Hello there and welcome to the year of the rat. Here’s something I wrote for SBS Food on how to yum cha like a master.
The clatter of trolleys, the clacking of chopsticks and the merry sound of families sucking on chicken’s feet. Oh, yum cha! Food trends will come and go, but your appeal will endure.
I know that you know all about yum cha, the buffet tapas-like meal that takes place some time between breakfast and afternoon tea, where dim sum are rolled straight to your table. Of course you can spot a har gao (prawn dumpling) at 50 paces and are on intimate terms with the char siu bao (pork bun).
But could your yum cha-ing do with a polish? Perhaps a little upskilling to ensure you are putting the cha cha into your yum cha game? Here are some tips to help you munch like a master.
When to go
Weekends are ideal. This is when restaurants are at their busiest and will have the freshest and widest variety of dimmies up for grabs. Be wary of Mondays, where you may be eating Sunday’s leftovers. Timewise, choose the earliest sitting: they can’t have run out of anything if you’re first at the gate.
Who to take
Going on a date? Bring that third wheel. Yum cha is best enjoyed in a group and, as many of its goodies come in triplets, your party should be a multiple of three. Six or nine people is best as it means you’ll get to try more. And ideally your companions will be partial to seafood or pork.
Factor in the parking time
Those in the know factor in an extra 15 minutes to find a parking space. Suburban yum cha restaurant carparks are simply heaving on the weekends, and there’ll be vehicles left in all sorts of uncarpark-like places – up hills, in ditches and on kerbs. You can easily find yourself swerving around five-foot-high slow-moving grandmas before getting stuck in a convoy that’s trying to turn around in a cul de sac. Don’t waste precious eating time.
The best tables are those close to – but not right next to – the kitchen, where you’ll have first dibs on all the hot and crisp goodies. A table too far away means you risk missing out on your favourites, or worse, chewing soggy fried whitebait. And don’t sit near the toilet, for reasons we won’t dwell upon.
Elect a leader
Select a table leader. Your yum cha-czar should orchestrate a well-paced, balanced meal that encompasses a wide selection of items. The overture should feature lighter, steamed morsels before yielding to a crescendo of the richer fried and roasted goodies and winding up with a sweet conclusion.
Just say no
Those trolley staff can be brusque. Heck, you would be too if you had to push vats full of rice porridge across undulating carpet. As they hurriedly bark out the trolley’s contents, you might feel intimidated into saying yes to anything. Yes to the plates of crisp-skinned suckling pig. Yes to the oysters with melted cheese. But take note: these (and anything with the word ‘abalone’ attached to it) are the costliest items. You have the right to say no.
Of course you’ll want the classics. Siu mai (pork dumplings) and char siu baos (pork buns) are must eats. But don’t miss out – branch out. If you love cheong fun (rice noodle rolls), skip the prawn version and try them stuffed with liver or Chinese doughnut. Going hard at the dumplings? Break them up with a pan-fried turnip cake (loh bak go) or a lacey taro puff (wu gok). Do you always finish with a mango pud and a custard bao? Swap that for an explosive drizzling sand bun or the sublime junket-meets-soup dish tau fu fa. And of course, you haven’t really properly yum cha’ed without chicken’s feet, though tendon and tripe also make for excellent textural delights.
Your beverage shouldn’t be an afterthought, especially as yum cha literally means to ‘drink tea’. You’ll want something with a touch of bitterness to help counteract the onslaught of oil. Pu-er is the go, though if you want something milder, chrysanthemum is a mellow beauty. To signal that you’d like a refill, flip the teapot lid so that it sits ajar.
So, there you have it. May you approach your next feast with confidence, purpose and an adventurous spirit. And, as the word dim sum translates to ‘to touch the heart’, long may those bite-sized beauties do exactly that (though not in a heartburny way).