "and that way everything will be fresh and nothing will get cold."

If there's a plate you'd like to try (say, one from Alive's handy dish guide) but you haven't seen it, feel free to ask a server for it or track it down yourself.

"Sometimes when the carts are all over the place, you can absolutely go seek out the cart that you're looking for," Loh said.

If your chopstick skills aren't up to par, don't hesitate to ask for a fork. No one will judge you.

Likewise, dietary restrictions shouldn't stop you from enjoying dim sum. While quite a few of the dishes use pork fat as a flavoring, there are vegetarian options. Ask the servers for suggestions.

As you select plates off the carts, the servers will keep track of your bill by stamping a card on your table. When you're finished eating, you can take the card to the front counter to settle up. However, there's one more tradition to follow first: It's customary to at least pretend to fight over the bill.

One final piece of advice from the experts: "Go early!" Dim sum novices and addicts alike flock to Lee Garden and Sunflower each weekend.