A Taste of Home: the Cantonese dim sum experience

A Taste of Home: the Cantonese dim sum experience

Jade Fountain Restaurant is a casual eatery on Douglas Street that serves traditional Chinese cuisine, specializing in dim sum—a traditional snack featuring small plates shared among friends and family, usually during brunch. This gem is hidden behind a liquor store in the basement of the Red Lion Hotel and Suites.

Dim sum meal

A dim sum meal includes small plates of steamed buns, rolls, dumplings, seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes. The meal is always accompanied by tea—dim sum originated in tearooms when Silk Road travellers would stop and take breaks as a quick and filling on-the-go meal. Dim sum originated in China’s Guangdong region and made its way to Hong Kong where it became an icon of Chinese culture. This traditional meal is typically shared amongst a large group of people during brunch hours. Dim sum translates to “touch of heart” in Cantonese, a branch of the Chinese language spoken in the regions of Southeast Asia surrounding Guangdong. It’s associated with the Cantonese phrase “yum cha” meaning “to drink tea.”  

Taste of Home

Tasting Victoria intern, Annika Olson met with Maya Linsley, a UVic student who is half Chinese, and has enjoyed dim sum countless times with her Cantonese family, so we could experience Dim Sum they way she does. Maya’s mom was born in Hong Kong and moved to Ontario as a child. Maya grew up connected to her roots from her mom’s efforts to surround her with her Cantonese family, celebrate Chinese holiday traditions, and eat dim sum twice a month.

Maya says going out to eat dim sum was a way to bring her family together. Since it is commonly prepared and eaten outside of the home, Maya’s family memories come from sitting around the dim sum table in a Chinese eatery in Kitchener, Ont. Going out for dim sum is all about the experience. You get the family and food without all of the preparation and time. “Too much work, are you kidding me? Dim sum has so many different dishes it would take all day.” Maya says. 

“We yell at each other to pass this and that, pour gong gong (her maternal grandpa) more tea,” Maya recalls. Her mom would say yes to almost every dish piled on the push carts, filling up the lazy Susan fast to ensure there was enough to feed the entire family. Guests and elders would be served first. As soon as the food came, Maya recalls her mom moving it from the lazy Susan onto people’s plates in order to make room on the table for new steamers and small plates. 

Tasting Victoria intern, Annika Olson met Maya so we could experience Dim Sum the way she does. 

When Maya ate dim sum with her family in Ontario, she recalls eight or more people surrounding one table. “In Chinese culture, we only want three things: family, food, and money. So get the family together to eat food, then save if auntie pays, or win the day by paying yourself.” Maya says. For a big family, leaving lots of leftovers, dim sum is easily one of the least expensive meals at around $4 per plate. “Best bang for your buck anywhere. Food for five days and it’s around $100,” Maya says. 

The dim sum dish that most reminds of Maya of home is Chinese stuffed peppers: “They’re usually green peppers stuffed with shrimp/pork. They were my favourite as a kid and now the relatives order them for me without asking,” she says. “It’s savory but has some tang, crispy from the pepper but mushy from the filling. Usually covered in black bean sauce, which has this nutty gritty vibe.” 

Annika’s first dim sum meal in Victoria:

Among all the Chinese eateries in Victoria, Maya chose to eat dim sum at Jade Fountain. She and her mom both prefer the restaurant because of its authentic tastes and traditional decorations. 

Five of us dined at Jade Fountain on Friday to avoid weekend crowds, the busiest times for dim sum when families are off work. Once we walked in, we were immediately seated at a round table with a beige tablecloth decorated with a gold floral pattern. Every utensil and dish we needed was in front of us in white glass: a small ceramic plate and bowl, wooden chopsticks, a soup spoon, and a small tea cup. 

The server immediately placed a white teapot in the middle of the lazy Susan—the meal traditionally begins with the serving of tea. Maya informs us that if a family eats dim sum together, the younger family member is expected to serve everyone tea at the table, starting with guests and elders, to train the children in etiquette. Customers can usually expect a traditional black Chinese tea at the table. Maya says “[we usually drink jasmine or green with food depending on the time of day.” Water isn’t expected unless you ask. “Tea is better for you. It’s all about learning to regulate your own temperature while munching at lightning speed” Maya says. 

Before we could even start serving our tea, the servers came out rolling push carts loaded with steamers. Usually, in a busy scene, servers walk around the restaurant until seated customers raise their hand to ask for a dish. Maya started asking for certain dishes in Cantonese. All dim sum plates are either served in bamboo steamers to keep them warm or on small plates if steamers lessen the food’s quality, in the case of vegetables and calamari. 

If the group is not a family, the traditional etiquette for serving is that the person sitting closest to the teapot serves the tea. If a table is running low on hot water, rest the lid off to the side of the teapot and the server will recognize this as a sign to refill. I quickly learned that eating out at dim sum comes with an entire set of new manners and table language! 

The flavours

The food was salty, sweet, spicy, tangy, juicy, and easy to eat with chopsticks. It impressed me to think about how much filling and pinching the dim sum chefs must have to do to create every single dumpling and bun. It was easy to taste the distinct sauces that uplifted the mixture of meats, vegetables, and rice in each dish. Soy sauce, or “see yau” in Cantonese, is the most commonly used condiment in Chinese cooking. Salty, brown, and made by fermenting soybeans, this sauce is commonly sprinkled on top of rice and meats. Oyster sauce is a paste-like condiment that adds sweet and seaweedy flavour. Hoisin sauce is used for sweetness while Worcestershire sauce brings tangy flavours. Black rice vinegar brings sweet and sour, while chili oil or “doubanjiang” adds spiciness and is served in mini saucers separate from the food. 

The food Maya ordered for the table:

  • Cantonese Shumai: Dumplings cooked in a thin sheet of water. Shumai consists of a dough wrapping including fillings of ground pork, chopped shrimp, Chinese black mushrooms, green onions, and ginger mixed with sauces for a salty and meaty taste. 
  • Gai lan: Chinese broccoli with a side of thick oyster sauce to heighten the flavour, super crunchy and refreshing when paired with the soft, juicy, and tender textures of other dim sum dishes.
  • Lo mai gai: sticky rice filled with chicken, green onion, and Chinese sausage and mushrooms wrapped tightly in lotus or banana leaves. To eat this dish you have to unwrap the two leaves that hug the sticky rice. We used our chopsticks to push the sticky rice into our small bowls so we had room on our small plates for other foods. 
  • Pork spare ribs and beef spare ribs: tender meat served in bite-sized pieces, usually made with black fermented soybeans known as “douchi.”
  • Calamari: squid fried in cornstarch and spices. They’re crunchy on the outside but tender on the inside. Easily the best calamari I’ve tasted, as they were salty and packed with flavour.
  • Chashu bao: the famous chinese barbecue pork bun, a sweet fluffy bun filled with savoury pork mixed with sauces and spices for a perfect Cantonese flavour combination.
  • Har Gao: translucent paper wrapping juicy shrimp as a dumpling. 
  • Custard bao/yolk bao: a custard pork bun served as a warm dessert that satisfies the sweet tooth but doesn’t overpower the palette. 

Lo mai gai

Chashu bao

Gai lan

Dim sum small plates usually come with four pieces or two pieces that can be cut with scissors to make four, though sizes are different when it comes to rice rolls or smaller food items like meats and chicken feet. The most popular dim sum dishes are Har gao and shumai, which are both dumplings. 

The dim sum is available for pickup and delivery on Doordash and Skip The Dishes! 

3366 Douglas St. 

Written by

Tessa Cowan

Writer at Tasting Victoria