Hargau (steamed shrimp dumplings), lo baakgou (turnip cake), paigwut (steamed ribs); these are a few examples of the much loved dim sum that has become recognised, and eaten across the globe. Eaten now as a meal at any time of the day, the origins of this style of eating have much deeper, historical roots.
Dim sum was originally a Cantonese custom and was traditionally referred to in Cantonese as yum cha (drinking tea), as tea is typically served alongside dim sum. This old tradition of yum cha is believed to have come about as a response to weary travellers along the ancient Silk Road needing a place to rest and eat. In recognition of the opportunity to profit from these travellers, teahouses gradually appeared along the roadside. As they became more established, rural farmers exhausted from a day’s labouring would also make the journey to the local teahouse to engage in relaxed conversation and food.
The imperial physician, Hua To, in 3B.C. spread the belief that combining tea with food would lead to excessive weight gain. Later it was discovered however, that tea actually aided the digestion process and cleansed the palate, and as a result, teahouse owners along the Silk Road began investing in various snack-foods, and here is where the tradition of dim sum is born. As this style of eating reached popularity, the original calming respite offered by these teahouses was transformed into a noisy and cheerful dining experience among friends and family. Dim Sum literally translates as “to touch your heart”. These small bite-size foods served in baskets or on little plates were designed merely to touch your heart, and not sate your appetite.
Dim sum in the West came about as a natural result of 19th century immigrants, many of who were from the Canton region. Among the 23 provinces of China, each one has a distinct cooking style. Incidentally, due to this large influx of emigrants from Canton, when Westerners speak of “Chinese food”, more often than not they are actually referring to Cantonese cuisine. Many gourmands believe that dim sum inspired the idea of “brunch”- combining breakfast and lunch into one large mid-morning meal. This style of eating has reached such popularity that many restaurants now serve dim sum through to evening meals. The art of dim sum has evolved to have different characteristics in different cultures, but its purpose remains the same: to enjoy and share food around the people you love.