When Lynn Carmody’s daughter invited her to dim sum while in New York City, the Mount Pleasant resident was puzzled. After all, around Charleston, dim sum is synonymous with a plate of dumplings.
It’s not clear how dim sum semantically morphed from a meal into an appetizer across the Charleston area. Dim sum got its start in the Cantonese province of China. Like diners in the United States, dim sum houses provided affordable, filling food to tired workers and travelers far from home. The small snacks, including rice noodle rolls, steamed pork buns and sticky rice, were meant to accompany tea.
In the late 19th century, dim sum houses emerged as gathering places. Chinese food chronicler Carolyn J. Phillips, who’s responsible for the best online “field guide” to dim sum’s greatest hits, suggests the shift might have resulted from a crackdown on opium dens.
By the 1950s, restaurants in Hong Kong had formalized the elements of modern dim sum service, including “aunties” rolling carts stacked tall with steamer baskets and broad circular tables sized to accommodate extended families.
Dim sum doesn’t require carts. In many restaurants patronized by first-generation Chinese immigrants, ordering is done via checklist, just like at a sushi bar. But dim sum constants include the meal’s timing (usually a weekend morning), accompanying beverage (always tea) and dumplings.
Still, dumplings don’t go by the name “dim sum” any more than BLTs are called “lunches” or steaks are called “dinners.” (And because there are so many kinds of dumplings in the Cantonese repertoire, they’re not usually called “dumplings” either. It’s more common to talk about fun gor, har gow or siu mai, to distinguish the wrapper and filling in question.)
The first local reference to “dim sum dumplings” appeared in The Post and Courier’s coverage of the 2004 Spoleto auction, where Mediterra Catering served the dish alongside Asian pear martinis.
The phrase “dim sum” again popped up in 2008, when Fish started selling a “dim sum sampler” with a dumpling, spring roll, chicken roll and a slab of browned tofu. The downtown restaurant’s interpretation of dim sum ultimately evolved to mean “a tapas-style, two-bite petit four — inspired by Asian as well as Southern flavors with local ingredients,” according to spokeswoman Christie Moye. Currently, the Fish menu describes its $9 “dim sum” as “a peanut-butter-and-jelly ice cream pop; pumpkin cheesecake with pumpkin seeds; chocolate banana tart with banana chip; and salted caramel panna cotta with caramel popcorn.”
But the dim sum definition that stuck was the one enshrined on the menu at O-Ku, which opened in 2010. It sells a plate of pork and shrimp dumplings as “dim sum.” A customer in 2013 raved on Yelp: “Dim sum, duck tacos, rock shrimp and braised short ribs ... Loved it.”
And when Prohibition opened that year, it offered a “Lowcountry dim sum.” As City Paper’s Angela Hanyak explained, the dish consisted of “half-moon steamed dumplings filled with shrimp, cilantro, and ginger, beautifully presented on a butcher board dotted with daikon radish and a ginger soy sauce for dipping.”
Like the experience for which it was named, the dumplings were designed to satisfy: Writing in The Post and Courier, Deidre Schipani labeled them “a heart’s delight.”