Yum Cha, a Cantonese brunch taken with tea, is a wonderful dance of flavours, textures, and steaming dishes at noon. This civilised and leisurely celebration of food and sharing, bring people together over an epic spread of carefully prepared dishes. For all you newbies, or those who aren’t quite sure what they’re missing out on, we show you how it all goes down.
Lets begin from root up. Apparently before noon, fried foods are not really eaten amongst Cantonese people. Perhaps this is deeply rooted in Chinese traditional medicine where it is believed that the Spleen is most active in the morning. This is why your senses are tickled with gentle wafts of steamed bamboo when you sit down for dim sum (the dishes served during Yum Cha). The meal is designed to be shared with people – family, colleagues, or friends. Your eyes will have a work out eyeing off trolley after trolley of dim sum dishes, each prepared in snack sized portions and slid onto a lazy susan to be spun around the table for people to snatch up.
The first decision to make is an important one; the tea selection. Classic teas on offer range from highly caffeinated to herbal. After all, the act of Yum Cha itself is to drink tea and eat dim sum (dim sum translates as ‘to touch the heart’, a beautiful idea indeed). Some groups need a serious congregation of to-ing and fro-ing to democratically decide between jasmine, chrysanthemum, ‘Bo Le’ or ‘Pu Er’ (a bitter, dark tea leaf that cuts the richness of the food), ‘Shoumei’ (white tea), or ‘Ti Guan Yin’ (oolong tea). Some restaurants serve an incredibly vast tea selection.
Tea seams to flow on tap during Yum Cha, and it is polite to offer tea to your eating partners, filling up their cups every time they empty. You can discreetly ask for a refill of hot water in your ceramic tea pot by resting the lid between the lip and the handle so that a waiter can whisk by to take it away.
Your first Yum Cha may be a little daunting thanks to an incredibly huge menu. Find comfort in the fact that each serving is a snack sized morsel. Go wild, look at other tables and point to what looks good, ask your neighbour what they’re eating or politely ask for special recommendations, and most importantly, follow your nose. This is all part of the spirit of eating Cantonese style, and the whole room will encourage you to try new flavours over a small repertoire of safe dishes – order those too but live a little !
Some restaurants present you with a menu, perhaps a paper order sheet for you to tick your choices, and some eateries are like a city during peak hour traffic where cars are food carts that circulate from table to table like pac man characters. These are a lot of fun because you can stop to ask, smell, and discover new things.
As mentioned earlier, a huge portion of dim sum is steamed. It gives the experience that warming feeling and the sweet smell of bamboo lingering in the air. It makes for an impressive unveiling by your waiter, and a clean tasting meal to keep that Spleen super happy.
Most people who grow up Yum Cha-ing will have a special spot in their hearts (and stomachs) for steamed buns like ‘Char Siu Bao’, a white and fluffy steamed bun filled with Cantonese style BBQ pork that is sweet, fatty, and ultra forgiving to the taste buds. Try these steamed buns in other flavour combinations like salted egg and pork, or a vegetarian one.
Steamed dumplings are also a big part of the party. ‘Har Gao’, prawn dumplings in a glutinous rice case are delicate in flavour, and in form. Sometimes their vegetarian counterparts will be filled with savoury shitake mushrooms or fresh bamboo and chives; the tastiest meatless combination and a celebration of umami a.k.a glutimates – a chemical compound that leaves our taste buds quietly waiting to discover more. You might also come across other variations or another favourite called ‘Siu Mai’, a pork and prawn dumpling encased with a egg dough. Other classic steamed dishes are rolled rice noodles are filled with ingredients du jour, steamed and served with light soy sauce. Another simple staple that is all about texture and subtlety.
Step out of your comfort zone with things you’ve never tried before. The Chinese are great nose to tail eaters, and if you open your mind to this idea, you’re opening yourself to a new world of cuisine. Delicacies like braised and steamed chickens feet are luxurious to the taste buds. They’re rich in collagen to give them a silky texture, while soaking up flavourings like a slow braised stew. Jelly fish are another secret delight that many Chinese kids hoard for themselves. They’re sliced thinly and tossed into a salad with sesame oil and chilli to give you the most satisfying crunch. Think of a fresh seaweed salad and you’re on the right track.
The moral of the story is that you don’t know what you’re missing out on until you try it.
Last but not least, leave some room for desert. Many Yum Cha-ers are really just sticking around for the soft steamed egg custard buns or Portuguese egg tarts that have been staple sweets since Portuguese occupation of Macau. Other delightful treats that spark a smile are ‘Ma Lai Go’, a steamed sponge cake that is buttery-soft and sugarcane sweet. Dim Sum is truly beautiful in its subtle delivery of exquisite textures and delicate flavour.
If you find yourself in Hong Kong, take some company out for a truly spiritual experience of deliciousness and sharing. When I say ‘spiritual’ I’m inferring to a connection with people, not particularly the idea of a zen moment, because the Yum Cha room is anything but. Have a look at a list of the tried and tested top of the crop by our friends at Conde Nast Traveller.
Illustration Aei Cha / Words Lauren Yates /