30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.
12. YUM CHA
I am a big fan of Yum Cha – it’s my favourite type of food. In the US and the UK it’s known as Dim Sum.
Why the two terms? I have no idea either – but I can tell you what each one means.
“Yum Cha” literally means “Drink Tea”. Tea being a big part of this kind of eating. Basically, Chinese (or specifically Cantonese) people will say “let’s drink tea” and it will mean let’s go to a Yum Cha.
“Dim Sum” means the dumpling things that make up a bulk of the meal. Har Gau, Siu Mai etc.
If I have to hazard a guess, Yum Cha is tied to the experience. In Hong Kong, Yum Cha places are used like cafes. People will meet up over a tea, a small amount of dishes, and carry on with their day. Even teenagers after school might stop in for a snack. Which is why outside of the US and UK, Yum Cha is used. The whole dining experience is where you can get this kind of food.
In the US and UK however, there is an abundance of choice. And if people wanted those types of dumplings and things, they would ask for Dim Sum, and maybe at places other than Yum Cha places. Also, the lack of trolleys, the way the cost is worked out, all differs from the traditional Hong Kong experience.
That is just a guess, anyway.
For my purposes, I’m calling it Yum Cha. So many things are not technically Dim Sum, and it’s the whole dining, and this whole Chinese Food subculture, that interests me.
It is fun for me to see how places spell Yum Cha foods. I’ve seen various variations. It is confusing for me, and confusing for my friends who don’t speak Chinese. I’ll use the ones I see the most often.
Here are my favourite things to eat at Yum Cha.
Siu Mai (Wikipedia calls it Shumai – sounds nothing like the actual words.) and Har Gau. Siu Mai is the pork dumpling in a yellow wrap. Har Gau is the prawn dumpling in the white, almost clear skin. It is pretty much essential to have these fantastic dishes at every Yum Cha experience.
Har Gau and Siu Mai must have actually gotten married at some point. They are always tied together. They are sold together. Always in the same trolley. The ladies yell out “Har Gau, Siu Mai” even if there’s other things in the trolley. If they yell out more, these two still get top billing. They are the Lennon and McCartney of Yum Cha. I’m not quite sure why they go together, but they do. They are delicious. I love them.
Then there’s Cheung Phun (literally, “sausage noodle”). Three strips of soft wide noodle, wrapped around beef, prawns or pork. There are other variations and they are stupid. Dollop on a lot of soy sauce and you are off. You know you have gotten chopsticks down when you can chop these babies in half. There is a lightly fried version too.
So most people like those, easy to eat things. My next favourites are a bit weirder. Steamed Spare Ribs and Fung Jiao (i.e. Chicken feet). So they might look scary to some – and they take a bit of effort, but are so worth it. Essentially, you strip the meat off the bone in your mouth, then spit of the bones. Not something to do on a date, then. But the steamed meat falls off the bones, and the sauces are delicious. Having lots of friends who don’t like these dishes mean more for me.
Lucky for my British friends that I have not been able to find the Mixed Cow Tripe Stew. The most disgusting looking bits of cow stomach, liver, intestine, in the best sauce. A favourite of my Dad’s and mine, many Sundays have been spent stuffing our faces whilst my Mum looks on, slightly disapprovingly.
With those standards out of the way, the rest is usually what tickles my fancy on the day. Steamed Meatballs are a great, simple dish. The Sticky Rice that comes wrapped in leaves is great when you’re really hungry. In London, there is usually other dumplings to try.
I usually ignore anything that is deep fried. I’ve never been a big fan of Congee, which I guess can be called a savoury rice porridge. The popular Char Siu Bao – roast pork buns – are great, but I usually don’t bother with them either. This is mainly because all kids love them, and I want to feel like I’ve grown up and eating the more complicated stuff. It’s the shadow of my Dad there.
Don’t forget the Tea, too. There are lots of different types of tea – and I know none of them. My Mum has somehow taken the role of tea chooser in our family. The waiter asks, and we all look to Mum. I’ve asked her why she chooses certain ones (“I wanted something sweeter”, “I don’t feel like something strong”), but for me, tea is just something to wash down the chili sauce. My tongue at Yum Cha doesn’t really deal with subtleties.
Deserts are an uncommon treat for me. I almost never have them. But who doesn’t love a good Egg Tart? Kylie loved these Pastry Balls In Cinnamon. The various jellies on offer look, even at the best places, shit. Why would you go to Yum Cha to have Jelly?
