In this guide, I am going to introduce a legendary part of Cantonese cuisine and culture that is dim sum, yum cha, and zao cha. Including all the top dim sum dishes you need to be trying, plus their Chinese names and pics for easy ordering at any dim sum restaurant near you.
To go for Morning Tea, or Zao Cha, is common in southern China and is a highlight of the traditional culture of Guangdong and Hong Kong. Families will gather in the mornings, especially on weekends, and head to the nearest restaurant to enjoy a banquet of snacks known collectively as dim sum (点心 – Dian Xin).
Dim Sum is a highlight of Cantonese Cuisine and is popular across the country and ubiquitous across southern China. The Xiguan area of Guangzhou is considered to be the birthplace of the most authentic Cantonese dim sum. History wise, it dates back to the period of the Xianfeng Emperor of the Qing dynasty (1831 – 1861).
To clear up some terminology
- Dim sum (点心 – diǎn xīn) – literally means dessert or snack and in this context refers to all the menu items, savory and sweet.
- Zao Cha (早茶 – zǎo chá) literally means ‘morning tea’ and refers to going for breakfast at a dim sum restaurant.
- Yum Cha (飲茶 – yǐn chá) literally means drink tea and refers to going to eat at a dim sum restaurant.
So, you will often see Dim Sum restaurants, Yum Cha restaurants, and maybe have someone ask you to go for Zao Cha, or if its after morning time, go for Yum Cha. The end result is the same, eating delicious bite-sized snacks (Dim Sum) with tea to wash it down.
Whilst going for morning tea with the family or group to eat dim sum at the favored restaurant is still a strong tradition, it is also easy to find small cafes and restaurants serving Cantonese dim sum at any time of day especially in Guangdong and Hong Kong. It is also fairly easy to find a Cantonese dim sum restaurant in any major city in China.
You’ll be able to easily spot a good Yum Cha restaurant, it will be full in the mornings, with people waiting, and on Sundays, forget about it, it will be packed all day! It’s a favorite of all Cantonese people and especially the older generation who like to get together with family, talk, eat, and drink tea.
Here is a guide to the different menu items you’ll commonly find at a Dim Sum (点心 – diǎn xīn) restaurant
Dumpling (饺子- jiǎo zi)
Shrimp dumpling (蝦餃; xiā jiǎo; hā gáau)
Steamed dumpling with shrimp filling
Teochew dumpling (潮州粉粿; cháozhōu fěnguǒ; Chìu jāu fán gwó)
Steamed dumpling with peanuts, garlic, Chinese chives, pork, dried shrimp, and Chinese mushrooms.
Chive dumpling (韭菜餃)
Steamed dumpling with Chinese chives.
Xiao long bao (小笼包; 小籠包; xiǎolóngbāo; síu lùhng bāau)
Dumplings are filled with meat or seafood with a rich broth inside.
Guotie (鍋貼; guōtiē; wōtip)
Pan-fried dumpling, usually with meat and cabbage filling.
Shaomai (烧卖; 燒賣; shāomài; sīu máai)
Steamed dumplings with pork and prawns. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.
Taro dumpling (芋角; yù jiǎo; wuh gok)
Deep fried dumpling made with mashed taro, stuffed with diced mushrooms, shrimp and pork.
Haam Seui Gok (鹹水角; xiánshuǐ jiǎo; hàahm séui gok)
Deep fried dumpling with pork and chopped vegetables. The wrapping is sweet and sticky, while the filling is slightly salty and savoury.
Dumpling soup (灌湯餃; guàntāng jiǎo; guntōng gáau)
Soup with one or two big dumplings.
Roll (捲 – gyún)
Spring roll (春卷; 春捲; chūnjuǎn; chēun gyún)
A deep fried roll consisting of various sliced vegetables (such as carrot, cabbage, mushroom and wood ear fungus) and sometimes meat.
Tofu skin roll (腐皮捲; fǔpíjuǎn; fuh pèih gyún)
A roll made of tofu skin filled with various meat and sliced vegetables.
