Whether you’re a dim sum devotee or a dabbler, a basket-based banquet is easy to find across the GTA. With bottomless tea and more steamed buns and dumplings than you can shake your chopsticks at, it’s well worth cracking the dim sum code.
What is dim sum?
Originating as a simple accompaniment to tea, dim sum grew from roadside establishments in Guangzhou and Hong Kong to a full-brunch experience that’s enjoyed all over the world. While tea is still an important part, the focus of the meal has shifted to the collection of bite-sized sweet or savoury food served in bamboo steamer baskets or laid out on doily-covered plates.
History of dim sum
While the term dim sum can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (9th century), the meal is linked to the practise of “one cup accompanied by two pieces” – the cup referring to tea and pieces to dim sum. Chinese travellers along the Silk Road stopped in at teahouses to eat small dishes with tea to aid digestion.
Nick Liu, chef-owner at Dailo
“I always look for carts. There are very few restaurants that do carts any more, but I really like that touch. It’s all about tradition. It’s more experiential than ordering from a menu, plus it gets everyone involved. It's great for newbies who don’t know what they’re ordering or the names of things because they can visually see them.”
Getting a table
Dim sum is definitely a weekend pursuit, so if you can’t be early, at least be patient. Depending on where you go, parties of two may have to share a larger table with strangers, while big groups can expect a slightly longer wait.
Anna Chen, chef-owner at Alma
"Never stab at a dumpling. Always let the elders at the table go first; you don't start eating until they've dug into their food. Don't use the chopsticks to pick the piece that you want, just go for the one closest to you. That's the etiquette I was taught growing up."
Given its origins, it stands to reason that tea is one of the first things your server will ask you about. Choose whichever type you prefer (green, oolong, chrysanthemum), but be sure to serve everyone before pouring your own tea. Want more hot water? Place the lid upside down so your server knows to refill.
How to order
Family style is a great way to try a variety of dishes. Most spots will have you order by marking the number of items on a piece of paper. "Get at least one of each type from every section – fried, steamed, bao and vegetables," says Chen.
This delicious dumpling consists of a prawn encased in a transluscent wrapper that has been folded on one side. One of the most technical dim sum dishes, har gow should traditionally have at least seven pleats.
This dumpling looks a little like a brown paper bag (it has a thin, yellow wrapper) filled with ground pork and chopped shrimp, topped with bright orange fish eggs.
Char siu bao (barbecue pork buns)
These beautifully white steamed buns (bao) provide a stark contrast to the shock of its red filling of finely-chopped shallots, ginger and Cantonese barbecue pork that spills out after you rip them open.
Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings)
While its origins are disputed, these steamed dumplings are thought to have orginated in Shanghai. They're traditionally filled with seasoned ground pork and hot broth, so you'll need to poke a hole in the top before biting into these hot pockets.
Dips and sauces
Not all sauces are created equal, so know before you dunk. That deep red sauce with flecks of red pepper is chili oil, and unless you like things fiery, use it in moderation. Soy sauce and sriracha will likely be on your table, but hoisin can usually be requested.
Where to get it
323 Spadina Ave.
This late-night Chinatown haunt is instantly recognizable by its all-day dim sum banner. Despite having a second dining room in the back, lineups snake outside. Order an obscene feast and keep an eye out for NBA stars seeking after-hours eats – Serge Ibaka was spotted celebrating the Raptors’ Eastern Conference win at Rol San back in May.
207 Queens Quay W., Unit 200
If you like handmade dim sum with a spectacular view, you won't find a better place to overindulge than at this spot on the lake. Select a cup from the broad selection of tea and take your pick from one of the few carts still winding its way around a dim sum restaurant in the downtown core. Stray from the classics – try the braised lobster.
Ding Tai Fung
First Markham Place
Ever wondered how dumplings are made? You can watch the kitchen in action through a glass wall at this hidden gem in Markham. It's worth the schlep north for the soup dumplings alone, but while you're there, check out the Shanghai-style dim sum at this busy strip mall in Markham. We recommend the green onion pancakes and wontons served dry.