This post was written by me back in late 2016. I have updated this post as I discovered recently that there is all you can eat dimsum (similar to all you can eat sushi).
The contents of the post can be found on my main website here.
Hi. I wrote an earlier post called the Mathematics of All You Can Eat Buffets. This one here will be about Chinese dimsum. This guide is from my own experiences as someone being Canadian Chinese and has mostly been to Toronto Chinatown and Pacific Mall in the Scarborough/Markham area.
My guide will go through how dimsum works and the types of foods involved. Some mathematics will be discussed here but it is not too difficult.
What Is Dimsum?
Chinese Dimsum is a popular type of Chinese cuisine where the servings of food are usually in small plates or in small steamer baskets. Instead of big plates of food, the food portions are smaller and prices per item are smaller too.
Here is an example of carts full of dimsum food.
How Does Dimsum Work?
When it comes to dimsum, there are two versions of dimsum (that I know of).
There are dimsum places where you order the dishes yourself similar to All You Can Eat Sushi Restaurants. The other version is more popular (and fun) is the one where you have the employees push the carts of food in steamer baskets chanting/advertising out the dish name. This one is more interesting as the food is right there, you can smell the food and see the food for yourself before you order it.
Each table has a paper “tracker” where the staff record the food ordered in terms of type and quantity each time you order food. Once you no longer want to order more food, you sent the paper tracker to a restuarant employee who are typically dressed up in more formal attire to get your bill for payment.
Here is an example of a paper tracker for cart service dimsum. Each dimsum place has their own version different that the example here.
Here is an example of an order sheet for dimsum without cart service.
Table sizing is interesting. It is known that Asian families can be big and family time consists of food. Many Chinese restaurants have the typical tables that seat two or four. There are small round tables which can seat five to possibly eight. The largest tables can fit eight to twelve and may have a revolving lazy susan top in the middle.
In some instances, a large group of family and friends may reserve/use two large tables with lazy susan tops in the restaurants balcony like area with a centerpiece. (This area with the centerpiece is also used for seating at Chinese weddings for the bride and groom.)
The variety of sizes of tables is quite large as it caters to a variety of customers.
There are some cases when staff have to go to back room to retrieve extra chairs, extra baby chairs, more plates, cups, and chopsticks for the customer(s).
In the rare case, table sharing occurs. I have done table sharing only once in my toddler years. It was me and someone with some other person in a table of four. The restaurant was very small.
Here is an example of a big table with a transparent lazy susan filled with dimsum.
Chinese dimsum is a popular choice for lunch especially on weekends and holidays such as Christmas, New Years, Chinese New Year season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and so on. Some places also offer dimsum for breakfast (I never had dimsum breakfast myself but it does exist). Typical peak times are from 11AM to 1PM when it is busy and hectic.
Some places offer dimsum from 1PM to 3 PM when it is likely to be less busy and less expensive for the diner(s). Also, some places offer all day dimsum (where there is no cart service).
Waiting is a normal part of life and it is pretty common at Chinese dimsum restaurants.
When you come in, the hostess or person at the front will ask for how many people for a table. You then receive a number and wait standing or seated.
Some restaurant entrances are not spacious so waiting can be uncomfortable when the place is busy. If the dimsum restaurant place is the one with the carts of food, you can look at the food as you wait (and drool).
I do not remember the shortest wait time I have had. It might have been 10 minutes or something. In my experiences, I have had dimsum as early as 11:30 AM and wait times can range from 20 minutes to even an hour.
The numbers being called indicating the table(s) is ready for the number holder are not in sequential order. Instead of 79, 80 ,81, the numbers could be 72, 81, 74, 75, 79, 77 and so on. Remember that the table sizes are different so each number corresponds to a table size. You can be waiting for a table of four with the number 82 and the number 86 is called from the previous number of 81. It is like a lottery in some cases.
Numbers are typically called out in both Mandarin/Cantonese Chinese. If the place caters to non-Chinese clientele, numbers would also be called out in English (or the country’s official language).
You may wait long to get a seat but once you are seated the food carts are available as they are right there. By the time you sit, you probably know what you want.
There are no guarantees when it comes to wait times especially at busy Chinese dimsum restaurants as wait times are random.