Fresh bamboo roll (鮮竹卷)
A roll made of tofu skin filled with minced pork and bamboo shoot. Typically served in an oyster sauce broth.
Four-treasure chicken roll (四寶雞扎)
A roll made of tofu skin filled with chicken, Jinhua ham, fish maw (花膠) and Chinese mushroom.
Rice noodle roll (腸粉; chángfěn; chéungfán)
Steamed rice noodles, rolled and filled with meats or vegetables inside but can be served plain. Popular fillings include beef, dough fritter, shrimp, and barbecued pork. Often served with a sweetened soy sauce.
Zhaliang (炸兩; jaléung)
Steamed rice noodles, rolled around youjagwai (油炸鬼). Typically doused in soy sauce, hoisin sauce or sesame paste and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Bun (包子 – bāau)
Barbecued pork bun (叉燒包; chāshāo bāo; chāsīu bāau)
Buns with barbecued pork filling. They can either be steamed to be white and fluffy or glazed and baked to golden. The baked variant are called (叉燒餐包; chāshāo cān bāo; chāsīu chāan bāau).
Sweet cream bun (奶黃包; nǎihuáng bāo; náaih wòhng bāau)
Steamed buns with milk custard filling.
Lotus paste bun (蓮蓉包)
Steamed buns with lotus seed paste filling.
Pineapple bun (菠蘿包; bōluó bāo; bōlòh bāau)
a bread roll with a topping textured like pineapple skin, usually sweet. Does not contain pineapple.
Cake (糕 – gōu)
Turnip cake (蘿蔔糕; luóbo gāo; lòh baahk gōu)
puddings made from shredded white radish, mixed with bits of dried shrimp, Chinese sausage and mushroom. They are steamed, then cut into slices and pan-fried.
Taro cake (芋頭糕; yùtou gāo; wuh táu gōu)
puddings made of taro.
Water chestnut cake (馬蹄糕; mǎtí gāo; máh tàih gōu)
puddings made of crispy water chestnut. Some restaurants also serve a variation made with bamboo juice.
Meat (肉 – ròu)
Steamed meatball (山竹牛肉丸; niúròu wán; ngàuh yuhk yún)
Steamed meatballs served on top of a thin tofu skin.
Phoenix claws (鳳爪; fèngzhuǎ; fuhng jáau)
Deep fried, boiled and then steamed chicken feet with douchi. A plain steamed version is known as “White Cloud Phoenix Claws” (白雲鳳爪; báiyún fèngzhuǎ; baahk wàhn fuhng jáau).
Spare ribs (排骨; páigǔ; pàaih gwāt)
Steamed pork spare ribs with douchi and sometimes garlic and chili.
Beef tripe (金錢肚)
Is a popular Cantonese dish where the beef stomach (reticulam) is brined and then lightly fried giving a crispness and fresh taste.
Beef entrails (牛什; 牛雜)
Pieces of beef entrails such as tripe, pancreas, intestine, spleen, and lung; served in a bowl of master stock
Siu mei (烧味; 燒味; shāowèi; sīuméi)
Cantonese style barbecue meat, Siu Mei, has many types including BBQ pork (燒鵝 char siu), roasted goose (燒鴨 siu aap), marinated steamed chicken (白切雞), soy sauce chicken (豉油雞), and roast pork with crisp skin (燒肉 siu yuk).
Chicken wing (雞翼)
deep fried (炸雞翼) or marinated in soy sauce and spices (瑞士雞翼)
Seafood (海鲜 – hǎi xiān)
Deep fried squid (炸鱿鱼须; 炸魷魚鬚; zhàyóuyúxū; ja yàuh yùh sōu)
Similar to fried calamari, the battered squid is deep-fried.
Curry squid (咖哩鱿鱼; 咖哩魷魚)
Squid served in a curry broth.
