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Nov 21, 2006 02:04 PM

Dim Sum for beginners

Hi Chowhounds,
I get a little intimidated when I have to go out for a new type of cuisine. I would love to try a Dim Sum restaurant but I really dont know how it works or what to order.
Would love some help, preferably restaurant in the north part of Toronto or in Vaughan.

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  1. The great thing about dim sum is that you don't have to know much. Ladies come around with carts, and offer small plates of stuff ranging from shrimp dumplings (har gow - yum!) to items like chicken feet and tripe, which are more of an acquired taste. The items are generally inexpensive, so if you don't like something, it hasn't cost you much. If it's your first time and you're feeling intimidated, stick with the easy stuff -- steamed and fried dumplings of all kinds.

    1 Reply
    1. re: estragon

      Carts!?? Very few, if any, dim sum restaurant in TO uses carts anymore! Now it's all order off a paper menu and the food that's ordered is (or rather should be) cook to order instead of becoming stale on carts.

    2. For beginners, I'd be more inclined to stay away from the carts. It's often quite difficult to get an explanation of what you're looking at from the cart attendants. Ordering from a menu generally gets you fresher dishes and pictures with descriptions so you can use both the picture and the description to decide whether you want to try something.

      Celestial Court is on Woodbine, I think? Or maybe Warden? In Markham is quite good and has very detailed menus. Plus at least some of the staff speaks very good English (and some of them speak almost no English at all, but they'll get you someone who does if required). It is, I think, a little pricier than some places, though.

      1. When we were 'starting out', we went to Cha Liu at Yonge & Eglinton -- there is an order form with explanations of what each thing is...

        They are pretty tame...

        3 Replies
        1. re: kawarthagirl

          Cha Liu also has a set lunch special for one person with a number of items, you can try a little of everything. I think $8-9.

          1. re: munch

            Cool -- I didn't know that. We go there still just because of the location but we have our favourites now! ;)

            1. re: munch

              Q Dim Sum Palace (King and Peter) also has the same but I think they are not as good as Cha Liu.

          2. i apologize if i'm offering information that you're already aware of, but if you're an absolute novice then you might find the following helpful. i went through a love/hate relationship with it when i was younger and we were going every saturday, but it's one of the things i crave the most.

            as most have mentioned it might be more prudent to start with a place that offers a menu rather than carts. even though the novelty is quite fun it can be difficult to understand what you're eating and how to get it again if the servers speak very minimal english. additionally, unless you plan to bring eftovers home it's incredibly easy to over order and you'll end up with a table of great looking food getting cold quickly. i've always been told that the appropriate amount of dishes is 2 x #of diners plus 1 or 2. of course this depends on their appetites but it's worked for most chinese families i know, feel free to order more but this keeps you in check. each dish often holds about 3 to 4 servings.

            when you get there, they might just plop a teapot on your table but you can usually get a couple of options. chrysanthemum has been the mainstay for my family but there are a few others i can't remember... if anyone wants to chime in here. i've only ever really drank it to help cut the mass amounts of grease and salt i'm consuming. when you're running low on tea, take the lid and off balance it on the handle to indicate you'd like more water. if you get two teapots, it's likely that one is filled with hot water only.

            items are priced by different sizes ranging from small to extra large. the only calculable difference is that each dish within each size is priced the same. usually small-medium dishes will be your regular run of the mill things and anything charged as a large will be your fried noodle platters, green veggies (unecessarily expensive, i avoid them) or anything more expensive/special like roasted quails.

            the menu is usually split up into sections: steamed, fried, desserts, platters, etc. they tend to do a decent job of describing the items in english but it will be a little different from restaurant to restaurant.

            great basics:
            cheung fun or rice noodle rolls - long and flat it's essentially a huge rice noodle stuffed with meat (a finely minced/spiced beef paste or whole shrimp), kind of like a canneloni, and then steamed into perfection. doused with and dipped in soy sauce while eating, it's great. the better places will often give you a couple veg on the side.

            haw gow or shrimp dumplings - the dumpling wrapper is glutenous rice and should be translucent and just thin enough that the filling doesn't pop out when you pick it up. a dense mass of nicely cooked shrimp, waterchestnuts and a light paste holding it togther - it is quintessential dimsum. love it with some chili sauce.

            siu mai or pork and shrimp dumplings - well it's not quite a dumpling as most know it, but a similarly dense mixture of pork and shrimp is cupped in a yellow wrapper with an open top. the top is often sprinkled with some caviar. this is also a steamed item.

            lo bak go or turnip cake - a smooth mixture of turnip and rice is speckled with dried shrimps, green onions and small chunks of turnip is turned into a somewhat gelatenous cake that is pan fried slightly on the outside. lots of great savoury flavour but very touch and go depending on the restaurant. some might offer a singaporean version, just means it's doused in curry powder... not a personal favourite.

            chicken feet - if you're going to try it, get either the red sauced or black bean almost red sauced versions. if you are not a fan of working for your food, i'm not sure if one should bother with this. you are essentially eating skin, tendons, and cartiledge off of the bones. people will sometimes painstakingly chew off each little toe to get every last bit. the sauced ones are best just because that's where you get your flavouring from.

            jook/congee or rice porridge - you've likely had this before but they'll often have this and the most classic "flavour" would be the 1000 yr old egg with ground pork, etc. it's simple, most of the time good, and works as a nice way to have filler. i ALWAYS get the fried donut that should be on the menu too. i have a bad addiction of needed an equal bite of each to finish the bowl. i also like a nice dousing of white pepper.

            furry footballs - we had a discussion somewhere else on chowhound about this but i still can't remember it's chinese name. it's essentially a soft taro and ground pork mixture encased in a fried batter. doesn't sound too unusual? well it looks like a furry football because the batter is pulled into strands around the filling and upwards surrounding it. a bit greasy, it's a very good and rich item.

            dau fu fa or sweet tofu - maybe it's just me... but i love this simple stuff. plain super soft tofu in pillowy squares sits in one bowl while beside it should be a second with a sweet syrupy and mildly gingery liquid. sometimes they'll premix it for you. it's great dessert! so simple and light it helps to cleanse the palate a little.

            that or you can go for the mango pudding, usually a favourite when topped off with the condensed milk.

            there are soooo.... many other things but you'll have fun figuring it out yourself. there are a lot of food options in markham, but i unfortunately don't go up there often enough to recall the name of one. have fun!

            ps. bring cash, it's always a good thing for chinese restaurants.

