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

Leave a comment

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.

Advertisements

Bubble Tea, Chinese Food, and Memories of a Melting Ice Cream Birthday Cake – Destiny Cafe, Part I

2 Comments

You know a cafe holds a special place in your heart when you’re happy to go back for eats even after a mortifying experience.  On your birthday.  In front of other people.  And by mortifying, I mean having your special circus-themed ice cream birthday cake completely defrost, deflate, collapse, and flood the dinner table with your dinner guests watching, laughing hysterically, and then helping you mop up the goopy mess afterward.  And that, my dear friends, is the fondest memory I have of eating at Destiny Cafe until now.  Which is somewhat unfortunate considering I’m in love with their menu, their decor, and their drinks and food!  Let me start from the beginning though and turn the clocks back to the summer of 2008.  

Enter the reunion of yours truly with a childhood friend through the magic of social media.  Said friend suggests grabbing a bite at Destiny Cafe in Scarborough.  Yours truly, not yet the savvy food adventurer she is now (humour me with that one), has no prior knowledge of what Destiny Cafe is or what food and drink they serve.  However, she is highly intrigued and jumps on the chance to try a new place and to catch up with an old friend.  Yours truly is happy to find out that Destiny Cafe is a lovely place with traditional Chinese rice and noodle meals and snacks, and vows to come back in the future.  

    

When she does so in 2009, she is shocked to see the cafe has undergone a complete makeover in both appearance and in menu, making it one heck of a gorgeous and delicious space to eat in!  Goodbye wooden and bamboo accents and furniture; hello sleek and shiny gunmetal and olive green!  The scrapping of the traditional Chinese food menu made way for the more modern and hip bubble tea and tea drink cafe with fried rice and noodles dishes, dim sum appetizers, and Hong Kong diner style fare.  Yours truly is hooked and vows to eat and drink her way through this luscious Chinese cafe.

And eat and drink she did as she enjoyed afternoon tea time food with her family (scrumptious crispy shrimp and mango dim sum rolls!  Mango peach bubble tea!) and a birthday get-together with friends and boyfriend.  She decided Destiny Cafe would be a lovely place to hold a birthday dinner – large space, large menu.  With circus themed goodie bags and special ice cream cake in hand (or rather, hands), the birthday girl made her way Destiny Cafe for what hoped to be a memorable birthday celebration with great food, drinks, and friends.

Oh, it was memorable alright, as unforseen circumstances took hold.  The food gods must have chosen her as the next target to poke fun at because before anyone could say, “melting cake!!!”, disaster struck as the birthday girl’s entire cake caved in, melted, and spread like evil molten lava.  Mortified and nearly choking on her Portuguese chicken and rice, she lunges for the stack of napkins and tries to salvage what is now a circus freak show mess.  The birthday girl’s friends and boyfriend help to clean up by eating any and all unmelted remnants, shoving the leftover goopy mess into the cake box, and using ice cube water and leftover guava juice to mop up the evidence.  All the while giggling uncontrollably and soothing the birthday girl’s wounded spirit. 

And that, folks, is the last memory I had of Destiny Cafe until now.  Under the circumstances, I actually took the incident fairly well and snorted about it on the way home.  That incident occurred two and a half years ago and I look back it ruefully and fondly.  My last trip to Destiny may have ended on a mortifying note, but I look back and only remember the good because all my food experiences here in the past have given great food and memories.

If not for my old friend, I never would have known about this Chinese cafe and I never would have had the pleasure of tucking away another delicious Chinese food spot into my list of Chinese cafe mainstays.  Destiny played a part in my family’s afternoon tea time meal phase during a difficult time in my life, and it gave my friends and I one of the most ridiculous, hilarious memories ever.  No matter what, food brings us together and it’s what anchors many of fondest memories. 

Aside from the crispy dim sum rolls, what you see up top are photos taken from the Markham location as opposed to the Scarborough one.  I’ve barely made even a tiny dent in the food and drink department since, but I have a yummy post to share with you all tomorrow that’s sure to get you eating and drinking here.  Minus the melting lava cake. 

*****

Destiny Cafe is located at 165 York Blvd. in Richmond Hill, Markham.  The large space is housed within a complex of restaurants and eateries and can be accessed via East Beaver Creek Drive and Highway 7, just off the 404.  Destiny Cafe has two locations in the GTA.  The other location is located in Scarborough off Silver Star Blvd. and Steeles Ave. East.  The markham location is open for business at 11am.