Hei-La Moon, on Beach Street, where numerous trolley carts of bamboo steamers with buns, dumplings, and other dishes are pushed around the room. Instead of ordering off a menu, you simply point at the dishes you want, such as their famed Char Siu Bao, BBQ Pork Buns. Or maybe you've eaten at some of the other Dim Sum spots in Chinatown, such as the Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, Empire Garden, or China Pearl. You'll also find Dim Sum joints outside of Boston, in surrounding communities and the suburbs.
I've been intrigued by the question, what was the first Dim Sum restaurant in Boston's Chinatown? Recently, I've been working on expanding my five-part series, The First Restaurants in Boston's Chinatown, and I started thinking about Dim Sum, and its origins in Boston and elsewhere. Its origins in the U.S. seem murky, with little evidence supporting some of the historical claims. However, there are some fascinating facts which can be found, giving us a deeper look into the history of Dim Sum.
In brief, “Dim sum” is the Cantonese pronunciation of "diǎnxīn," a verb that eventually came to refer to "snacks" or "light meals." It's thought that Dim Sum may have originated over 1,000 years ago, when tea houses provided some light snacks to their guests. However, "Yum cha," which literally translates as "will you drink tea," probably predated Dim Sum, though the term is sometimes now used a as synonym. Dim sum can be roughly seen as Chinese brunch, whose roots may have begun in the region of Canton. The term itself, "Dim Sum," now refers to not only the dough-wrapped snacks, but also the entire meal as well.
It's alleged that the first Dim Sum restaurant in the U.S. was the Hang Ah Tea Room, in San Francisco, which opened in 1920. However, it was closely followed, also in 1920, by the Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City. Both of these restaurants are still open. However, I've been unable to find any newspapers or other references mentioning these two restaurants during the 1920s and 1930s, so I haven't been able to document that they were actually serving Dim Sum during this time period. As I've said before, long-term restaurants sometimes create an origin myth, giving them some type of priority or precedence, one which isn't true.
It is possible, and maybe even likely, that Dim Sum was initially something available primarily to the Chinese community, so they didn't advertise to non-Chinese that it was available. That would help explain the paucity of newspaper references in the 1920-1930s. As Chinese restaurants became more popular with non-Chinese, then maybe the owners wanted to expand their offerings, to offer something different to their customers, rather than the usual chop suey and chow mein dishes. In time, Dim Sum became one of those new offerings.
During the 1940s, it seems that many people thought Dim Sum was a specific food item, and not a type of meal. For example, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, October 20, 1946, discussed the Nom Wah Tea Parlor in New York City, noting that it was a “tea parlor” serving a Chinese meal called “tea” from 9am to 3pm. One of these items served at this meal was “Dim Sum, a yellow cup made of egg noodle filled with chopped pork and Chinese vegetables.”
The first mention of a recipe for Dim Sum I found was presented in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 16, 1948. The article reviewed a new Chinese cooking pamphlet, with over 150 recipes, and stated, “An interesting recipe is based on a noddle type mixture stuffed with a pork and vegetable mixture then steamed. It is called Dim-Sum.” Again, Dim Sum was seen as a specific item, and not a type of meal. The newspaper also presented the recipe for this Dim Sun, basically a steamed dumpling.
The Arkansas Gazette, December 28, 1949, stated that “Yum-Chow means Chinese tea time” and “Here are some of the things which the Chinese eat at this ‘in-between meal’: Bow-Pe (steamed); Bow-Pe (baked); Dim-Sum; Har Gow; and “Suy-Gow.” Again, Dim Sum was seen as a specific item, and the article presented a recipe for Dim-Sum, very similar to the recipe presented in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
More recipes were presented in the Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), January 23, 1950, which also reviewed a new cookbook on Cantonese cuisine. “One section of the book deals with ‘yum-chow’ recipes used by the Chinese people for teatime refreshments. There are steamed stuffed rolls filled with meat, shrimp mixtures or sweets. Others use a noodle dough filled with similar mixtures.” The article provided recipes for Bow-Pe and Dim Sum, which again was similar to the prior recipe in the other newspapers.
