Every morning, people in Hong Kong touch hearts. Figuratively, of course, because what they are actually doing is enjoying baskets of dim sum, whose name (dim2 sam1 點心) literally means “touching heart.” As anyone familiar with Hong Kong will know, these bite-sized snacks are an essential part of Cantonese cuisine. They are served at thousands of places across the city, including traditional tea houses such as Lin Heung, where women pushing trolleys piled high with bamboo steam baskets yell out “char siu buns, shrimp dumplings, siu mai, beef offal” like a well-rehearsed poem.
Dim sum was officially recognised as an English word by Oxford English Dictionary in 2016, but its definition— “a Chinese dish of small steamed or fried savoury dumplings containing various fillings”—does little to shed light on its origins. If you break it down into its components, the term dim sum has two meanings. First is the character dim2 (點), which if used as a verb to mean “touch,” refers to “appeasing the heart,” that is, to quell one’s hunger. If used as an adjective, dim2 also denotes “tiny,” “delicate” or “a small bit of” – and it can also be used as a noun to mean “dish.” The noun sam1 (心, “heart”) is a multi-functional word that connotes desire and pleasure. So the term dim sum is as stuffed with meaning as a har gau is with shrimp. It can refer to a dainty snack between meals, but also to breakfast, the lighter meal of the day.
But why are these dishes called “touching hearts”? The answer goes back to the sweets and pastries that were consumed as snacks between meals during the Six Dynasties (220-589). In the latter part of that era, during the Liang Dynasty (502–557), all kinds of food became precious treats when a prince ordered food and garment rationing to save up for battle expenditures. Soldiers could only have small bites of food as meals which gave rise to the concept of food as a delicate pleasure worth savouring.
Those are the distant roots of dim sum. The term “dim sum” itself didn’t appear until the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and the origins of the name are reflected only in lore. According to one story, there was a thrifty state official tasked with managing his family’s food supplies. One day, the official’s brother-in-law visited his house in the early morning. His wife, the mistress of the house, was still washing up. To tide the guest over, she told him to have some “dim sum,” a dainty term she seems to have invented. A maidservant obliged and prepared some small dishes for the guest.
The term seems to have caught on. When the mistress was ready for her own breakfast, the servant asked for the key to the food storage again. The state official scolded her for asking for so much food. The maidservant replied, “This is to prepare dim sum for the mistress.” This wasn’t simply a meal – it was something special.
This makes sense when you consider the broader context, which is that the Tang Dynasty was an era of prosperity that followed decades of hunger and conflict. According to the book Jan3 Gei3 Zung1 Waa4 Dik1 Fu3 Sik6 Cing1 Daan1 (印記中華的副食清單), a historical account of food in China, this was the era when people began eating food not simply for sustenance but also for leisure. Dim sum came into its own as a category of tasty, delicate and visually appealing dishes that were designed to be enjoyed for their own sake.
The combination of flavours, colours and shapes, as well as the way the dishes were cooked – all were meant to impress. Puffs, glacé fruit, pancakes, cakes and rice dumplings were only some of the dim sum varieties among many others. Pancakes alone could be pan-fried, steamed, boiled, or dipped in soup. The flavours could be both sweet—made with sesame or red bean paste—and savoury, made with eggs, Chinese chives, shrimp shells and so on. Dim sum dishes were given elegant names like Crystal Dragon Phoenix Pudding (seoi2 zing1 lung4 fung6 gou1 水晶龍鳳糕), a glutinous rice pudding made with red and white dates. A pancake made with dates—white and round and dotted with pink—was called the Concubine’s Blush (gwai3 fei1 hung4 貴妃紅).
Dim sum could be so exquisitely crafted that at banquets it was used to show off the wealth and hospitality of the hosts, who set up a viewing table (hon3 zik6 看席) stocked with dim sum meant to be admired rather than eaten. As a symbol of luxury, dim sum was made for royal banquets, as the royal family’s tea snacks or desserts after the main course, or as gifts from the emperor. But emperors were difficult to please, and it was a daunting task to come up with new and impressive dishes from time to time. Interestingly, royal chefs got their inspiration from humble places like markets, where hawkers sold street food of various origins. They brought the recipes back to the kitchen, where they experimented with the tastes and elevated the presentation.
This may suggest that dim sum is available across China, but there is a regional difference in terminology. In the north, steamed buns and sweet cakes are served with tea; one popular treat is sachima, a Manchurian snack made of fluffy strands of fried batter bound together by a stiff sugar syrup. In Cantonese, these are known as tea bites (caa4 sik6 茶食); dim sum is reserved to describe more elaborate dishes.
As finely crafted as it may be, dim sum is nothing if not accessible. It is served at high-end restaurants, with expensive ingredients such as flowers and swallow’s nests, as well as in humble neighbourhood cafeterias where families and friends gather for a casual meal. With so much variety, dim sum is adept at absorbing outside influences, and it’s common to find innovations such as lemon-infused egg tarts, Nutella sesame balls or soup dumplings made with foie gras and truffle. Whatever the ingredients, and whatever the setting, these dishes all have one thing in common: they touch the heart.
Photo in slider is by Jason Jacob @flickr