You arrive at a Chinese dimsum restaurant for lunch on New Years day. The restaurant is really busy and it is packed. You ask the hostess or person at the front the estimated waiting time. He or she says 45 minutes to an hour. You are in disbelief but you know of another dimsum place which is somewhat expensive which is 30 minutes away from where you are. You also know that wait times historically take 5 minutes. Should you switch?
From a time perspective, you should switch. Assuming no delays, it would take a total of 35 minutes to get to the other place and get seated.
From a cost perspective, it depends on the budget.
From a overall perspective, it is up to the person to either spend more money for a shorter wait (and possibly better service and food) or stay and wait. It also depends how hungry you are.
After waiting and hearing your number called you can leave the waiting group and get seated. In most places, the tabletops are typically covered with a plastic layer or a cloth for quick and easy cleaning with the previous diners’ plates, utensils, tissues, etc. After the quick clean, the waiter(s) will quickly set up plates, cups, chopsticks in front of your eyes.
The waiter would ask you what type of tea (not coffee) you would like and if you would like any drinks/pop. The choices of tea are typically Jasmine and Green Tea. Other teas include Oolong tea and Chrysanthemum tea. Also, you can ask for forks as an alternative to chopsticks.
Once seated, wait for the food carts to arrive and order what you like (or want to try). If the dimsum place does not have cart service, simply order from a menu just like any other restaurant.
Depending on the place, customer service varies like with any other restaurant.
Ah, the famous dimsum food. So much to choose from and it is right in front of you in the carts!
When it comes to dimsum, most of the food contain meat and seafood. Dimsum is not an ideal choice for vegetarians and for vegans. Also, a lot of dimsum dishes are fried such as (shrimp filled) spring rolls, fried chicken wings, deep fried squid/calamari, and deep fried shrimp filled wonton dumplings. There are some healthier dishes such as the dumplings in the steamers, congee (rice porridge) and selected vegetables. Overall, dimsum is something to have once in a while and not daily.
Here are some pictures illustrating the food (and some of my favourites).
Shrimp Dumplings (Har Gow)
Pork Siu Mai (Dumplings filled with ground pork with orange fish roe on top)
Steamed Pork Ribs
Steamed Chicken Feet – You may think eew, chicken feet. It actually tastes good. Don’t forget to discard the bones.
BBQ Pork Buns
Shrimp Filled Rice Noodle Roll (Shrimp Cheung Fun) – Rice Noodle roll filled with shrimp and complemented by soy sauce. There is a beef version of this too.
Sweet Tofu Dessert
Stuffed Crab Claw (Yeung Hai Kim) – One of my favourites. You can find this at Chinese weddings and at certain dimsums too. The crab claw with crab meat is attached to shrimp paste (the ball part) and then it is deep fried. This is comparable to shrimp tempura.
Big Dumpling Soup (Don’t know the official name) –
A big favourite of mine. Not all dimsum places have this though. It is a broth which somewhat tastes like chicken noodle soup with one big dumpling. The dumpling contains some assorted meats, seafood and maybe some vegetables like mushrooms. You can add red vinegar to the soup for added kick.
(I’m not affiliated with Foodnut.com)
How Much Can I Eat?
You can eat as much as you want or much as you can like at a buffet at a set price per person. With dimsum, you can eat as much as you want/can also. There are no limits! But be aware that the pricing for dimsum is based on how many dishes you order and the type of dishes ordered. Some dimsum places have all you can eat dimsum similar to all you can eat sushi at a set price.
One may want to consider the idea of marginal utility. In this case, good food tastes good after one or two bites. After the fifteenth bit (for example), the novelty wears off and your stomach gets full. It would probably be best to order a few at a time versus ordering everything at once.
The Pricing and the Mathematics of Dimsum
Like most restaurants the prices of dimsum dishes vary between restaurants. Different restaurants would have different prices with different food quality, different decor, different service and different food selections.
From my (limited Toronto) experiences, dimsum dishes can be as low as $2.50 to $4.00 CDN. (There may be lower prices somewhere.) Restaurants with low prices may not have the best decor but the food quality can be good. I’ve been to a few of these in the Toronto area.
