Symbolizing fortune and prosperity due to their resemblance to ancient money pouches, dumplings are a key part of Lunar New Year celebrations. With the Year of the Dragon coming up so quickly (February 10th, 2024), we thought it would be smart to track down the best in the city…
Since the shortest path to finding the ‘best’ of anything is to ask an expert, we got in touch with William Liu from Kam Wai Dim Sum, a Chinatown establishment with a 30-year-long history of serving exceptional dumplings. As a second-generation Dim Sum restaurant owner with a lifelong connection to Chinatown, Liu is a local connoisseur who is intimately familiar with the neighbourhood’s best dumplings (as well as those citywide).
On a rainy afternoon last week, we met up at Kam Wai, where Liu offered his unique perspective on this beloved food during the festive season, by sharing his insights into his favourites.
Michelle Sproule: Let’s start close to home: which are your favourite dumplings here at Kam Wai? Or rather, which ones hold special Lunar New Year significance for you?
William Liu: We made a few dumplings at home every year for LNY. Tang Yuan was one of our traditions (this is a tradition for most families). They are glutinous rice wrappers shaped in a circle with black sesame paste inside. As a kid, I loved these. So nostalgic.
We also made standard-style Jiaozi. In some families, including mine, one of the grandparents would hide a coin inside of one, and if you bit into that dumpling, you’d win a red envelope with $100 in it. It was so exciting. We sell Jiaozi at Kam Wai (sorry, no coins or red envelopes!); we call them “Dad’s Dumplings”.
Wontons were also a big part of my childhood. They’re easy for everyone to make and fun to do together. When I was growing up, we’d make thousands of them at home for Lunar New Year. Most of the time, my grandma would make a giant stock pot of chicken broth. She’d put in pork bones, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and medicinal herbs (which added so much lovely earthiness). This broth was meant to offer warmth and promote Qi (vital energy) in the cold winter. We’d put our wonton in that broth – it was SO good! We still serve something similar at Kam Wai today.
What to look for: I love the flavour and the technicality of the Har Gaw. It takes such skill to make these. Our chefs train for ten years to perfect their technique. The wrapper itself has to be thin – like, translucent – and yet it still has a chew to it, and it can only be hand-pressed using a cleaver. It’s very impressive. When I order Har Gaw at a restaurant, I consider the wrapper, the skill of the fold, and the quality of the ingredients. There has to be a nice bounce to the shrimp.
Where to find it: My favourite right now would have to be Sun Sui Wah in Richmond. I think their wrapper is perfectly thin and has a great chew. It’s not a fancy place, but the quality is consistently good.
Xiao Long Bao
What to look for: Many people judge their Xiao Long Bao by the wrapper, thinking that a thin wrapper is the best, but I don’t want the wrapper to be too thin. I don’t want it to explode when I pick it up with my chopsticks! I want a little thickness to keep the soup warm and to get the whole package to my mouth – I love it when I nibble off the end and the soup pours into my mouth. It’s a balancing act to get the broth’s fattiness, the chewiness of the wrapper, and a little hit of vinegar from the sauce coming together in your bite.
Where to find it: I go back and forth between Wang’s Shanghai (their wrapper is perfect) and Lin Chinese Cuisine (Lin’s has a beautiful depth of fattiness in the broth, but it is also clean – a beautiful contradiction). I highly suggest trying both.
What to look for: Last choice for favourite dumpling? I have to give it to the Siu Mai. This one is open-faced with a paper-thin wheat wrapper that cradles the filling. For me, that filling has to be nice and succulent. When I was growing up, the pork filling was hand cut, not ground (this helped to retain the fattiness/flavour). Today that isn’t very common. But the essence of a good Sui Mai is still about preserving the bouncy juiciness.
Where to find it: For me, one of the best Siu Mai is at Kirin.