Dim sum, dem sem, deem seem, dim suem, dim siem, dien sing, tien hsin .

No matter how they spell it, Americans have been eating dim sum for years. Every time an egg roll, spare rib or fried won ton is consumed, someone has been having one, but probably not under the appropriate circumstances.

The loose translation of the word is appetizer or "small portion." More literally dim sum means "pointing to your heart's desire," or "dot to the heart."

Special dim sum are made for the Chinese New Year, also known as the spring festival, which begins this coming Sunday. According to Chinese cooking expert Irene Kuo, spring rolls, dumplings and other traditional pastries are always served to callers who come by that day.

Rhoda Yee offers the most complete description of the meal in her book, "Dim Sum" (Taylor & Ng, San Francisco, $4.95.): "Delicious tiny little bite-size morsels of stuffed savory meat or sweet dumplings -- either deep-fried, baked or steamed and served with a variety of tasty, hot or spicy dips."

Yee explains that other items may be included, such as marinated meats and noodles in soups. Not to mention duck feet.

The traditional setting for a dim sum lunch is a Cantonese tea house, which serves only that and nothing else. It generally opens in mid-morning and closes in mid-afternoon. There are a few authentic tea houses in the United States, but the nearest Washington comes are several restaurants which serve dim sum along with regular meals.

For Saturday and Sunday lunches the Tung Bor in Wheaton serves dim sum from rolling carts -- the Chinese version of fast foods. (During the week dim sim may be ordered from the menu at lunch.) There are about 30 varieties, only a fraction of the number you might find in a Hong Kong tea house.

"The bread and butter items" of this business, explains one of Tung Bor's owners, Augustus Cheung, are the har gow and shiu mai . Without them a dim sum restaurant is not worthy of the name. Har gow , or shrimp bonnets, have a translucent dough (made with wheat starch) which enceases a whole shrimp. Cheung says "you judge the har gow by how thin the dough is and how crisp the shrimp."

All the thin-skinned dumplings, whether steamed, boiled or fried, are called jao tze , also spelled gao or gow , and even chiao-tzu . The dough is made with wheat starch.

Shiu mai , or steamed meat dumplings, are made with an egg noodle dough which enrobes a flavorful mixture of pork, sausage and spices. The dough is gathered around the filling, but left open at the top. It is one of the most popular dim sum in China.

Almost as popular is the steamed pork bun. George Mon, Cheung's brother-in-law and another owner, describes it as the Chinese version of a hamburger, but cheaper. At Tung Bor the buns sell for 50 cents each and contain a lot of rib-sticking bread along with a savory filling. It's way for poor Chinese to fill up for very little, Mon explained. Mon says the way to judge the steamed roast pork buns is "by the lightness of the dough." Mon says his wife's would not qualify."They're hard." Steamed roast pork buns, and all pastries made with bread dough, can be recognized on menus by the word bao, pao or bow .

If all of this is more than you want to know about dim sum , don't worry, all you have to do to enjoy them is point to what looks good as the cart rolls by. But be selective. Don't feel you have to take one of each from the first cart. There will be another cart, with other varieties. And eventually, unless you are in a terrible rush, the first cart will be back again.

At the Tung Bor you also have your choice of tea: jasmine, chrysanthemum or poo nee which Yee has nicknamed Chinese Alka-Seltzer "because of its ability to cut through grease... and, at the same time, soothe your tummy."

Tung Bor will have its own New Year's specialties: one with diced squab sprinkled on top, squab symbolizing peace. Another is made with a fried egg representing the sun, peeking through black noodles, made of seaweed, which symbolizes prosperity.

Cheung, who is really moonlighting at the restaurant (he's a professor of radiology at the University of Maryland), says "Cantonese food is considered the best in China. Ask any Chinese person. It has the most varieties, the most colors and flavors. Peking," he allowed, is" next."

Trying to understand the complexities of dim sum seems to be the life work of a scholar. Perhaps it's just easier to embrace the theory that almost anything can be dim sum , served in the appropriate size and under the appropriate circumstances.

If you would like to try preparing dim sum at home, even though there is a lot of wrapping and folding and chopping, it doesn't seem quite so difficult when you know that many of them freeze beautifully and you can buy acceptable substitutes for some of the homemade dough. Here are a few suggestions adapted from Yee's book, "Dim Sum."

