Usually, your goal when you dine at a restaurant is to satisfy your hunger. But this time, I’d like to change your perspective and look at dim sum restaurants from the perspective of a business owner with a time machine.
Many restaurants closed or only served takeout during the pandemic. When restaurants reopened for dine-in this summer, it was time to catch up on a tradition of weekend dim sum. But the place was noticeably less busy than pre-pandemic, and the staff wore masks. Customers had to check their temperature with a device. Dim sum wasn’t the same as before.
How has the tradition of dim sum changed over the decades to adapt to the times and will it continue? My recent dim sum experience brought back memories and made me question the future of dim sum restaurants.
Getting ready for dim sum
Is dim sum breakfast or lunch? Or maybe brunch?
Older customers start dim sum as early as 9:30 or 10 in the morning. But if you have children, you might not arrive at dim sum until 11 am or 12 noon. So it could be breakfast or it could be lunch. You can even arrive for dim sum as late as 1 pm.
Children raised on weekend dim sum know the routine. They might not speak the Chinese language as fluently as their parents, but they know the names of dishes after hearing them for so many weekends from birth to adulthood.
Also, as bilingual speakers, they’ve learned the difference in terminology too.
“Dim sum” means “touch heart” but you only say you’re going to dim sum if you’re speaking English. For example, telling English-speaking friends that you’re going to dim sum with family. In Cantonese, you’d say you’re going to “yum cha” (not dim sum!) which means “drink tea.”
Dim sum begins with tea selection as your party is being seated at your table. The serving staff will ask you what tea you would like. Jasmine, chrysanthemum, oolong, sau mei, and bo lei are the most popular types of tea.
Once you’ve ordered your tea, it’s time to order food.
Ordering the dim sum: before
Years ago, ordering dim sum was like a sport. Veteran dim sum patrons had mastered the strategy. Back then, servers pushed carts of the food to each occupied table. As the cart neared a table, the server would call out the names of all the dishes in their cart. Sometimes, the server will come up to your table and lift the lid for each type of dim sum.
This serving style was a great way to learn the names of all the dishes.
A problem arose if the restaurant was very busy and ran out of the item you wanted before the cart arrived at your table.
Avid dim sum goers came up with a strategy for this issue.
All carts originate from the door separating the dining area from the kitchen. Thus, diners keep a sharp eye on The Door.
If a cart appears with the type of dim sum that you’re craving, your table will “dispatch” someone to the cart to see if the item you want is there, fresh from the kitchen. You give the server your card so they can stamp it and show receipt of the dish, and then you take your prize (dim sum) back to your table.
Maybe servers didn’t like being swarmed at the kitchen door or swarmed in the middle of an aisle (especially by people who sat furthest from the kitchen). Maybe having heated carts moving between tables became a safety hazard. Over time, this tradition came to an end.
Ordering the dim sum: now
These days, you arrive, order your tea, and then peruse a menu of items. The dim still comes in three sizes: small, medium, and large. Next to the item you want, you write how many of the dish you want, and then a server takes your sheet of selections and gives you a printout of what you selected.
This new style is far less fun and less dramatic. No chasing down carts. Also, some items don’t have a photo, so this style is not as effective for learning the names of dishes.
In the future, the far future, they might come up with a blended approach from the past and the present. Each item on the menu could have a 3D representation that appears when you press on the picture. This way, you can be more adventurous when trying out a new dish. A 3D rendering is more appealing than guessing if you want to try a new dish based on its name.
End of the meal
Having dim sum requires strategy, especially if you have a couple of families dining together.
When a group of friends goes out for dim sum, the restaurant staff will ask to split the bill evenly amongst the friends. When a family goes out for dim sum, a parent usually pays. When a combined family goes out for yum cha, things get interesting.
For example, at one table, you have the grandparents, a daughter and her family, and a son and his family dining together. The siblings have also invited a cousin and the cousin’s spouse. This situation requires strategy at the end of the meal.
Either the bill arrives and one of the adults pounces on the bill, or the bill arrives and the adults all grab for it at once. The winner pays for the entire table.
Another scenario is an adult goes to the bathroom (or pretends to go) and finds their way to the cashier on the way back. By the time someone asks for the bill, it has magically been paid.
During the pandemic, restaurants struggled to stay in business. Some took extreme measures to comply with health restrictions. For example, one Chinese restaurant placed tables in their parking lot and served dim sum outside. Other restaurants served only takeout.
Take out dim sum doesn’t taste as good unless you can get home quickly and dive into the food right away. Reheated dim sum doesn’t taste the same.
Dim sum is a work of art. It takes skill to make the dumplings and other dishes. There are high labour costs and food costs, so restaurants have thin profit margins. They make their money back with the dinner menu. To keep a steady flow of business from morning to mid-afternoon, restaurants offer discounts on dim sum during off-hours.
During the pandemic, the price of dim sum dishes went up significantly from several factors. For example, tables were spaced further apart, meaning fewer guests, and staff had to wear masks and face shields, adding to the cost of operations.
Going to dim sum is a long tradition that will still be around generations from now. There will continue to be modifications, such as how customers select their dishes, but yum cha with family and friends will outlast pandemics and changes in technology.
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