The story of dim sum, from the Silk Road to San Francisco
I was about 12 years old when I first encountered the New York City institution that is brunch, though the meal mostly stands out in my mind because of the pickled chicken feet. My extended family had gathered at a banquet hall in Flushing, Queens. We arrived early—it must have been around 9 or 10 in the morning—and yet, despite the time and our standing reservation, we still waited for a table. When we were finally seated, we shouted across the oversized round table to be heard over the neighboring diners, a constant stream of families who quickly filed into any empty seats.
For the next couple of hours, my family diligently worked our way through a seemingly endless meal, grabbing favorite dishes off metal carts that would be emptied after a single lap around the restaurant. Steamer baskets full of pinched shrimp shumai and jiaozi (which I knew as mandu because my family is Korean) and, yes, pickled chicken feet, littered our lazy susan. Dishes were passed around and picked at by grandparents and cousins alike, some with more enthusiasm than others. The bill at the end was a sheet of paper marked with checks and squiggles to denote which dishes we had picked off. Really, those carts were the biggest difference between this dim sum brunch and a classic Sunday meal at Sadelle’s. But that’s no surprise: Long before coddled eggs and bloody marys became standard weekend fare, dim sum was the original brunch.
The tradition of dim sum dates back to imperial China, and at its core, “dim sum” refers to bite-size dishes served on small plates or in steamer baskets. The phrase “dim sum” literally translates to “dot the heart,” which, according to E.N. Anderson, author of The Food of China and professor emeritus at the University of California, Riverside, is the idiomatic equivalent of “hit the spot” in English. That translation is subject to some controversy though. “That’s breaking down the characters so it makes no sense,” notes Carolyn Phillips, author of the forthcoming book The Dim Sum Field Guide: A Taxonomy of Dumplings, Buns, Meats, Sweets, and Other Specialities of the Chinese over the phone. “It actually just means to eat a little bit of something, which then makes a whole lot of sense.”
Scarce records from the earliest days of dim sum exist, save a few archaeological records of dumplings from ancient Chinese tombs. There are, however, some broad strokes about the history of dim sum on which most experts agree, starting with the Silk Road. According to most scholars, dim sum began when inns and teahouses popped up along the ancient trade route to serve weary travelers. Though Anderson and Phillips might take issue with the exact definition of dim sum, they do agree that isn’t the entire story.
Dim sum is closely related to yum cha, or drinking tea, which has been a Chinese tradition for about two thousand years, started by local Chinese tribes living along the border with India. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907 A.D., there were plenty of references to Chinese teahouses in the records that do exist, like the journals of foreign travelers and traders. “The terms dim sum and yum cha are both fairly new, compared to talking about tea and snacks,” explains Anderson.
Even if teahouses already existed, trade along the Silk Road played an important role in shaping the style of snacks served. “Chinese dim sum should probably start with discussions of the Silk Road because that is where wheat flour really made its ways into China,” says Phillips, and wheat flour is an indispensable ingredient for the foods most commonly associated with dim sum: dumplings. “I wouldn’t be surprised if [dim sum] started as soon as people invented wheat dough, and immediately, it occurred to somebody to wrap things up in it,” jokes Anderson.
Along with the flour itself, many of the wheat-wrapped snacks that are now immediately identified as Chinese were also imported from the Middle East and Central Asia. Mantou, or steamed buns, are one such classic Chinese snack, but the word is allegedly loaned from Turkic languages, where dumplings are called manti. Modern-day manti are more in the style of stuffed Chinese street foods, like bao or jiaozi, those dumplings I remember from my first dim sum experiences; these were, in turn, both developed in northern China after foreign traders settled neared the Yangtze River and mingled with local Chinese populations. Northern Chinese chefs further adapted these dumplings and wheat-wrapped snacks, as Anderson calls them, to suit regional preference by filling them with readily available, local ingredients, like mutton and freshwater fish.
As decades passed, the dumplings worked their way south as part of a north-to-south pattern of migration typical of Chinese demographics, the result of a long history pockmarked by wars and dynastic changes. And though the origin of dim sum, in the most literal sense, lies in the north, it was in southern China, specifically the province of Guangdong, that the modern ritual of dim sum started to take shape. “Guangdong did basically invent this whole wonderful way of eating brunch called dim sum,” explains Phillips, though the exact reasons why the leisurely ritual became institutionalized in the south rather than the north are unclear. She hypothesized, “It might have to do with the land and culture there. It’s a much more relaxed way of living.”
Whatever the reason, dim sum became an integral part of the morning routine in Guangdong, and it was here that the snacks became the precursor to modern brunch that Westerners would recognize today. “It was originally more like breakfast,” Anderson said. “You’d start the day with tea and some really filling, high-calorie snacks to get you going for the day and give you enough calories to get through your work. That basically meant strong tea and dumplings and any little cakes.”
