The history of dim sum is rooted in traditional Chinese cooking, one of the oldest and most diverse cooking traditions in the world. Each of the 23 provinces within China has its own cooking style – from the fiery heat of the Sichuan, Hunan, and Jiangzi provinces, to the mutton and lamb dishes in Beijing.

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Of all the Chinese regions, it is the cuisine in the Guangdong (or Canton) Province that is the most varied. The Cantonese are renowned for unique ingredients in their dishes. Incidentally, it is due to the large number of early emigrants from Guangdong that when Westerners speak of Chinese food, they’re usually referring to Cantonese cuisine.

Dim sum through the ages

Dim sum is a style of Cantonese cuisine that has grown increasingly popular in the Western world in recent years. It is inextricably linked with yum cha, or the act of drinking tea – so much so that even now the two phrases are used interchangeably.

The unique culinary history of dim sum began thousands of years ago. Those who travelled along the ancient Silk Road through China would often need a place to rest before continuing on their journey. In response to the increasing amount of people passing through, tea houses opened up along the roadside of southern China. It was later discovered that tea aids digestion, so tea house owners began offering bite-sized snacks as an accompaniment, and thus yum cha was born.

Dim sum preparation at Yauatcha Riyadh, before it is steamed or fried

Modern-day interpretations

Dim sum means ‘touch the heart’ in Chinese. The small portions were designed to merely touch the heart, not sate the appetite, and as such were first enjoyed as snacks. Over time, however, yum cha has evolved, and the cuisine is now a vital part of Chinese culture.

In southern China, and specifically Hong Kong, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It’s commonly believed in the culinary world that yum cha inspired ‘brunch’ as it’s so often enjoyed mid-morning. Traditional dim sum restaurants don’t serve dinner; instead, they open incredibly early and close in the early afternoon. However, more modern yum cha restaurants serve dim sum throughout the day and into the evening to satisfy the increasing demand for the mini morsels.

Dim sum and Yauatcha Riyadh

Many of the dim sums are classic, their roots inherently traditional, but all are given a unique contemporary twist, either in technique or the ingredients used. The conventional cheung fun is updated to combine both soft and crunchy textures in the Prawn and beancurd cheung fun, while the use of Western meat such as venison puts a twist on the classic puff dish.

Dim sum and the future

Dim sum has evolved from a relaxing roadside respite to a meal that you can enjoy at any time of the day or night. Likewise, the dim sum enjoyed thousands of years ago has changed to reflect other cultures, differing from one country to the next. However, the ethos behind yum cha and dim sum remain the same; it is food to be enjoyed surrounded by the people that you love.