The Heart and Soul of Chinese Dim Sum – Shrimp & Pork Dumplings, Rice Rolls, and Family Gatherings

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It was dim sum weekend here at Ate by Ate headquarters and I’m so excited to share the yummies with all of you today!  Aside from some dumpling photos here and there, I’ve never done a full dim sum post on the blog.  The lack of steamers and Chinese brunch on Ate by Ate is inexcusable considering how much I love dim sum and how it’s been ingrained into my familial and cultural upbringing since childhood, so I thought it was about time I shared some of my favourite dim sum dishes and stories here.  

Dim sum is so special to me because it combines so many of my favourite things all into one big ball of happiness: great food, time spent with my grandparents, and a busy and bustling atmosphere.  I know dim sum might not seem like the most exciting or adventurous thing to those who go out for it often, but it’s a real treat for me and I look forward to dim sum get-togethers and meals each and every single time.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve had dim sum a hundred or even a thousand times over during the course of my life – it’s the feeling I have and the memories that are invoked that mean the most to me.

I love the feeling of walking into the Chinese restaurant that I grew up going to and having the manager and dim sum ladies ask me how I am and lament at how much time has passed since I was a little girl.  I love remembering the times when I would play up my big sister role and grab food for my baby brother and how I still mother him to this day by making sure he has enough to eat (he’s a boy with a bottomless pit of a stomach so I really don’t why I worry about this!).  I love seeing my relationship with my grandparents grow and change over time.  And I love those moments when its just me, my family, and food.  When all the cares in the world go away just for the morning.  When it’s just the six of us.  There’s nothing like it.

To me, dim sum is at its absolute best when it’s delivered via dim sum carts.  I know there are great places that do it the pencil and paper way, but hands down, dim sum struts its stuff from the carts when they make their rounds around the restaurant.  For those who have never experienced dim sum or dim sum in this fashion, this is how it works: Patrons are seated at a table and are asked what type of tea they wish to drink.  Two tea pots are then brought to the table, one with tea and one with hot water to dilute the tea as the meal progresses.  Dishes of food are placed on rolling carts.  Restaurant staff (who are traditionally women) push these carts in and around the aisles and perimeter of the restaurant.  At times they will call out the dishes that are being offered on the cart, but most of the time patrons will see for themselves what the dishes are and request them for their table.

There are two particular styles of dishes that are served.  There are the “small plates” and the meal-size dishes.  Small plates include dumplings (the infamous shrimp ha gow, and pork siu mai, and many others), rice rolls, steamed buns, sticky buns, spring rolls, beef balls, crispy fried taro mounds, and small dishes of things like chicken feet and squid.  Meal size dishes are things like bowls of rice (law mai fan), congee, noodles, and vegetables among others.  After requesting a dish off the cart (of which you can have as many as your table desires), the dim sum lady will make a note on your running paper bill.  Each and every table has one and it is there to keep track of what dishes each table has ordered and how many.  At the end of the meal, the running bill is tallied up to a grand total.

For families and larger groups, dim sum is – excuse my language – a freakin’ awesome deal price-wise.  Each dish size (small, medium, and large) will have a “flat” price that is assigned to all dishes within that size categorization.  For example, small dishes can be assigned to a $2 price point while medium dishes are assigend to, say, $2.50.  Prices will vary depending on day of the week (weekday mornings are slightly cheaper than weekends, which is expected) and the restaurant and part of town.  Many of the small plate dishes come with 3 or 4 of each item so you order for the table accordingly based on how many people there are, how many people anticipating eating that particular dish, and so on.  You can always order again if you decide you want more and you can always ask for a take-out box if you have leftovers.  To put the pricing into perspective, our 6-person table of adults had a total bill of $42, tax included.  And we were all stuffed as we always are after an amazing dim sum meal.

Dim sum is what I like to call, “Chinese style tapas”.  The term “tapas” is sometimes misused when it only refers to the size and portion of food and dishes, when it really incorporates both the concept of small-bites and socializing over food.  And boy is dim sum ever a socializing event!  It is not dim sum unless it is busy, busy, and more busy.  Think line-ups, dishes being delivered and devoured at an alarming speed, and a steady stream of loud chatter ping-ponging from every corner of the restaurant.  While weekday mornings might not always be as busy, noon hour is always a bustling time and weekends are absolute party events.  Most of all, the space in which dim sum is consumed is also the space in which generations merge and collide.  Dim sum is incredibly social in nature and the whole experience is bounded by the belief that food plays a central role in familial and social gatherings.

*****

Photos taken in Scarborough at Very Fair Chinese Restaurant, in Agincourt.  Very Fair Chinese Restaurant is located at 4002 Sheppard Ave. East in the lower level of the complex.

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