Restaurants with dimsum prices of $4.00 CDN per dish/item and higher would most likely be of higher quality and authenticity. Meats would be of better quality and seafood would be of bigger and better quality.
I personally have never been to a (super) high end dimsum place but I would think that each item would cost at least $10 to $15 CDN (or higher maybe).
Dimsum dishes can be classified as small, medium, large or other (speciality) with their own prices. For example, a small item could be $2.99 CDN, a medium would be $3.49 CDN and a large could be $3.99 CDN.
There are some dimsum restaurants which offer all you can eat dimsum pricing. These places would not have the cart service. Food would be ordered through a paper menu similar to all you can eat sushi.
Speciality dishes have their own prices independent from the small, medium and large dishes. In cart service restaurants, you can find employees hold a tray of food instead of carts advertising the food. Sometimes, speciality dishes are with the cart service. Prices of such dishes can and a reputable restaurant would have sign(s) or let you know the cost before ordering.
Soft drinks and alcohol cost extra. With tea, it may cost extra per person or it may be included. You can ask.
When it comes to payment, debit and credit is available. Bring cash just in case. A lot of Chinese businesses (groceries) use cash for transactions.
With regards to tips, consider the etiquette given the country.
Here are some examples with (basic) mathematics involved.
One item of 4 pieces of pork dumplings costing $2.29 CDN would be about $0.57 CDN each.
Suppose one item of 4 higher quality pieces of pork dumplings cost $4.29 CDN, each piece would be $1.07 each.
Now we have 4 pork dumplings from a super high end place which cost $10.29 CDN, each piece would be about $2.57 each. It better taste good!
Here is a billing scenario. Suppose a family of four (mom, dad, 2 children under age 12) orders 4 small items at $2.49 CDN, 2 medium items at $2.99 CDN and one large item at $4.89 CDN. Assuming that tea and soft drinks cost $3.49, the total bill comes to $latex 4 \times \$2.49 + 2 \times \$2.99 + \$4.89 + \$3.49 = \$24.32$. This comes to $6.08 per person.
Suppose a group of five friends at a higher end dimsum place. They have 8 small items at $4.29 CDN each, 3 medium items at $6.49 CDN each and one large item at $10.99. These items cost $latex 8 \times \$4.29 + 3 \times \$ 6.49 + \$10.99 = \$64.78 $. It comes to about $12.96 per person (excluding possible drink costs and tips).
Here is a different billing scenario. Suppose a large family of ten with a bill of $252 CDN. For each person, it comes to $25.20 CDN a person.
Strategy and Considerations
Dimsum can be confusing and there are so much food to choose from (depending on location and restaurant), it can be overwhelming. Here are some of my tips.
Dimsum experiences can be random in the sense of where you are seated, when food arrives from the kitchen, wait times and so on.
Some of the dimsum items can actually be found at a local Asian bakery (BBQ Pork buns) or a speciality dumping house restaurant. I’d say order items that you don’t eat very often.
If you are waiting too long for a particular item in the carts then it may not be available.
If the place is busy then it is likely that the food is good (and/or has good prices). But is that waiting worth it for you? Wait times can go up to an hour. I’ve been there.
If you do not know Mandarin dialect Chinese or Cantonese dialect Chinese then that is okay. You can still get by fine at Dimsum restaurants speaking English. I think nowadays Chinese restuarants are getting more diverse customers (in the Toronto area at least). When it doubt, bring an Asian friend or someone who knows Mandarin/Cantonese Chinese.
When it comes to trying a new restaurant, a new cuisine or new food it can be hit or miss. It’s like gambling in a way.
Some people like the cart service dimsum restaurants because you can see the food. Others prefer the order from menu approach. It comes down to preference.
At a dimsum restaurant, you do not necessarily have to have dimsum (unless that is the only thing they have). You can order from a regular menu.
In most cases, you do get for what you pay for. Some places have high prices but the food may not be worth it and there are some inexpensive and good eats out there. It depends.
Vegan and/or vegetarian Chinese (dimsum) restaurants do exist but I would think they would be difficult to find.
If you eat too much dimsum for lunch, you may not need dinner.
The featured image is from http://internchina.com/wp-content/uploads/dim-sum.jpg.
The main reference is from Dimsum Central’s website and their dimsum guide.