Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Vegetarians Eat Dim Sum

Have you ever had dim sum, which is Chinese and basically translates to "touch heart" -- aka, refreshments???  Well, basically, they are small portions of food meant to be shared family-style, usually in a bustling restaurant full of round tables and women pushing around carts with steaming metal baskets of tidbits like these:

Above: I don't know what these are called in English, but these are extremely flaky balls usually filled with either barbecued pork or taro (a root vegetable).  Yes, it's deep fried.  Yes, they are so good I sometimes refer to them as "crack."

Here's a close-up of the other thing on the table... these are fried shrimp balls, skewered with a piece of sugar cane.  These are not crunchy but very tasty.

Now, as I mention in my FAQs, I make exceptions to eating meat sometimes when my parents make something special, or it's a special occasion.  Dim sum is typically a special occasion for my family, but I am not usually stuffing my mouth my shrimp balls and barbecued pork.

Contrary to what many people might think, there ARE vegetarian options at these seafood restaurants.  That's what dim sum establishments are usually called because they serve dim sum in the day and banquet-style seafood at night.

Here are two examples of things you should avoid if you're going for veggie options:

Now, as a disclaimer, while dishes might be vegetarian, they are probably not vegan.  There MAY be one or two vegan options in the entire dim sum ensemble, but even then, you have to be careful of cross-contamination.  The two possibly vegan things that come to mind are Chinese broccoli and fried taro cakes.

Even the vegetarian options can be a bit leery -- sometimes "vegetable dumplings" actually have shrimp bits in them.  This happened to me one time when I specifically asked for something with no meat -- I guess shrimp is not a meat to some people...

But these look pretty safe:

Above: Pineapple bun (right) and coconut bun (left).  Pineapple buns don't contain pineapple... they just have the criss-cross pineapple pattern on top.  They usually contain custard, though sometimes you'll find them with barbecue pork insde.  Basically, many of the things on the carts with breads like these are vegetarian (though ask! -- I have noted that servers speak more English these days, so it shouldn't be that bad to ask for "no meat").

There are also steamed (white) buns. Get the sweet kind that are filled with sweet bean paste.  And jello is a popular dessert. :)

In sum, unfortunately, it is pretty tough to eat veggie in places like these, but not impossible.  If you want a more controlled environment, you can try some of the more upscale/Westernized versions of dim sum that are probably way more accomodating, like this place I went to in Santa Monica, CA.

Maybe I should try making my own???


  1. Holy guacamole - my mouth is watering looking at those photos!

    I've never had dim sum, but a few of my friends have been raving about it lately. Definitely need to check it out.

  2. my husband's a vegetarian so we rarely go out to dim sum. but the one place we found in LA that has options for him is bao:

  3. Those pineapple buns look yummy! I had hoped from the title of the post it would open up a whole new world of vegetarian dim sum for me. I guess it sort of confirmed my experiences with it so far: pork and shrimp are infused in everything :) Oh well. When I let my guard down those BBQ pork buns are to die for...

  4. I've never tried the pineapple buns, but I've heard they're really popular. I didn't realize that they don't have pineapple in them!

    I've had a similar experience with "non-meat" dishes here in China. Sometimes the "vegetarian" dishes have small bits of ground pork, but the other day I saw the cook put chicken bouillon powder in my egg and tomato dish. It's always a bit of a gamble when I try to order a meatless dish.

  5. Do I sense a business opportunity here? Wouldn't a vegan dim sum place go over well here in L.A.???? There's a vegetarian Chinese place that opened recently here in Newport Beach. I wonder if they have dim sum?

  6. Hey! I'm vegetarian and I've never had dim sum. You defiantly made me wanna try this version.. It looks sooo good ! :) yum yum !

  7. Yum!! My best friend from college has been meaning to take me to dim sum for so long, but shes kind of afraid I won't like anything. Perhaps she's wrong! I actually really enjoy trying new foods (well, within the realm of "normal things" that I consider edible!)

  8. your photography makes everything look so scrumptious!

    particularly the shrimp balls and dumplings- yum! :)

  9. Not a fan of the taro root, but that second shrimp dumpling pic? FAVORITE!!!!