In response, the Daily News (NY), April 1, 1951, responded to the request, noting that blob joints were also called Sim Dum, Dim Sum, or Dem Sem. Two recommendations were provided, including the Golden Pagoda, located in Chinatown, and May Yee's, located at W. 45th Street, who was though to be maybe the best.
A few years later, the Daily News (NY), September 22, 1954, published an article discussing the famed "Namwah Tea Palace." It noted, "The Tea Palace is a tiny little place in Doyers St. which is basically a bakery. It’s closed in the later afternoon and specializes in lunch only. Waiters come from the bakery section with trays of meat pastries and other delicacies and if you like the looks they dump one on a saucer. At the end of the meal they count up the saucers and you pay maybe 87 cents or some such odd figure. The Namwah is known to the trade as a ‘blob’ joint and to the Chinese as a Dim Sum establishment.”
The Uniontown Morning Herald (PA), July 25, 1956 also used the term blog join, referring to Nom Wah. “If you’ve never had a Chinese breakfast, you can get same at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a Doyers St. ‘blob’ joint that closes for the day at 4p.m.”
The New Yorker Magazine, August 30, 1958, also wrote about the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, mentioning that it was “a so-called ‘blob joint,’ which serves blobs, or balls, or meat, fish, vegetables, and dough, prepared in the Nom Wah Bakery, next door.”
The last reference I found mentioning blob joint was in the Daily News (NY), July 16, 1963. It stated, “Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyer St., a ‘blob joint’ specializing in round, warm, blob-like pieces of dough filled with a variety of mixtures,..” The term "blob joint" doesn't sound very enticing so it's possible its usage disappeared when more people started enjoying the delights of Dim Sum.
The first lengthy article describing Dim Sum was in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), March 8, 1962, in an article titled, “Taste Buds Blossom Over Chinese Tea Lunches.” The article described New York City's Chinatown, especially noting its "tea lunches." The article stated, “There are thousands of New Yorkers who, over the years, have discovered that adventure.” It also noted that New Yorkers usually enjoy these tea lunches on the weekends, and that not all of the Chinese restaurants serve this meal.
The article mentioned, “One of the nice things about the tea lunch as an institution is its democratic nature. There is no menu and no ordering. Both Chinese and non-Chinese are served the same kickshaws.” Once you’re seated, “The waiter goes into the kitchen and comes back with a tray filled rim to rim with a most appetizing assortment of steamed dim sum, the Chinese word for appetizers.” And what would you find? "The tray generally bears two sorts of dumplings; those enclosed in a fragile rice flour pastry and those enclosed in a wheat flour pastry. The fillings are extraordinary.” It was then said, “Six to 20 such appetizers and tea are the sum and substance of the Chinese tea lunch. The dishes are eaten with Chinese mustard and apricot or plum sauce.”
The article finished with three restaurant recommendation, including Lee’s Restaurant, at 36 Pell Street; Bo Bo’s Restaurant, at 20 ½ Pell Street; and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, at 13 Doyers Street.
A couple of brief Dim Sum mentions. The Oregonian, August 8, 1964, mentioned, “hong yin dim sum (savory meat in steamed dough cases).” The San Francisco Chronicle, September 12, 1965, in an article of highlights of Chinatown, recommended, “the Lotus Bowl for dim sum, the tea luncheon ‘to touch the heart.”
However, in the Oregonian, December 25, 1966, there was an article about Portland’s Chinatown, which noted Tuck Lung Co., a restaurant owned by Albert Wong and which had been around for 30 years. It claimed to be the only place in town that served on a daily basis, “Hom Bow (steamed bun with barbecue pork filling), Dull Sah Bow (steamed bun with sweet black bean paste), Dim Sum (Chinese meat ball wrapped in noodle skin) and Har Gow (shrimp and mushroom filling).” It was then claimed that the Golden Dragon served those delicacies only on Sundays.
Another brief mention was found in the Arkansas Gazette, February 2, 1967, which noted “between meal snacks—dim sum, translated somewhat literally as ‘dot hearts’”
The Newark Star-Ledger, February 9, 1967, stated “dim sum (the Chinese word for appetizer, meaning ‘touch the heart’).”
