The unique culinary art of dim sum (Cantonese) or dian xin (Mandarin), meaning “a little bit of heart” or “touch the heart,” originated in China centuries ago. Teahouses sprung up to accommodate weary travelers journeying along the famous Silk Road. Rural farmers, exhausted after long hours working in the fields, would also head to the local teahouse for an afternoon of tea and relaxing conversation.Still, it took several centuries for the culinary art of dim sum to develop.
At one time it was considered inappropriate to combine tea with food. In the 3rd century AD, Hua To, a highly respected Imperial physician, advised that eating food while drinking tea would cause excessive weight gain. However, the Cantonese in southern China disregarded that advice and turned quiet teahouses into a lively eating experience, which is also how the term yum cha (to drink tea) became synonymous with consuming dim sum. As tea’s ability to aid in digestion and cleanse the palate became known, tea house proprietors began adding a variety of snacks, and thus, the tradition of dim sum was born.
As Europe began trading with the Orient, the Cantonese became influenced by the west. When the first Chinese immigrants from Canton Province settled in North America in the mid 1800s, some were employed as houseboys to attend to middle class families. They were discouraged from cooking Chinese dishes but continued to steam vegetables. Many Cantonese men cooked for the Chinese workers who immigrated by the thousands and found employment building the transcontinental railways. During this time, Chinese dishes were consumed only by Chinese communities. Considered exotic by most standards, it was not until after WWII that younger generations began to experiment with changing tastes. As the population discovered the exotic foods of the Far East, the Chinese established restaurants to introduce their cooking to the West.
At first, the Chinese cooked only what they thought Westerners wanted and it had little bearing on typical Cantonese dishes. As non-Asians developed a taste for Chinese food, curious North Americans wandered into small cramped city eateries, which were filled with Chinese people. Cuisine at this time mainly consisted of rice, either stir fried or served with chopped meat. All parts of the animal were used, and many non-Asians gazing into their rice bowls were uneasy at the sight. Chinatowns were crowded—comprised of many alleyways and small dark rooms. As time passed, shops and restaurants began to post signs in their windows in both Chinese and English to lure in more Westerners.