"You know, the... the... the thing! With the pork. And the floppy rice noodles. You know, that you put the sauce on."
Dim sum, or yum cha as it's sometimes called, is meant to be a relaxing occasion. You're supposed to drink a lot of tea, eat some salty or sweet snacks, and chew the fat (so to speak) with friends.
Everybody's got their favorite dim sum, though, and if you're at a place with cart service and you end up sitting closest to the aisle, you are going to be asked to procure these favorites, which can be tough if you don't know what they look like and can't ask for them. Not exactly relaxing.
So here's the guide to the most common foods at dim sum.
Before we get started, let's appease the language sticklers. These pronunciations and rhymes are approximations. Cantonese is a hard language to learn even for Mandarin-speakers, with nine tones that get mangled into six; having untutored gwailo try it can be an exercise in comedy. The laughter will happen, but at the end of it you'll have delicious food on your table. Laugh away, tell me how bad the approximations are and how it's useless without tones, but bear in mind that the bad approximations will still get delicious food on your table and will probably earn you a smile or an appreciative laugh from the cart ladies.
If you get desperate, the Chinese characters are listed and you can print them out.
Au yuk kao
Rhymes with "now look cow"
Steamed beef meatballs, the ugly (but delicious) duckling of the yum cha table.
Char siu bao
Rhymes with "bar few now"
The single most popular dim sum item, these are the white fluffy buns filled with sticky, sweet barbecued pork. If you're looking for the kind that have been baked with sugar glaze on top, order guk char siu bao (焗叉燒包, rhymes with "look bar few now").
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Rhymes with "Jung bun"
Meat wrapped in thick, large rice noodles and topped with a soy-based sauce. These are the dim sum that will test your mastery of the chopstickial arts. The three common variations are beef (牛肉腸粉 / au yuk cheung fun), shrimp (蝦腸粉 / har cheung fun) and barbecued pork (叉燒腸粉 / cha shu cheung fun).
Chiu chow fun gwor
Rhymes with "few now bun core"
These are usually half-moon shaped, with an oddly brown filling that comes from peanuts and dried vegetables mixed with pork. You'll get a dish of chili oil (la yau) with this.
Rhymes with "gone hot"
Egg custard tarts, usually in flaky lard-based pastry.
Dou fu fa
Rhymes with "no you Pa"
Fresh tofu, cooked in a steamer or a rice cooker, then topped with ginger simple syrup. Freshly-made tofu has a floral scent that dies as it cools, which may be why the name of this dish means "bean curd flower" in Cantonese; the ginger is a perfect counterpart in this deceptively simple dish.
Rhymes with "young cow"
Phoenix talons. You know, chicken feet, the kind that have been coated in barbecue sauce. The shibboleth of dim sum. If you want the kind that are cold and floating in vinegar sauce, order bak won fung zau (白雲鳳爪, rhymes with "lock don young cow")
Rhymes with "why now"
Steamed buns filled with minced chicken and ginger.
Gai lan / Ho jau gai lan
芥蘭 / 蠔油芥蘭
Rhymes with "why don" and "low now why don"
Chinese broccoli, usually steamed or boiled. This is served with oyster sauce (the "ho jau" above) and is your one excuse to get vegetables at dim sum.
Rhymes with "far now"
Whole shrimp seasoned and wrapped in rice wrappers, then steamed. They are extremely sticky and get stickier as they cool, so eat them right away. The second word rhymes with "how".
Hom sui gok
Rhymes with "dome lee lock"
These are affectionately known as "footballs", because the shape of these fried dumplings stuffed with pork and vegetables looks exactly like a small football--or if you're Lebanese, a kibbeh.
Rhymes with "din phooey"
Sticky pounded rice balls filled either with sweetened red beans or lotus paste, then rolled in sesame seeds and fried.
Juk / Pei dan sau yuk juk
粥 / 皮蛋瘦肉粥
Rhymes with "look" and "hey Ron now look book"
Rice porridge. At the better places, this is rice cooked in a large amount of flavorful broth, then mixed with various additions. "Pei dan" are preserved eggs (also called "thousand year old eggs") and "sau yuk" means "lean pork". You'll normally be given fried noodles and green onions to top your juk.
Lai wong bao
Rhymes with "my long wow"
Steamed buns filled with thin sweetened egg custard. You'll know these because they'll have a dot on top; eat them carefully, because at the better dim sum places the filling will be molten, like dessert napalm.
Lap cheung bao
Rhymes with "hop Jung now"
Steamed buns filled with sweet, springy Chinese sausage, they look like Chinese pigs in a blanket.
Lo bak go
Rhymes with "no taco"
Turnip cake (actually made of daikon radish) that has been steamed, cut into blocks and is then griddled until crispy-edged.
Lo mai gai
Rhymes with "blow my guy"
This is rice with meat, vegetables and often Chinese sausage wrapped up in lotus, banana or ti leaves and steamed. The chewy outer crust is due to the contact between the steamer and the food wrapped in thin leaves. If you have an extra-chewy outside, it means the dim sum was steamed in metal, not bamboo.
Ma lai gao
Rhymes with "Pa why now"
Very yellow, very eggy, very sweet, very spongy sponge cake.
Mang gwo bu ding
Rhymes with "gong caw do thing"
Mango pudding, which is exactly what it sounds like: pudding flavored like mangoes. Actual mangoes may not have been harmed in the making of mang gwo bu ding.
Rhymes with "my butt"
Chinese spareribs, often cut very small and usually with a thick, sweet bean sauce on top.
Seung hoi siu leung bao
Rhymes with "Jung boy few Jung now"
While technically not a Cantonese dish at all (the first two words are Cantonese for Shanghai), more and more dim sum restaurants are offering these steamed dumplings that contain pork and/or crab and soup. To eat them, dip in the provided dark soy-and-ginger sauce, nibble the wrapper open in your spoon, and drink the soup, then eat the solids.
Rhymes with "do pie"
These are the familiar open-topped dumplings filled with pork and shrimp, water chestnuts and sometimes black mushrooms.
Rhymes with "low dip"
Potstickers. You know exactly what potstickers are.
Yau ja gwai
Rhymes with "now Pa cry"
Fried twists of dough, like long, savory doughnuts, meant to be eaten with juk. The name means "devils fried in oil". You may see these wrapped in rice noodle sheets (the same ones used for cheung fun), in which case the dish is called za leung (炸兩, rhymes with "Pa Jung") and means "fried pair".