Dim sum is one of the most beautiful and delicious culinary traditions that brings people together, turning an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning into an extraordinary magical weekend. The Cantonese tradition of dim sum began in southern China as yum cha 飲茶, which means to ‘drink tea’, with road side tea houses offering a relaxing cup of tea for weary travelers on the ancient Silk Road. Over the centuries, it has evolved from a quiet moment of rest and refuge into a fast-paced fun morning of crowds, conversations and consumption. The high level of energy is everywhere, in the hoards of hungry patrons, in the numbers shouted through the microphone, in the trolleys that weave through the dining hall and in the speed of the multi-tasking waiters who replenish your teapot.
Outside of Hong Kong, one of the best cities to enjoy dim sum is Vancouver, which boasts one of the world’s largest Chinese populations per capita. The city offers an amazing diversity of Chinese cuisine, from Szechuan to Taiwanese to Hunan, but due to the predominantly Cantonese population, Cantonese cuisine reigns supreme. Most of these restaurants are south of Vancouver in the heart of Richmond, a large Chinese community, but we found a precious gem called Kirin Restaurant in the heart of downtown Vancouver.
Open since 1987, Kirin has become a successful chain with 4 other locations around the city. Unlike traditional dim sum restaurants, the atmosphere at Kirin is more tranquil, reflecting the tea drinking yum cha origins of the ritual. There are no ear piercing microphone announcements of your waiting list number, there is ample space between each table, and there are no trolleys charging your way. The absence of trolleys definitely take away from the dim sum experience, but it’s reassuring to know that each dish is made fresh to order.
Large steamed prawn and chive dumplings were meaty, plump and delicious. The benefits of made-to-order were clearly evident in the doughy dumpling skins made from rice flour, which would normally fall apart after being in the trolleys all morning.
Dumplings, or gao, are perhaps the most beloved of all dim sum plates. Shrimp har gau made with whole shrimp wrapped in translucent skin and cylindrical siu mai stuffed with pork are standard players. We opted for the steamed prawn, scallop and sweet corn dumplings, big purses of savory delight.
Though originally Shanghainese, steamed pork soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, have become regulars on dim sum menus. The art of making the perfect xiao long bao is a complex one, but the version at Kirin, with the perfect ratio of juice to pork, was one which was worthy of satisfying any critic.
Steamed pork spareribs in XO spicy sauce were tender, succulent and melt-in-your-mouth perfect.
Steamed preserved meat in Chinese radish pudding made with dried shrimp and shredded preserved pork had a comforting and delicate flavor.
Northern Chinese style jiaozi dumplings (steamed and then pan-fried) surprised us all when we bit into these giant packages of savory meat and hot juice squirted across the table. Without a doubt the star player of the morning, these dumplings were incredibly delicious.
Dim sum is not complete without a hefty serving of chicken feet, or phoenix talons (鳳爪 fung zao) deep fried to puff them up, then boiled, marinated in black bean sauce and steamed. These lovely flavorful limbs were served on a bed of steamed pork tripe.
Beef tendon braised in spicy sauce jiggled with collagenous bounce and succulent flavor.
Shark fin dumpling in a wonderful bowl of consommé was the perfect dish to complete the savory meal.
Kirin’s mango pudding with condensed milk had generous cubes of sweet mango.
Warm black sesame rice balls topped with crushed peanuts and sugar oozed with molten sweet richness wrapped inside a pillow of soft doughy goodness.
I love the organized chaos of dim sum- the quick pour of hot tea, the rapid-fire ordering of food, the piping hot bamboo steamers that descend onto the table like the dramatic opening act of an opera, the shuffling of dumplings and chicken feet across plates, the swift distribution of condiments along the circumference of the table, the laughter and conversation that escalate as the feast reaches its climax. Every person, like a worker ant, becomes a team player in tackling the joyous banquet, and by the end of the carnage every morsel of meat has been cleaned and every dish has been emptied- only bones and satisfying sighs remain. The success of the culinary celebration can be seen on the tablecloth in the brown splatters of XO sauce, loose black beans that slipped out of a careless chopstick grip, bright red chili oil splotches and a spilt tea stain slowly spreading across the table, still warm. Ah, the beauty of dim sum.
102-1166 Alberni Street
Vancouver, BC V6E 3Z3, Canada
Random trivia: Did you know that the name XO sauce comes from fine XO (extra-old) cognac? This cognac, which represents high quality, prestige and luxury, is especially popular in Hong Kong.