Another lengthy Dim Sum article was presented in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 10, 1969, in an article discussing snacking in Hong Kong. It stated that the Chinese “eat only two meals—breakfast and dinner—but in between they drink tea and have snacks. These daytime snacks, called dim sum, are little meat pastries and sweets similar to puddings and cake..They are served only at certain restaurants, and a variety of them make a superb lunch.” It was also noted that you would fine "waitresses circulate through the dining room like peddlers, each carrying a tray or wheeling a cart and calling out her offering. There is no menu. You summon the waitress to your table and she serves you from her tray.”
There was mention of “dozens of kinds of dim sum, ” including Ha Gow, Siu Mai, Ch Siu Bao, Fun Goh, Chuen Kuen, Ham Siu Kok, Wu Kok, Sai Choi Ngau Yok, Ma Tai Ko, and Ma Dao Ko. “You’ll note dim sum plates vary in size and color and that no empty dish or basket ever is removed from your table. This is because the type of container indicates the price to the waiter who will make up your check at the end of the meal.” Dim Sum was also very inexpensive, noting, “Most of the snacks run 10 to 20 cents a plate,”
The San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 1970, briefly mentioned Yank Sing, "famous for dim sum (“tea-house style food”)." The San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 1971, stated, “Dim sum means lunch of assorted meat buns and meat wrapped in wonton skin, with egg rolls and sponge cake and rice jello. And good? Very delicious. Socially delicious. Life was worth living with dim sum.” Then the San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1971, published, “One of the most delightful ways to start Satruday or Sunday is to have Dim Sum, variously called Chinese breakfast, Chinese tea, and Heart’s Delights. This is good, because you don’t have to decide what to order. You choose from trays that are filled with small plates of dumplings, etc., that are passed around.” The Hang Ah Tea Room was recommended for Dim Sum, noting that there were 6 different teas you could select.
Some more brief mentions. The Mobile Register (AL), May 13, 1971, wrote, “Dim Sum is the Cantonese way of saying ‘touching your heart,’ and indeed a typical snack selection usually includes a heart-warming variety of tidbits—typically meat, seafood or vegetables encased in dough.” The Trenton Evening Times (NJ), September 19, 1971, in an article about San Francisco’s Chinatown, mentioned the teahouses specializing in Dim Sum. They noted, “Dim sum are pastry-encrusted snacks costing as little as 35 cents. One can make a delicious meal of them for under $2.”
Dim Sum restaurants still weren't prevalent everywhere. The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), October 2, 1971 opined, “Dim-sum is a difficult dish to find in the Washington area. Good dim-sum is even more or a problem to locate.” It was noted that the Empress Restaurant would now offer Dim Sum as a special Sunday brunch. The article continued, “Put simply, dim-sum is a kind of Chinese pastry, or dumpling, that can be filled with any number of Oriental ingredients from meats to vegetables. They are then steamed or dropped into boiling water for cooking,…”;
Information on Dim Sum in Boston didn't start appearing in local newspapers until the 1970s. The Boston Globe, January 29, 1971, published a review of a new restaurant, Shanghai Low at 21 Hudson Street, noting “Chinese pasteries (dim sum) are served Saturdays and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.” Then, the Boston Globe, February 7, 1971, in an article primarily about the Peking on the Mystic, which was founded in 1959 at 66 High Street, Medford Square. The owner, T.P. Liu, was also a master chef who began his apprenticeship in China at 14 years old, and came to the U.S. in 1957. The article also mentioned, “…Chinese ‘pasteries’ or dumplings called Dim Sum in Cantonese and Dian Hsing in the Mandarin tongue. They may be steamed or fried.”
More Boston mentions of Dim Sum! The Boston Globe, March 10, 1974, reviewed Lucky Garden Restaurant, located at 282 Concord Avenue, Cambridge. The review mentioned, “They also come for Chinese pastries or dumplings (“Tien-hsin,’ or ‘Deem Sum’ or ‘Dim Sum’) that are served on Saturday and Sunday only, from 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.,..”