STEAMED MEAT DUMPLINGS

(Shiu Mai)

(About 160) 1 pound ground pork sausage 1 pound fresh pork 2 teaspoons salt 15 water chestnuts, finely chopped 1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger 1/2 cup cornstarch 1/2 cup chicken broth 1 tablespoon light soy sauce 1 tablespoon salt turnips (choan choy), finely minced 4 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon teriyaki asuce 1 teaspoon sherry 1 teaspoon seasme oil 1/2 cup Chinese parsley, finely chopped 1 stalk green onion, finely chopped 160 wonton skins (3 to 3 1/2 inches square)

Mix all ingredients together except wonton skins. Trim off 4 corners of wonton skins to form circles. Drop 1 teaspoon mixture onto middle of the skin, gather up skin sides, letting the dough pleat naturally. Flatten top and give the middle a light squeeze while tapping the bottom on a flat surface so it will stand upright. Arrange dumplings in an 8 inch round cake pan. Set pan on steam rack of wok. Fill bottom of wok with water. Cover and steam for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot with sesame oil and soy sauce dip. (1 part sesame oil to 2 parts light soy sauce.)

Dumplings may be prepared ahead, steamed and frozen. Reheat by steaming again for 12 to 15 minutes.

STEAMED OR BAKED BARBECUED PORK BUNS

(2 dozen)

Filling: 3 to 3 1/2 pounds pork butt 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce 4 tablespoons catsup 4 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

Cut pork butt into 4 inch by 2 inch by 1 inch strips. Mix rest of ingredients and rub over pork pieces. Marinate at least four hours or overnight.

Line roasting pan with foil and place pork on roasting rack. Roast a total of 45 minutes, turning over once or twice.

Barbecued pork can be made anywhere from a few days to two weeks ahead. Just wrap and freeze.

You will need four cups of this mixture for the buns.

Dough: 1 cake fresh yeast 1 3/4 cups warm water 3/4 cup sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 6 1/2 cups unsifted flour

Dissolve 1/2 yeast cake with sugar in warm water. Immediately add baking powder and then the flour. The dough will be fairly firm and a bit on the dry side. Knead on board for 20 minutes until dough becomes elastic and smoothe. Place it in a big mixing bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave in a dry, warm place (away from drafts) until dough doubles down and knead again for 5 more minutes. It is now ready.

Sauce Mixture: 1 cup chopped onion 2 teaspoons hoisin sauce 2 teaspoons sherry 4 teaspoons oyster sauce 2 teaspoon catsup 1 teaspoon sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 1/2 cups chicken stock

Mix sauce ingredients in small saucepan and cook over medium heat until sauce thickens. Stir in four cups diced barbecued pork. Chill 3 to 4 hours.

Divide filling into 24 portions. Divide dough into 24 balls. Slightly flatten each ball then roll out into 4-inch discs, leaving the center of the disc twice as thick as the side. Place 1 portion of the filling in the center of the dough. Gather up the sides around the filling and twist dough to seal. But the wrapped buns at least 2 inches apart twisted side down on a greased cookie sheet and allow the buns to rise in a draft-free place for another hour.

Steam for 15 minutes. Turn heat off and let steam subside before lifting the cover.

To bake, set buns 2 inches apart on cookie sheet. Brush with mixture of 1 beaten egg white, 1 teapoon water and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. Brush with melted butter.

Buns can be made ahead and frozen. Steam frozen buns for 1/2 hour to reheat. Baked frozen buns should be thawed, wrapped in foil and reheated in slow oven for 1/2 hour.

In addition to the Tung Bor, here are some other Washington restaurants serving dim sum :

China Doll, 627 H St. NW: Dim sum is served from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m. every day. About 12 varieties (90 to 95 cents per order) are on the list.

China Garden, 4711 Montgomery Lane, Bethesda: More than 20 varieties, Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each $1 order has two or three pieces.

China Garden, 1901 North Moore, Arlington: From 11:30 to 3 p.m. on Sundays only, at about 90 cents an order.

Dragon Palace Restaurant, 3503 Jefferson Blvd., Bailey's Crossroads: Sesame cake and soybean milk cake are two of the 10 varieties available Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Each piece is 25 cents.

Golden Palace, 727 7th St. NW: A large selection -- 40 to 50 kinds -- on the ddaily lunch menu. Each order is about $1 and served from rolling carts on weekends.

Hunan Garden, 2104 Veirs Mill Road, Rockville: Twenty to 30 varieties from 50 cents to $3 Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Kowloon Restaurant, 1105 H St. NW: Over 35 varieties are on the menu daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Weekends the dim sum is served from rolling carts.

Nan King, 901 New York Ave. NW: A small selection of six or seven varieties. But this is one of the first places in the area to have dim sum. Serving from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Three orders for $1.20 to $1.40.

Ruby Restaurant, 609 H St. NW: The Ruby serves dim sim daily from 11 a.m. until well after midnight. Fried Taro balls, Shiu Mai and shrimp dumplings are among the 12 selections. Prices average $1.15 per order.

Tai-Tung, 662 H St. NW: From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. seven or eight different selections at $1 to $1.40 each.