Dim sum-style dining came to the United States along with Cantonese immigrants in the 19th century, but its origins go back hundreds of years. Travelers on the famous Silk Road trade route in China were given a place to rest and relax in the tea houses that dotted the road. Small snacks were not originally eaten with tea, but once it was discovered that tea could help with digestion, tea house owners began serving them as well. This tradition of yum cha (meaning "tea tasting") eventually evolved into what we today recognize as dim sum.
Dim sum dishes generally take a few core concepts and use them in many different ways. Simple dumplings come with a variation of fillings, such as pork, beef, shrimp, or vegetables. At the more exotic end of the spectrum you have fung zao ("phoenix claws"), which are chicken feet marinated in black bean sauce. You can even have egg tarts, sweet roll cakes, and mango pudding for dessert. By using a few fundamental ingredients and cooking them in a wide array of styles, dim sum provides the curious diner with endless options.
Eating dim sum is as much about the atmosphere as it is about the food and tea; perhaps the only place busier than the streets of Chinatown is the interior of a dim sum restaurant. Depending on the size of your party, you may end up sharing the table with another small group, but community and sharing are all part of the experience. As soon as you sit down, servers with steam carts will jockey for position near your table and call out what dishes they have to offer in their cart, and then stamp a card indicating the number and size of the dishes you choose.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming, believe me, it can be. It's rare that a meal is expected to be so hectic and lively. Most likely, the greatest bit of trepidation that people that are new to dim sum have is the language barrier. Most servers will be able to tell you at least the main component of a dumpling, such as pork, shrimp, or beef. If something looks good, just give it a try; once you become familiar with your favorites you'll begin to recognize them and know their names.
Despite the chaos, there are certain rules of etiquette involved. You should always pour tea for other patrons before serving yourself. A popular tale about dim sum involves a Chinese emperor who went to have dim sum in public while dressed incognito. After pouring everyone tea, his escorts felt obliged to bow for receiving such an honor, but couldn't give away his identity. Instead, they knocked on the table with three fingers, representing the head and arms of a man bowing. The tradition of tapping the table while someone pours you tea remains a custom today.
Dim sum translates to "point of the heart," a term that simplifies exactly what a dim sum meal is meant to be; tea and small dishes that touch the heart and leave you satisfied and content. Almost like comfort food at home, but in a much more boisterous environment. The next time you're craving dumplings, try planning a dim sum outing, or even making some of your own. Dim sum is traditionally served only between morning and afternoon, similar to brunch, so punctuality is important. Make sure to get some friends, too; dim sum is best enjoyed when shared.