If you follow my super awesome Shut Up and Eat Instagram feed, you’d know that it’s a great source of all things Montreal food porn. You will also be subject to my pontification of dim sum – one of my favourite things in life besides kneading my six year old nephew’s stomach like bread dough. I once read a “best of” list of places to go for dim sum which listed Qing Hua, Yi Pin Xiang and Jiu Xiang amongst other places for best dim sum in Montreal. Wrong. There’s a big difference between dumplings and dim sum – dim sum is the meal, the experience; dumplings are what you eat at dim sum. I took that article with a grain of MSG and decided to right the wrong that has been published under the veil of click-bait.
1. When to go.
Dim sum is often a weekend thing – a tradition amongst Chinese families when everyone gathers in the name of good food and passive-agressive family bickering. Optimal time is between 10:30-11:00 if you want to avoid a lengthy wait. If you’re a party of two, chances are you’ll be asked if you want to share a table, i.e., be seated at a larger round table with strangers. If you’re there to get your dim sum fix it shouldn’t be problem to share a table, but if you plan to go in for the long run, you’ll have to wait. DIM SUM HACK #1: Red Ruby in Chinatown offers a weekday dim sum special; all dishes on an abbreviated à la carte dim sum menu from 8:30am-11:00am and then 2:30pm-4:00pm are $2.00, except for specialty items.
2. Etiquette – Some are unwritten rules, some are just common sense, but here are some of the things to keep in mind before you even start eating.
Never be these assholes. Contrary to popular belief, cultural insensitivity is not a licence to act like a dick in a restaurant. Chopsticks are for eating, if you don’t know how to use chopsticks, most packaging have clever picogram instructions that will teach you in three steps and under five minutes. If finger dexterity isn’t your thing, don’t be afraid to ask for a fork. But if you insist of busting out your wicked sick drum solo from Van Halen’s Hot for Teacher, ask me and I’ll show you a great way you can smuggle the chopsticks home with you!
When you get your tea, let it steep for a couple of minutes. When you run out of water, instead of flagging down the the neared waiter, flip the lid open (if it’s a metal teapot) or position the ceramic lid like so, it will be refilled before you know it. DIM SUM HACK #2 – If you don’t specify what kind of tea you want, you’re going to get jasmine, always. Most dim sum houses have jasmine, black tea, oolong, chrysanthemum, and a mix of black tea and chrysanthemum.
Besides being polite, it’s customary to pour tea for others first; starting with the eldest person on the table – yourself last. Also, tapping the table right behind your cup when someone is pouring your tea is a polite way of saying thank you, without disrupting any conversations that may be happening at the table.
It goes without saying that the aunties pushing carts first language isn’t English or French, but they try. Be patient and don’t let dim summing turn political. We are all lucky that most of them are wearing gloves to handle our food to begin with, so we have that going for us. Don’t be afraid to ask to see what are in the steamers so that you can vaguely wade your way through thick accented pronunciations of dishes on the carts.
What to order.
There are certain dins staples; like these “Har Gow” – Shrimp dumplings – Shrimp paste, mashed together with whole shrimp with strips of bamboo shoots, enveloped in a rice and tapioca flour wrapper. For a more extensive list of some of the items you’ll see during dim sum, check out my ever growing feature, “Dim Sum for Dummies“.
Try everything! DIM SUM HACK #3 I understand that dim sum may still be out of the comfort zone for some people so don’t freak out. They’re still a restaurant and still offer a full menu service; general tao and cantonese fried noodles for brunch? WHY NOT?!
If you’re going with a group of people, bring small bills and change. Trust me, when you’re splitting a $75 amongst 6 people, your small bills and chump bar-change will come in handy when everyone whips out a twenty.
Most of the dishes are small and the beauty of dim sum is being able to order many things, enjoying delicious food amongst great company. Like I said, try everything! If it looks weird, it’s probably delicious, if it isn’t, at least you can say you tried chicken feet!
I love Chinese food–REAL Chinese food. I taught for a year at Wuhan University, and my students and fellow faculty members made sure that I was totally introduced to the local eats, plus those of the provinces to the north and west. I’m relatively new to Montréal’s Chinese food scene, so I’ll have to read up on your reviews. But first I have a question: I went to Foo Lam yesterday and enjoyed the dim sum pretty much. Well worth going back. But just watching my fellow diners, almost all of whom were Chinese–my wife and I were the only Waigoren there at one period! It was clear that there is a bunch of off-menu items that those in the know order. How do I find out about those items? Any hints/advice? TIA