Yum cha (飲茶) is the equivalent of a morning or afternoon tea in regions of Southern China. The term yum cha literally translates to ‘drink tea’ in English. It also refers to the entire act of drinking tea and eating dim sums (點心), small dishes served in bamboo steamers.
Yum cha - Danny Luong, Flickr
Chinese restaurants that specialise in yum cha will usually have waitstaff navigating their way amongst tables pushing trolleys filled with dim sums in bamboo steamers. You hail down the staff and they will inform you of what they have in their trolley; the dish is placed on your table and your bill card is stamped to mark the size and quantity of your order.
Tea is charged per head and added to your bill. It’s always a good idea to make friends with the manager of the establishment, as it’s also possible to get the tea price deducted (but you didn’t hear it from us!) if you play your cards right.
Wait staff - Rob Pongsajapan, Flickr
It’s a popular, even revered, pastime for many a Chinese person to go to yum cha at least once a week with family or friends. Especially for the elderly, going yum cha on a Sunday morning is a bonding experience for the whole family. The phrase ‘I’ll treat you to yum cha’ is thrown around almost as commonly as westerners offer to take someone out for coffee.
But the best part of yum cha is the food.
Dim sum come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, constantly evolving to suit the locals. The dim sum available in Sydney yum cha may be vastly different to what is found in Hong Kong. But no matter where you go, there are certain staples that you must have.
Prawn Dumplings (蝦餃 har gow)
Probably one of the most iconic dim sum in existence. The skin of the dumpling is made using wheat and tapioca starch; the filling is made with prawn, bamboo shoots, scallions and various other seasonings.
蝦餃 - Charles Haynes, Flickr
Pork Dumplings (燒賣 siu mai)
Often paired together with har gow (then known collectively as 蝦餃燒賣 har gow siu mai), the Cantonese version of this dim sum is made with ground pork, prawn, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and ginger, with various seasonings. It is then wrapped with a lye water dough.
燒賣 - Alpha, Flickr
Phoenix Claws (鳯爪 fung zaau)
These are deep-fried chicken feet stewed and simmered in a sauce made from fermented black beans, bean paste, and sugar. An alternative version is the 白雲鳯爪 bak wan fung zaau, where the chicken feet is marinated in rice vinegar, sugared rice wine, salt, and minced ginger before being served cold.
鳯爪 - Alpha, Flickr
Beef Entrails (牛雜 ngau zaap)
A selection of the tripe, pancreas, intestine, spleen, and lungs of the cow, stewed in a stock sauce made of 13 herbs. These include fennel, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, dried citrus peel, cinnamon, sand ginger and nutmeg. It is highly nutritious and incredibly delicious.
牛雜粉 (Beef entrails with rice noodles) - Dennis Wong, Flickr
Steamed Beef Balls (牛肉球 ngau juk kau)
Balls of ground beef steamed with preserved orange peel atop thin beancurd skin. Often served with Worcestershire sauce, known as 喼汁 gip jaap).
牛肉球 - Richard, Flickr
Pork Buns (叉燒包 char siu bao)
Also known as barbecue pork buns, these buns are filled with char siu, slow-roasted sweet pork tenderloin, and come in two variations: steamed or baked. Steamed pork buns are white and denser than regular Chinese buns. Baked pork buns are brown and glazed.
叉燒包 (steamed) - 挪威 企鵝, Flickr
叉燒包 (baked) - Jess Lander, Flickr
Lo Mai Gai (糯米雞 lo mai gai)
This is a dried lotus leaf wrapped around a ball of glutinous rice, inside which contains chicken, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese sausage, scallions, and salted egg yolk. It is steamed and served inside the leaf as a rectangular parcel that is easy to unwrap.
糯米雞 - Richard, Flickr
Beef Tripe (Omasum) (牛柏葉 ngau pak yip)
The omasum is the third compartment of the cow's stomach, and this is sliced and steamed with garlic and scallions.
牛柏葉 - Charles Haynes, Flickr
Cheung Faan (腸粉 coeng fan)
Steamed sheets of rice noodles that are rolled, fried and often topped with sweetened soy sauce and sesame seeds. It can be served plain, or with various kinds of filling, including char siu, prawns, and beef.
腸粉 - Alpha, Flickr
Cakes (糕 gou)
There are three different kinds of “cakes” that are pan-fried, usually as you order. The different types are 蘿蔔糕 lo bak gou, made of daikon radish, dried shrimp, and pork sausage; 芋頭糕 wu tao gou made of taro; and 馬蹄糕 maa tai gou with water chestnut. These “cakes” are also commonly eaten at the Lunar New Year.
蘿蔔糕 - 挪威 企鵝, Flickr
Over the years, these dishes have evolved and expanded to accommodate changing consumer demands. The variety of dim sum is now so vast, that you'll constantly be surprised no matter how often you go to yum cha.
These are our top ten dishes at yum cha - what are yours?