Meaning literally ‘to drink tea’, yum cha was established in the tea houses of the Canton region of China over 1,000 years ago.
While yum cha menus can include braised chicken feet, savoury rice porridge (congee) and offal dishes unfamiliar to most western palates, the best-known dumplings served are called dim sum, meaning ‘to dot the heart’, referring to the dot of filling at the heart of each dumpling. Dim sum are commonly filled with seafood, pork, tofu, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger or green onions, and can be steamed, poached, pan-fried or deep-fried. Unlike other Chinese meals, yum cha is not traditionally accompanied by steamed rice, but various dipping sauces (soy sauce and chilli sauce being two favourites) are usually provided.
Yum cha is typically served from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and is accompanied by pots of fragrant Chinese tea. The essence of yum cha is to leisurely enjoy bite-sized morsels with a range of tastes, aromas, appearances and texture - a feast for all the senses. While desserts are not traditionally served at the end of yum cha, sweet dishes (such as crumbly, creamy custard tarts) are eaten at any stage, between savoury mouthfuls. In the modern context, many yum cha dishes make perfect finger food, appetizers or brunch dishes. As a rule, allow 8 to 10 pieces per person for a brunch. Recipes can be prepared ahead of time and cooked quickly at the last minute and many quality buns and noodles can be purchased from Asian stores to increase the range of dishes on offer. The most important thing is to relax and enjoy the experience of delicious little morsels, between sips of fragrant tea to aid digestion.
Yum Cha Etiquette
- never refill your own tea cup without first pouring for everyone else at the table (or at least those within reach at a large table);
- when someone refills your tea cup, gently tap the table in front of you with 2 fingers as a sign of thanks;
- when your teapot needs refilling, lift the lid and set it slightly ajar, a waiter will see it and quickly refill;
- when you’ve finished and would like the bill, hold the card recording your purchases up in the air, a waiter will come and take it from you;
- never leave chopsticks standing pointing upwards in a bowl of rice, it is a bad sign as it is reminiscent of the incense burnt for the dead;
- when you aren’t eating with them, leave your chopsticks resting across the side of your bowl;
- formally, if you are picking up food from a shared plate, use the large end of your chopsticks (the end that doesn’t go into your mouth) to transfer the food from the shared plate to your own bowl, then turn the chopsticks around and eat from the narrow end – this nicety is often ignored when dining with family or close friends.