            14 Replies
            1. re: pinstripeprincess

              Thanks so much for this post! It really helps a lot. we are italian, and my boyfriend and family ADORE chicken feet...but we usually just boil them in chicken stock so i'm interested to see what the red sauced ones taste like. Thanks for the tips!

              1. re: icey

                Ambassador Restaurant in Thornhill (West Beaver Creek and HWY 7 - Jubilee Plaza). Tell them is your first time having dim sum and they will give you a laminted menu with pictures of the many dim sim they offer. Great food but a bit on the pricey side.

                1. re: mimiwhite

                  A bit on the pricey side?! Sure, compared to other dim sum maybe. But, my mother and I go and stuff ourselves with 4 plates each and a bowl of soup and leave for less that $20 each.

              2. re: pinstripeprincess

                Furry/hairy footballs = wu gok = yum!

                Also hum sui kwak = non furry/hairy deep-fried footballs filled with pork and bamboo shoots and pae kwat, steamed spareribs with black bean sauce. Yum again.

                  1. re: pinstripeprincess

                    Great, as many has said, but a minor correction. Tofu fa is not regular tofu, it's specially made for this purpose. It should not come as a square - it's so soft it wouldn't hold its shape. It is scooped out from a big pot so should be in random size mouthfuls.

                    Not to be confused with "almond tofu", which is cubes of gelatin with almond flavouring, but tasteless. Avoid!

                    My favourites not on your list are shrimp roll, which is a deep fried cigar shaped pastry, made with mashed shrimp filling and a thin wrapper, and also fried shrimp wontons - like har gow but large and deep fried and served with mayo. It's called "sa lud (i.e. salad) har kok" - coz mayo is considered salad dressing!

                    1. re: Teep

                      thanks for the correction, i knew i wasn't quite describing it right but i didn't want to bring up the bucket of tofu if it was something that might not always be visible at the restaurant.

                      i also love the rice bowls, mostly if they're in the clay because of the crispy rice and the sweet juices from the mixture of meats soaking down.

                      also love the beefballs sitting on tofu or pea shoots, it's such an odd texture because it's so smooth and light but i love it anyway.

                      you should definitely try going with as many people as you can to get a greater diversity, if all else fails it'll be a fun experiment with lots of laughs and good company.

                    2. re: pinstripeprincess

                      Excellent job princess. Thanks to your description, I may just have to try the turnip cake next time.

                      The only thing I would add to this is the rice wrapped in lotus leaves. Mmmmmm. Sticky rice and an assortment of savory meat along with a piece or so of sausage. I just had it yesterday with someone who knows the name of this sausage, but I've already forgotten it. I was also hungry an hour later--hahah.

                      Also another quick hint. When I used to go frequently with a gf from work, we made it a point to stick to the steamed dishes (haw gow, cheung fun, siu mai etc.) in a half-hearted attempt to cut back on the fat and calories.

                      1. re: dinin and dishin


                        the sausage you're referring to is lap cheung perhaps? dense mass of meat with little bulbs of fat and lots of salty flavour? love the stuff. you can usually get it in those clay pots and the melting fat on rice is fantastic.

                        another personal favourite...
                        egg custard buns.
                        steamed little domes of white dough filled with a yellow eggy dense custard mixture. absolutely heaven when done right. i love to peel off the layer of "skin" on the buns and eat it separately.

                        my oh my... i need to stop thinking about dimsum.

                        1. re: pinstripeprincess

                          OMG princess, I forgot about dessert. I haven't tried the egg custard buns, but I am a freak for those little custard tarts. The best by far at at Lai Wah Hen (some kind of nest on top). But I always try to talk my table mates into these.

                          Yes...must stop thinking about dimsum...going on vacation next week and need to fit into b-suit w/o looking like sticky bun.

                      2. re: pinstripeprincess

                        I don't even drink tea with dim sum anymore. Some friends and I went for dim sum in the GTA a while back and to my shock and horror they all ordered coke. Although sceptical and not one to order soda ever, I ordered one too because they all raved about the combo. It's the BEST way to cut the grease/deep fried goodness. YUM!

                        1. re: Julie Woo

                          Exactly! I was just about to mention how sprite or coke is a really good combo with dim sum. It really helps the food go down.

                          Actually for most chinese food places these days, I have to get soda. Especialy when I head back to China/HK.

                          1. re: Julie Woo

                            Coke instead of tea with dim sum??... why, that's blasphemy! Tea and dim sum is like wine and cheese or beer and nuts or strawberries and cream or Canada and snow... well... you get my drift! In fact, dim sum is also referred to in Chinese as "yum cha" which literally means drink tea! Coke or other sodas are usually reserved for kids, but they don't know any better. Millions of Chinese and centuries of dim sum tradition can't be wrong! ;-)

                        2. Best advice for novices is to go with a guide. It'll go so much better and save you the horroro of the lady with the mystery cart.