In celebration of Chinese New Year on January 28, friends and families of Chinese heritage will gather to feast on dim sum. Presented in a way similar to Spanish tapas, dim sum dishes are traditionally served as sharing portions in round, bamboo steamer baskets piled atop carts and ordered tableside. Dim sum in North America ranges from cheap, ready-made options to high-quality, made-to order dishes, many of which combine traditional and contemporary ingredients. But, no matter where you eat, the most memorable dim sum experiences include a constant, slightly chaotic influx of food as well as good company.
Hot spots for dim sum
A large number of Chinese-Canadians call Richmond home, which makes this town one of the best places in Canada for authentic Chinese food. Of the 400 Asian restaurants here, nearly 40 serve dim sum. Head to Vivacity Restaurant on “Food Street” (Alexandra Road) for southern Chinese dishes, Continental Seafood Restaurant for cart-style dim sum or Fisherman’s Terrace Seafood Restaurant at Aberdeen Centre for an upscale vibe.
New York City
NYC has a highly concentrated Chinese population and an exciting Chinatown. Don’t leave without visiting the city’s first dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah Tea Parlour. It opened in Chinatown in 1920 on Doyers Street, where many Chinese gang wars occurred at the time. Some of the most authentic dim sum is also found in Flushing, Queens. Try Asian Jewels Seafood for its glitzy red-and-gold banquet room, open for dim sum daily.
Some of San Francisco’s best dim sum is found in the Richmond District, where the streets are lined with Chinese grocery stores and casual, cash-only restaurants. Stand in line to eat at Hong Kong Lounge—the 33-item dim sum menu is worth the wait. Or try Shanghai Dumpling King, famous for its warm soup dumplings. Tip: Place the dumpling on a spoon, put some vinegar on it, bite a tiny hole, slurp, repeat.
San Gabriel Valley, Calif.
Thirty minutes east of LA, the San Gabriel Valley has one of the largest Chinese populations in the U.S. and is known for its Asian cuisine. If you want dim sum here after 11 a.m. on a weekend, you’ll be in for a wait. For something fancy, try Sea Harbour Seafood Restaurant, a high-end spot where the prices reflect the taste. Or go to China Red for its purple sweet potato bun filled with custard.
Must-try dim sum dishes
Choosing which dishes to order at a busy dim sum restaurant can be overwhelming—some menus list up to 100 items, from steamed or fried dumplings to fresh seafood, veggies and even entree-sized noodle bowls. Here are five items you should try.
Chicken feet (feng zhua): Deep-fried and steamed chicken feet marinated in fermented black bean sauce with chili pepper.
Shrimp dumplings (har gow): Shrimp steamed in a thin, translucent wrapper.Dip dumplings in spicy XO sauce.
Steamed custard buns (lau sa bao): Soft buns filled with hot egg yolk and milky custard. Eat them while they’re hot.
Egg tart (daan taat): Sweet yellow custard encased within a thick and flaky crust. (Think lemon tart with a lighter filling.)
Pork buns (char siu bao): Steamed, pillowy buns filled with diced or sliced sweet barbecued pork and a touch of hoisin sauce.
Mind your manners: A traditional dim sum meal isn’t complete without tea.
Once your tea is poured, lightly tap the table two times with the tips of your middle and index fingers as a symbolic gesture of thanks. Wait for the tea to steep, then raise your cup and say yum cha, which means “drink tea.”
Meet a dim sum chef: Susur Lee
As a child growing up in Hong Kong, celebrity chef Susur Lee loved running up to ladies pushing dim sum carts and peeking inside the steaming bamboo pots to see what delicious treats were inside. Today, Lee honours this traditional cart-style dim sum service at his Toronto restaurant, Luckee.
Proper dim sum: “Go for brunch. It’s more relaxed. You can have sweet or savoury and eat until 3 or 4 p.m. It’s the perfect day. Dim sum is very casual, harmonious, friendly. The more crowded and interactive, the better. There’s a Cantonese saying, ‘If you want to taste more food, you have to get more friends.’”
First-timer suggestions: “Don’t be afraid. Say it’s your first time and [the servers will] show you what to do.”
Etiquette: “Don’t double dip. There are sharing chopsticks and sharing spoons. Don’t take one bite; take two bites. And don’t be afraid to use a knife and fork. It’s okay to learn.”
Dim sum in Toronto: “The scene is great. Chefs here are creative and adapting, and they smile when they see fresh prawns, great meat. It makes them happy. We have all the ingredients we need here.”
Meaning: “In Cantonese, dim sum means ‘touch of little heart.’ It takes skill, attention and love to make a little treasure.”
Read more: Three Chinatown Food Tours