Cantonese chefs continued to modify the dumplings and cakes to make them their own, just as northern cooks did decades, if not centuries, earlier. Har gow, or shrimp dumplings, are a prime example of this. Seafood was plentiful along the southern coast, and, according to Phillips, har gow was “developed by one restaurateur to really focus on the fresh catch of the day. There’s nothing more classic than very, very fresh shrimp with a little bit of pork fat and bamboo shoot, wrapped in wheat starch wrappers and steamed.”
These dim sum were originally sold on the streets, with vendors schlepping around dishes on one end of a carrying pole and cooking gear on the other. That carrying pole eventually turned into a wheeled cart, and eventually, cooks set up makeshift stalls on street corners as hungry workers streamed by. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the carts were brought inside, becoming one of the symbols of modern dim sum that is still recognized, and used, in restaurants today.
Though dim sum found its footing in Guangdong, as communism took over mainland China in the early twentieth century, the sub-cuisine’s capital shifted once again to Hong Kong. This colonial city preserved many of the traditions of dim sum, especially its place in a morning routine. Though many of the teahouses serving dim sum were fairly simple shops, competition eventually forced many of the once-small storefronts to add flashier components, like statues and chandeliers and, in some cases, even entertainment as a way to draw in new customers looking to hold power breakfasts and business meetings, serving as precursors to the modern banquet halls often associated with dim sum today.
Around the same time Hong Kong began adapting the cuisine to fit its own local tastes, dim sum found another capital city: San Francisco, where thousands of Chinese immigrants moved during the Gold Rush in 1848. In his book San Francisco Chinatown: A Guide to Its History and Architecture, Chinatown scholar Philip P. Choy writes, “All Chinese foods in America came only from immigrants coming from Guangdong Province,” the home of modern dim sum culture. This migration from southern China lasted until the mid-1950s, meaning that Cantonese cuisine, including dim sum, reigned supreme in America for decades.
It was in Chinatowns of major American cities that dim sum and Chinese food became popularized, with new hybrid dishes like chop suey created by Chinese-American chefs, which became tourist attractions in and of themselves. Guidebooks to San Francisco from the early twentieth century encouraged visitors “to enjoy a dining experience in Chinatown,” Choy explains in his book, continuing, “In San Francisco, huge chop suey signs, two to three stories high with hundreds of incandescent lightbulbs, lit up Chinatown by night and dominated the skyline by day.” It was in this way that Chinatown became known as a place to go for exotic food and a fun time; a 1975 roundup of trendy brunch spots in the The New York Times listed Chinatown as a place to go for those who are “bored with eggs and bloody marys” and want to “have the fun of a little this and a little that from the unending variety of goodys.”
The demand for Americanized Chinese food did lead to some innovations in dim sum, like the original egg roll, which comes from Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the old-school restaurant on the historically bloody Doyers Street that has been operating continuously since 1920. Its current owner, Wilson Tang, recounted the story for me at the restaurant on a recent Friday afternoon. His uncle Wally worked at Nom Wah since the 1950s, starting in the kitchen, working his way the ranks to manager, and eventually buying the restaurant from the original owners in the 1970s. Wally created the original egg roll, made of a wrapper of handmade egg crêpe that is then filled and deep-fried.
These days, Nom Wah is something of an anomaly in New York City, and the reality of dim sum here is closer to the grand wine palaces of Hong Kong than the tiny storefronts of years past, in large part because of gentrification. “Chinatown is one of the last neighborhoods of New York that is still untouched, and it’s getting smaller and smaller,” explains Tang. Instead, he continues, “They moved to other parts of the city where the cost of living is lower, like Flushing, Elmhurst, Sunset Park,” and in these neighborhoods, there’s more space for big banquet halls, which can then also be used as catering halls at night.
The decline of American Chinatowns doesn’t mean that dim sum is dying. If anything, places like Nom Wah are sparking renewed interest in dim sum and making the form more familiar to non-Chinese diners. With this new familiarity and respect for dim sum comes more room for creativity and more back-and-forth between high-end and low-end than ever before. Tim Ho Wan is a tiny dim sum joint in Hong Kong that is also the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, serving up the classics to neighborhood locals at competitively low prices. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, only blocks away from Nom Wah, Danny Bowien serves dim sum brunch at Mission Chinese, with a twist on the classics.
Dim sum restaurateurs today are taking modern tastes and adapting them to an ancient form, which is exactly what owners of Hong Kong teahouses did in the 1920s, what immigrants to San Francisco did in the 1840s, and even what northern Chinese chefs did to Turkish dumplings in the 800s. And throughout all of the changes, many of the historical precedents remain. Dim sum is still primarily a weekend meal, meant to be shared with family and friends by your side or a newspaper in your hand, because going out to eat snacks and drink tea will never really go out of style.