I originally heard of dim sum from the film Working Girl back in the late 80s, but I had assumed it was the dumplings she was passing around and not the actual cart that she was pushing full of a variety of Cantonese eats. Dim sum is a Chinese light meal or brunch served with tea. Over the last year I've experienced the real dim sum experience, but over Labor Day Weekend I found the mecca of Dim Sum eateries in China Town, Jing Fong. You have to ride up an escalator to reach the banquet hall filled with round tables and moving carts. It looked like I was attending a large wedding of strangers.
There was a 20 minute wait since we went on the most popular dim sum day, Sunday, and unless you have a big party you will most likely be seated with people you do not know. There were six of us, yet two other people were still seated with us.
The cart pushers try to get you to sample everything and that's also part of the fun, trying stuff that you have no idea what it is until it's in your mouth and even then you can still be left questioning. It may be intimidating but it's exciting to make random selections and eventually you'll remember the items you liked and didn't like. Luckily my friend Andrew was there this time and he knew some Cantonese and could be more selective, I was also with some other dim sum pros so I just got to sit back and eat trustingly.
Dim sum generally consists of a wide spectrum of choices, from sweet to salty or as Andrew said, savory. The steamed or fried choices have combinations of meat, vegetables and seafood in buns, sticky rice, dumplings and noodles. Generally none of the items are very spicy and there is usually a desert cart with custards, egg tarts and donuts as well.
For each plate or basket that is put on your table your table's card is then stamped with a smiley face, which are later counted up to calculate your bill. Despite having eyes bigger than my stomach, so far I've never paid more than $12 a person and that's with tip and tea included.
A dim sum custom: It is customary to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup. I just read that a custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index and middle fingers together on the table. This is said to resemble the ritual of bowing to someone. It also curbs guests from saying thank you while food is in their mouths.
So for those who haven't had the real dim sum experience, be sure and try it with friends soon and especially keep Jing Fong on your to-do list.