Chinese restaurants have long been a reliable and well-loved staple in the gastronomic landscape of London. For the full experience of Chinese dining, head to Chinatown and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the restaurants with the hanging whole roast duck and orange cuttlefish dangling before the man with cleaver chopping away in the window, the clinking of chopsticks against china bowls, the clashing sound of woks crackling and sizzling in the kitchens...
... for big nights out, what can beat a tableful of friends and family crowded around a lazy susan, the turntable in the middle of big tables that allow diners to turn dishes towards them, avoiding all embarrassing sleeves in sauce / burning fingers passing dishes manually situations, enjoying sweet and sour pork, lemongrass and ginger chicken, egg fried rice, seafood chow mein...
But what about lunchtime in a Chinese restaurant? What lurks in the bamboo steamer baskets seen only in daytime hours? What is the other table tucking into from the vast spread of little dishes laid out in front of them? It is dim sum, the Chinese snack size dishes that are ordered in large numbers to make up a tasty, filling midday meal. More details and what to order after the jump...
Most restaurants will offer an English menu with quite detailed descriptions of what is what. The accuracy and appeal of some of the English used can vary, as can spellings but be brave and pick what sounds good or familiar to you - dim sum dishes are small and unthreatening, and often not very expensive, so take a risk.
Drink tea - nothing else goes with dim sum apart from water, fizzy drinks being too sweet, beer being too filling and wine not complementary at all. Going for dim sum is also known as yum cha which is literally drink tea so best to stick with the hot liquid brought endlessly to your table.
Dim sum is not normally available after 2pm - it is a lunch time food only. It isn't as fast or convenient as sushi or noodles and rice as the right way to do it is to order lots of different dishes and wait for them all to arrive so best save dim sum for a leisurely lunch with friends and family.
Some restaurants offer a trolley service dim sum experience with the food kept hot in their steamer baskets in air hostess style trolleys; waitresses circle the tables and all you need to do is flag one down, point and eat. This isn't as easy as it sounds for the uninitiated as the trolley service girls may not have very good English and won't give you a good idea of what you're getting. Fun though it may be, for the new and uncertain, try the restaurants with table service and menus in English (some come with pictures too.)
Dim sum is not great for vegetarians or those who don't eat pork or seafood. There's a lot of meat, and mostly pork and prawns in these dishes though some restaurants will offer more in the way of vegetarian and chicken dumplings than others - it's a case of looking; sorry.
Dim sum isn't great for sweet things either: diners are unlikely to round off a meal with a sticky sweet pudding of any kind, though if you've chosen wisely and generously you're unlikely to miss it and shouldn't be able to manage much more than a last swish of tea before paying the bill.
Dim sum is best eaten with noisy friends and family, around a big table with a lazy susan that will ensure you get the last wor tip or har gau without straining yourself. Oh, and use chopsticks, the porcelain spoons or your fingers, definitely not knife and fork.
Below is a short guide to what you might see on a menu but be assured, most menus with phonetic listings of items will have a description of what it is too, so you shouldn't be too much in the dark about your choices.
Steamed - most are served in bamboo steamer baskets
char siu bao - steamed white bread bun filled with chopped roast pork
har gau - minced prawns in white rice wrapper
lor mei gei - sticky rice and chicken steamed in a lotus leaf. DO NOT EAT THE LEAF, it is for cooking purposes only
cheung fun - various fillings in a soft white pasta-like wrapping, served with soya sauce
siu mai - minced pork dumpling in a yellow wonton wrapper
man tau - plain buns rather like soft, sweetened white bread rolls
Fried - most are served with accompanying sauce
wor tip / pot stickers - pan fried pork dumplings, served with red vinegar
Vietnamese spring rolls - harder, tougher, meatier versions of standard yellow spring rolls with a minced pork and noodle filling
turnip cake - mashed and fried white radish with diced Chinese sausage and dried shrimps (like a potato croquette)
gee bau har - minced prawns in a crispy rice paper wrapping
ming har gok - minced prawns in a yellow wonton wrapper, served with fruit cocktail and mayonnaise
wou gok - fluffy and crispy yam croquette with a minced pork filling
For the very rich and chic dim sum fan try Hakkasan for not particularly authentic but very dressed up dim sum. Yauatcha is another of the chic and high-class dim sum genre of Chinese restaurants but for the real dim sum experience it can only be found in Chinatown. Try New World for a bargain trolley dim sum experience. Outside Chinatown there is The Phoenix off Baker Street and if you're really keen on dim sum and need a fix post-2pm, go for Emperor Junior on King's Road for sneaky siu mai after dark.