The Boston Globe, January 11, 1976, discussed ed the “weekend brunch of Dim-Sim, the equivalent of Chinese pastry. Served at lunch-time on Saturdays and Sundays at a number of local Chinese restaurants, these small, delicate dumplings and bins are steamed or pan-fried and filled with ground meat or pork, shrimp, and vegetables mixtures.” Several restaurant recommendations were provided, including Bo Shek and the Shanghai in Chinatown, the House of China, Su Shiang, and Peking on Fresh Pond in Cambridge.
There would then be a few other brief mentions about which restaurants served Dim Sum. The Boston Globe, January 15, 1976, mentioned Bo Shek, at 63 Beach Street, and Shanghai restaurant, at 21 Hudson Street. The Boston Globe, October 21, 1976, mentioned the Yangtze River restaurant, at 21-25 Depot Square, Lexington. The Boston Globe, April 6, 1978, referenced the Seventy Restaurant, at 70 Beach Street. Plus, briefly, the Boston Globe, February 3, 1977, stated that most non-Cantonese restaurants use Mandarin, and that the Cantonese Dim Sum is Tien Hsim in Mandarin.
Locally, 1979 seemed to be a big year for coverage about Dim Sum, which seemed indicative it was a huge trend at this time, especially considering the two major newspapers, the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald both ran lengthy articles, with sidebars, about Dim Sum in April 1979. My coverage of Dim Sum history will end at that point, as Dim Sum had become mainstream at that point.
The Boston Globe, January 11, 1979, started the year with a lengthy article about Dim Sum, though it actually wasn't too positive, one of the exceptions to the coverage at this time. Near the start of the article, it mentioned, “At restaurants which specialize in Chinese tea, of which Boston has none, vast hordes of waiters parade from kitchens carrying trays or pushing carts filled with steamed, fried and baked delicacies. Some restaurants prepare as many as 60 different kinds of these Chinese hors d’oeuvres, all of them savory and some of them, like duck’s feet, strange.” Boston has none??? Obviously there were Dim Sum restaurants in Boston at this time so what did this writer mean?
The article continued, “Restaurants which feature Chinese tea, also known as Chinese pastry or dim sum (things of the heart), are located in places like New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Nanking.” However, it was noted, “The Chinatown of Boston has a very few restaurants which serve a limited selection of Chinese pastries daily 9 a.m.-3 p.m.” So, the writer acknowledged there were at least a few places in Boston serving Dim Sum, though he felt they had a limited selection of items.
The writer then visited three restaurants in Chinatown which served Dim Sum, including the Seventy Restaurant, Moon Villa, and King Wah. He wrote, “I found out that there is much to learn during a tea lunch in Chinatown even while learning that there is not much to the tea lunches in Chinatown. “ For example, he learned that "..it is impolite to point the spout of a teapot at anyone, since it was once the custom among Tong chieftains to dispose of displeasing persons at lunch. The chieftain would point the spout at the intended victim and a miscreant in hiding would cut off the unfortunate person’s head.” He also learned not to use the eating side of his chop sticks in a shared bowl.
Finally, he concluded, “Most of all, I found the Chinese pastries at these three restaurants ordinary in preparation, limited in variety and overpriced at 80 cents to $1 per dish. None of the three offered fried food and at all of these, the baked foods were served cold, instead of warm off a serving cart.”
A couple weeks later, the Boston Globe, January 28, 1979, noted that the Chinese Year of the Lamb had begun, and stated, “Celebrate with a tasty feast of dim sim—steamed dumplings, or steamed or baked buns—Chinese snack foods with many variations in dough, fillings and finish. In Mandarin these are called tien hsin, literally “little hearts,” a snack or treat any day but especially on New Year’s.” The article also provided a number of Dim Sum recipes for home cooks.
The Boston Herald, April 4, 1979, presented a lengthy article, titled, Lines Begin To Form Early—Dim Sum, Chinese Delight. The article began mentioning how Sunday was the busiest day in Chinatown, a time for shopping, church, visiting relatives & friends, and Dim Sum. The article continued, “Dim sum, or Chinese tea lunch, is the Cantonese equivalent of American brunch. Literally, dim sum means “tiny hearts,” but its poetic interpretation is ‘tiny snacks to delight the heart. Traditionally, dim sum is an extensive array of bite-size dumplings, steamed or fried and filled with meat, fish or sweet bean paste.” There was also a presentation of all the basics of Dim Sum, from the trolley trays of pastries to ordering tea.
