Editor’s note: This feature, by guest contributor Gizelle Lau – a Chinese-Canadian food and travel writer based in Toronto – is the first in an occasional series on “diaspora dining,” covering the best places to find our favorite cuisines outside of their places of origin.
The history of Chinese in Canada – pioneers who left their native land in pursuit of a better life and future – is a familiar immigrant story. While the first record of Chinese in Canada dates back to the late 1700s, it wasn’t until the late 1800s and early 1900s that they began to arrive in greater numbers, establishing Chinatowns in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver and opening their own restaurants, grocery stores and laundromats. Despite exclusionary government policies that existed for many years, today Canada is home to one of the largest Asian populations outside of Asia, including over half a million Chinese in the Greater Toronto Area alone.
Toronto boasts two historic Chinatowns in its downtown core, yet in recent years, these neighborhoods have become equally Vietnamese and Korean in their makeup, and cater more to new immigrant, urban and tourist populations. Many Chinese-Canadians have moved out to the suburbs, to places such as Markham, a small city just a 20-30 minute drive from downtown Toronto (still considered part of the Greater Toronto Area). Markham is now home to a thriving Asian population – Chinese make up the city’s largest minority group – that helps sustain a large number and variety of Asian-owned businesses. Not surprisingly, Markham is also where you’ll find some of the best Asian food in the area. Here, among big-box stores with parking lots as far as the eye can see, tucked away in large Chinese shopping malls and plazas, are dozens of restaurants specializing in cuisines from “home.”
Up until the mid-1990s, the majority of the Chinese arriving in Canada came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Over the past decade or so, the demographics have changed, with most recently arrived Chinese immigrants now originating from the Mainland. Whereas Cantonese was once the dominant language spoken by patrons and servers in Toronto’s Chinese restaurants, Mandarin has recently become more common. Thanks to this newest wave of immigrants, restaurants serving specific regional cuisines from China have multiplied. Shanghainese food, an increasingly popular cuisine within the past decade or two, often shares the menu with spicier Sichuan dishes. From classic xiǎolóngbāo (soup dumplings) to scallion pancakes and red bean soufflé doughnuts, here are our top picks for Shanghai-style eats in the Greater Toronto Area.
Thanks to this newest wave of immigrants, restaurants serving specific regional cuisines from China have multiplied.
Ding Tai Fung
With a name derived from the same Chinese characters in the name of a popular Taiwanese restaurant chain but not, in fact, related to it, Ding Tai Fung is the local favorite for more traditional Shanghainese cuisine. For the past decade, the venue has been wowing Toronto diners with its Shanghai-style fried noodles, scallion pancakes and famous xiaolongbao with pork and crab, all made in-house. More often than not, the loud, bustling restaurant is full of families crowded around large, round tables and reaching over lazy susans. Kids and adults alike are captivated by the large kitchen window, where you can see cooks making food to order: rolling and stretching dough, filling and folding each dumpling with precision and ease.
Twenty-five years after opening its first location in downtown Toronto, Asian Legend now has more than a handful of branches in and around the Greater Toronto Area and is considered one of the most successful Chinese restaurant chains in the city. Despite its chain status, this tried-and-true brand is consistently good. Moreover, Asian Legend was one of the first Chinese establishments in the city to say goodbye to the typical basic “dirty spoon” digs and go for a custom-designed interior, with a dark, polished, modern teahouse look and feel. At its downtown location, you’ll find a diverse clientele, from young urban professionals and hipsters to families, all of whom head to the stylish restaurant for Northern Chinese, Shanghainese and Sichuan dishes like spicy dan dan peanut noodles, hot and sour soup or glutinous rice rolls stuffed with pork floss.
A La Kitchen
Located close to Ding Tai Fung, A La Kitchen is another top choice for Shanghainese cuisine in Toronto. With its décor of dim sum steamers artfully hung from the red-painted ceiling like an improvised chandelier, A La Kitchen offers a somewhat more hip, contemporary look than competing venues, which draws in the younger generation (whose parents mainly prefer DTF). Diners tuck into their fill of Shanghainese favorites like xiaolongbao, fried bread with condensed milk and a dish of beautifully glazed, tender pork knuckle that is always the envy of surrounding tables.
369 Shanghai Dim Sum
This venue features dishes not found in many of Toronto’s other Shanghainese restaurants, such as drunken chicken, as well as a traditional Shanghai-style smoked pork soup served tableside in a ceramic pot. Also on the menu are the requisite xiaolongbao, various Shanghai-style noodle soups and, for dessert, savory-sweet black sesame dumplings and glutinous rice topped with fruit. On the walls, black-and-white photographs of dumplings, lanterns and traditional Chinese temples add a touch of atmosphere.
While the above four restaurants are devoted to serving a wide array of Shanghainese cuisine, the Toronto area is also home to restaurants that specialize in great dumplings. A staple of Shanghainese cuisine, dumplings can be filled with anything and everything, from pork to crab or vegetables; prepared in a variety of different ways (steamed, fried until crispy, deep fried); and served in soup, hot sauce or on their own.
Located in the more heavily trafficked of Toronto’s two downtown Chinatowns, Mother’s Dumplings is a popular spot dedicated to all kinds of dumplings made to order, using recipes from owner Zhen’s own mother, who hails from Shenyang in Northern China. The restaurant is steps from the University of Toronto campus and several hospitals, making it a busy spot that’s often filled with students, local workers and those looking for a quick, low-cost meal. The dining experience is rounded out by the cheap plates with vividly colored traditional Chinese patterns (likely purchased from nearby Tap Phong wholesale kitchen shop across the street) and the bright-red lanterns above the kitchen, where hundreds of dumplings are made daily. A family establishment at heart, Mother’s Dumplings still boasts the same homey, mom-and-pop feel at its new location that it had when it first opened as a 10-seat space on Huron Street.
Follow Gizelle Lau on Twitter @TorontoEats