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.

Valentine’s Series: The Keys to My Heart Part V – I Heart Mango Pudding, and Memories of Kiddie Valentine’s

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Here’s a picture of my beloved heart-shaped mango pudding!  I love mango and almond pudding and a ton of Chinese dim sum and dinner restaurants will serve their pudding in a heart shape like this with a little bit of sweet condensed milk to go with it.  So appropriate and so sweet and yummy.  Chinese desserts are often less sweet than Western style ones and whether or not it’s something you prefer, the sweetness comes out much more subtly in a lot of dishes and this one hits the spot bang on.  It’s the kind of sweetness that you want in a dessert.  Something that won’t rot your teeth or make you cringe, but will also be satisfying enough for the palate.

This particular mango pudding dessert came from dim sum at Fisherman Villa in Scarborough.  Trust me when I say that if you want good dim sum, you have to go to Scarborough.  Growing up in Scarborough with my grandparents only 15 minutes away, and an aunt and uncle who loved taking us out, we would often try different dim sum restaurants all the time (“jow lau” as we would refer to them in Chinese), and even though I’ve lived in Markham for 12 years now, I still have major roots in Scarborough and feel very much at home in certain places.  They don’t call Agincourt “Asiancourt” for nothing 😉

So, tomorrow’s Valentine’s!!  I know some people might prefer to have an occasion like this fall on a weekend or something, but I actually like that it’s on a Monday.  You can celebrate on the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday beforehand as well as the actual day.  And I’m all for celebrating stuff!  I’ve indulged in some yummy veggie food, made some new friends at one of my favourite cafés, and I spent my weekend drawing scrapbook layouts.  And I’m so super excited for tomorrow.  My boyfriend and I are planning on visiting our favourite indoor garden, having a light sushi lunch, going for a movie, and then enjoying a sweet price fixe Valentine’s meal.  SO EXCITED!  I love having full days planned with him ❤

And to celebrate all things love-related, here are some pictures of the Valentine’s themed scrapbook I made about 2 years ago.  Inspired by nostalgia, I have pages of old elementary school valentine’s from friends and classmates (YES, I kept them all!  People don’t call me the human “archive” for nothing!), a page dedicated to one of my favourite (and arguably, one of the best) Simpsons episodes, and just memories from years past.  And yes, I drew and coloured and cut out the Choo-Choo-Choose-Me Valentine’s card myself.  I’m so proud of me.  Celebrate everything and everyone you love.  Happy valentine’s, everyone. P.S.  As I type this, I am also watching CTV’s Olympic Anniversary special and I am all choked up and teary-eyed.  What a ball of emotion I am *sigh*

*****

Fisherman Villa restaurant is located at 25 Glen Watford Drive, just off of Sheppard Ave. East, east of Midland Ave.  in Scarborough.

Dreaming of a White Christmas – The Quiet Serenity of King’s Café

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Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone! ❤  I am sitting here at my laptop in a blanket burrito at 9pm on the eve of Christmas, technically 3 hours away from Christmas Day, watching my brother play hockey on his PS3, reliving glorious sports moments of the year being shown on tv, and relishing in the wonderful day I spent with my bestie, Melissa, just 2 days ago.  Whatever stresses we may be feeling, whatever bad feelings we may be harbouring, this is the time to put them aside, even if just temporarily.  It’s a time to reminisce and a time to savour.

Aside from The Distillery District, Kensington Market is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto and King’s Café is a wonderful Chinese vegetarian restaurant in the middle of the all the Kensington action on Augusta Ave.  Accessible from both Dundas and College St., it’s a beautiful restaurant with heart-healthy foods and drinks and a delicious bounty of vegetarian options.  It’s open, it’s spacious, and it has this wonderful fresh, quiet, serene quality to it that makes eating a meal here so relaxing and enjoyable.

There is SO much to choose from in the menu: dim sum, rice and noodles dishes, curry, tofu, veggie chicken steak, sushi, the list goes on for miles.  While perusing the menu, I was SUPER ecstatic to find out that they had a special “winter menu” for the season!  And was the little paper insert in the middle ever adorable with the cute picture of a little King’s Café winter house down by the bottom! *cue excited squeals of “it’s so cuuuuuute!” from me*.  I am easy to amuse and easy to please.  Just give me paper.  You know me, I can’t resist seasonal things so with an excited squeal, I happily began scoping out my options.

With giddy anticipation, I chose the veggie chicken steak with orange sauce while my bestie, Melissa, went the dim sum route with the green leaf sticky rice and pan-fried radish pastry squares (law back go in Chinese).  The food was beautiful, fresh, and so yummy-yum-yummy!  My dish came with 4 veggie chicken steak rounds bathed in tangy orange sauce with spears of fresh asparagus and a colourful, fresh green salad with spring mix greens, cucumber, carrots, orange wedges, apple slices (which I actually gave to Melissa because I’m allergic to the fresh flesh of apples), and red grapes. 

The veggie chicken steak rounds were moist and so flavouful and about the size of your palm.  The orange sauce had just the right amount of tang to it and wasn’t overly citrusy and the salad made me smile; how Chinese of them 🙂  My mom and dad tell me all the time how much they love the Chinese style salads with chunks of fruits and vegetables in it like potato, pear, and apple and it’s the little details like those that really scream out to you.  I say this all the time, but you eat with your eyes and when you see something so colourful and pretty on your plate, with the freshness of it just wafting from it, it makes you happy.

One of the sweet waitresses gave us these fried vegetable fritters to try and OH.MY.GOD.  They were crunchy, crispy, and seasoned to the most amazing salty perfection you could ever imagine.  And to end off the meal?  A sweet and rich square of cranberry cheesecake with crumbles on top, sitting prettily on an adorable seashell shaped dish.  This meal was amazing and King’s Café continues to score major brownie points on quality and freshness and judging by how much several of my friends love it too, I know I’m the only one who sings its praises!

I love that it has such Chinese flair to it and I also love that its in Kensington, a neighbourhood with so much character and a passion for market freshness.  King’s Café also has a fantastic selection of teas, not just on the menu, but in the actual restaurant where you can quietly browse and shop.  The restaurant is located at 192 Augusta Ave (accessible from both Dundas and College St, just west of Spadina) and is open at 11:30am seven days a week until 9:30pm from Monday-Saturday, and until 9pm on Sundays.

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, and best wishes to everyone for a happy, memorable holiday!

*****

King’s Café is located at 192 Augusta Ave (accessible from both Dundas and College St, just west of Spadina) and is open at 11:30am seven days a week until 9:30pm from Monday-Saturday, and until 9pm on Sundays.