Three restaurant recommendations were provided, including King Wah (with one of the largest varieties of Dim Sum in the area), Seventy Restaurant, and Peking Garden in Lexington. It was also noted the Ho Yuen Bakery, at 54 Beach Street, sold a limited variety of Dim Sum pastries. There was also a mention of a Dim Sum cookbook, and the article presented several recipes, for items including Don Don Noodles, Mini Chicken Rolls, Fried Wonton, and Sweet & Sour Sauce. Finally, there was a secondary article presenting lots of descriptive information on a variety of Chinese vegetables.
Later that month, the Boston Globe, April 22, 1979, ran its own lengthy Dim Sum article, titled, Dim Sim: It’s China Chic. It began noting that “Chinese dim sum might take its place next to pizza as one of America’s favorite foods.” It continued, that Dim sum was “an ambiguous Cantonese phrase. Its literal translation is “dot the heart.” In addition, “Dim sum are almost never made at home primarily because of the work involved in preparing them. Typically, they are a lunch or tea-time snack. They are not ordered by Chinese as part of a regular meal; it is considered improper to do so.” Plus, “The beauty of dim sum is that one doesn’t need a menu to enjoy it."
For a first time, there was a newspaper mention of the differences in regional Dim Sum dishes. “There are basically two styles of dim sum, northern and southern. In the northern style, there are regional variations such as Szechuan, Pekingese and Shanghai. In southern style, there is basically just Cantonese.” The article continued, “In the north, where wheat rather than rice is the staple, the dough casing for the pastry is generally made of wheat flour. Piece of dough (flour and water) are filled with vegetables and meat (pork; in Pekingese cooking, lamb occasionally is used). Sweet bean paste is also used. The dumpling is either plain or salty and usually is boiled or steamed.” As for the southern style, “In the south—Cantonese cooking—the pastries tend to be smaller and they are made with both wheat and rice flour. They are also generally boiled or steamed. To the usual pork and vegetable mixtures the Cantonese add shrimp and fish, bamboo shoots and mushrooms.”
A little bit of history was provided as well, giving us a small glimpse into the Dim Sum past. “Dim sum has a long tradition in Boston’s Chinatown, at least among the Chinese themselves. It is especially popular after church services on Sunday, when people have the time to relax in the tea room atmosphere.” There were some specific references as well, noting, “No. 2 Hudson Street, no longer in operation, was a popular dim sum place until several years ago. Later, Moon Villa and King Wah became popular. Both still serve it."
Finally, there was a claim concerning what could be the first Chinatown restaurant to have served Dim Sim. "In the 1930s, dim sum was served at Yee Hung Guey by the first generation of the family that now operates the restaurant.” However, I've been unable to locate any supporting evidence to verify this claim. I couldn't find any newspaper or other references to Yee Hung Guey older than the 1960s, and no other mention seems to indicate it was the first Dim Sum restaurant in Boston. It is certainly possible the first Dim Sum restaurant in Boston's Chinatown dates from the 1930s, but there's insufficient evidence to identify Yee Hung Guey as such a restaurant.
The Globe article also a detailed glossary of various Dim Sum terms, including indicate which were Northern or Southern. Finally, they presented a list of recommendations, noting Southern Dim Sum spots such as Seventy Restaurant, King Wah, Moon Villa, and Bo Shek.The Northern style spots included Shanghai Restaurant, Peking at the Prudential, Changso, Peking on Fresh Pond, House of China, and Peking Garden.
So, we now know more about the history of Dim Sum, though the answer to my original question is insufficiently supported. It seems like that the first Dim Sum restaurants in the U.S. originated in the 1920s, and it's also possible that the first Dim Sum restaurant in Boston's Chinatown started in the 1930s. However, proving the identity of those original Dim Sum spots is difficult to ascertain, though a few restaurants have claimed to be those pioneers. It was fascinating though to look through the various views of Dim Sum during the 20th century, from recipes to blob joints. I'll continue to research these issues, and maybe one day, I'll have more evidence to determine the answers I've sought.