Vegetable (菜 – cài)
Steamed vegetables (油菜; yóucài; yáu choi)
Popular varieties include lettuce (生菜; shēngcài; sāang choi), choy sum (菜心; càixīn; choi sām), gai lan (芥兰; 芥蘭; jièlán; gaailàahn) or water spinach (蕹菜; wèngcài; ung choi). Served with oyster sauce.
Fried tofu (炸豆腐)
Deep fried tofu with salt and pepper
Rice (米 – mǐ)
Lotus leaf rice (糯米雞; nuòmǐ jī; noh máih gāi)
Glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf. Typically contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, and meat (usually pork and chicken). A lighter variant is known as “pearl chicken” (珍珠雞; zhēnzhū jī; jānjyū gāi).
Chinese sticky rice (糯米飯; nuòmǐ fàn; noh máih faahn)
Stir fried (or steamed) glutinous rice with savoury Chinese sausage, soy sauce steeped mushrooms, sweet spring onions, and sometimes chicken marinated with a mixture of spices including five-spice powder.
Congee (粥; zhōu; jūk)
Rice porridge such as the “Preserved Egg and Pork Porridge” (皮蛋瘦肉粥; pídàn shòuròu zhōu; pèihdáan sauyuhk jūk)
Dessert (甜点 – tián diǎn)
Egg tart (Chinese 蛋撻; pinyin daahn tāat)
Baked tart with egg custard filling.
Tofu pudding (豆腐花; dòufuhuā; dauh fuh fā)
Soft tofu served with a sweet ginger or jasmine flavored syrup.
Sesame ball (煎堆; jiānduī; jīn dēui)
Deep fried chewy dough with red bean paste filling, coated in sesame seeds.
Thousand-layer cake (千層糕; qiāncéng gāo; chīnchàhng gōu)
A dessert made up of many layers of sweet egg dough.
White sugar sponge cake (白糖糕; báitáng gāo; baahk tòng gōu)
It is made from rice flour, white sugar, water, and a leavening agent.
Coconut pudding (椰汁糕; yēzhī gāo; yèh jāp gōu)
Light and spongy but creamy puddings made with coconut milk, with a thin clear jelly layer made with coconut water on top.
Tong sui (糖水)
Popular varieties include black sesame soup (芝麻糊), red bean soup (红豆汤; 紅豆沙), mung bean soup (绿豆汤; 綠豆沙), sai mai lo (西米露), guilinggao (龟苓膏; 龜苓膏), peanut paste soup (花生糊), and walnut soup (核桃糊).
Dim Sum is very western palate friendly, there are chicken feet and offal which some may dodge at first, but I really recommend even giving those a try. In general, Guangdong cuisine is one of the most palatable to foreign visitors and Yum Cha is definitely an experience not to miss.
Ordering at a Yum Cha Restaurant in China
When ordering you’ll probably get a pencil and sheet of paper with tick boxes, if you are lucky it will have pictures, otherwise, just show the waiter pictures of your picks and they’ll fill the menu in for you. Some modern restaurants now use iPads which makes life easy.
Also note, the Chinese used on this page is Mandarin (and simplified Chinese), some in southern China and Hong Kong may not understand it as they speak Cantonese and use traditional Chinese script. Regardless, the pictures should get your order underway.
On weekends when things get really busy you can order with the waiter or they may have trolleys coming buy and you simply pick what you like from it. At some larger restaurants, everything is ready and you simply go and chose what you like, the waiter stamps your card, and you return to the table with your choices or the waiter will bring it over.
You’ll also get given a card, on which the waiter will note down what you have received. At the end of the feast, simply call the waiter over and they’ll go and tally things up and give you the bill.
In southern China, most dim sum is found at morning tea restaurants. There may be small shops selling dim sum all day but it can often be a lesser version. In Hong Kong, there are high-end restaurants and smaller mom and pop restaurants selling dim sum and the distinction on quality is not so clear, both can be great or average. Fortunately in HK, you can use Open Rice or Google reviews to find a good option near you.
At most places in China, expect to pay around 100RMB for two people and be disgustingly full, in HK can be quite a bit more.