Growing up, you would wait for Sundays because more often than not, those were Yum Cha days. Sometimes just my family, sometimes with another family and heck, sometimes just me and Dad. We would travel far and wide for the best places, driving for hours. We’d get there early, get our ticket number and wait.
It strikes me that Yum Cha is a lot about waiting. It is, really, one of the least efficient ways to eat. For those who have never seen it, the real way to Yum Cha is to have ladies with trolleys of food running around the tables. So the food is sitting around getting a bit cold. It takes ages for the food to actually get to you, and as an impatient kid you’d be looking around for that damn Cheung Phun lady to come around already. And imagine how many more tables they could fit in without needing those trolley lanes.
That said, having had eaten at places when you order, it’s no fun having no trolleys. It just feels like a meal. You want to marvel at what is in those trolleys. It’s almost like a strip bar – you wave a lady down and ask her to show you what she’s got.
Yum Cha ladies are either horrifically unattractive or look like a 15 year old girl in a Manga. There’s no middle ground. It’s completely sexist. In thirty years I have never, ever, seen a male Yum Cha Trolley Attendant. I thought at one point I would like to be the first – a pioneer – and maybe Sean Penn can play me in the movie of my life.
James and I suspected as kids that the men who worked in Yum Cha places were actually Ninjas. The way they set a table is pretty amazing. Take a 3 metre wide circular table, and one guy can lay out all the cups and bowls, thrown from one spot. Seeing a group of them working as a team is like watching the London Philharmonic just fucking nailing it. It also makes sense that Ninjas would need a day job and it would be a decent cover. I am still waiting for that Jackie Chan movie where he crashes a Yum Cha place, and the waiters turn into Ninjas. Called Yum Cha Ninja. This shit writes itself.
Tash made a very good point about Yum Cha a couple of years ago that has stuck with me. She never knows how much she is paying. Payment is a piece of paper with Chinese words, and a whole bunch of stamps. There’s no correlation between what you ate and what is on the sheet. There is no indication of how much each dish costs. My Dad knows a lot of cooks and manages to wrangle a discount. The discount is in the form of some dude scribbling his name on the form. I looked at one once and thought – yeah, never paying full price here again. He just wrote a fancy letter ‘S’.
(UPDATE: James points out that discounts are always free tea, not an actual percentage discount.)
Sydney Yum Cha is so great, it’s hard to pick a favourite based on food. There are some famous ones – Marigold on Sussex Street, the one above Market City. But my favourite one is one I don’t know the name of. It’s at the north end of Dixon Street in Chinatown. There is a Chinese Pagoda, and you have to walk through it and up the escalator.
It’s a Yum Cha restaurant that lives next to pokies. It looks like an RSL. It has the cheapest décor you can imagine. But I like it’s simplicity. There are very few non Chinese people around, or tourist rabble. Just genuine, proper Yum Cha. And yes, we should definitely go one day.
London seems to have given up on trolley service, mainly. The one place that still has it is New World in Chinatown. I am there every second or third Sunday.
But most places, you have to order from the menu. The food is alright. They’ve also introduced some fancy cooking – chef’s special dumplings etc. I try to care, but it’s hard. Then there’s Yau-At-Cha, renowned chef Alan Yau’s deluxe Yum Cha restaurant. (This) Yau invented Wagamamas. Yau-At-Cha is the only Michelin star place I’ve ever been too that didn’t involve work (and I only went twice with work). It cost Jo and I around £80 each and it wasn’t that great.
Then there’s Ping Pong, a chain Dim Sum place. Not even close to the Yum Cha experience. On Sundays that have Dim Sumdays – £16.50 for all you can eat. Dan Ryan reckons he was once in a table of 8 and destroyed 83 dishes. We tried to repeat it and got to 79. Although I blame Lou for ordering vegetables and was too busy actually talking and being nice.
Like I said earlier, Yum Cha is a family thing. I’m amazed how many of my friends love it though. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. And I love taking people and showing them how it’s done. It’s amazing how they see it though. For some people, it’s their hangover cure. And it works.
Lately, I go on my own. Must be weird for the people at New World on a busy Sunday. Me, a book, table for one, thanks. It’s always the dream. No filler, no sharing. Just the dishes I want, and not only being able to have one of each thing. It takes up so much time so it’s perfect reading time.
Hopefully by the time I’m 60, and I revisit these blogs, I will have introduced my own family to this stuff. Trolley culture has not died off completely. I’m still able to have the odd meal on my own. And maybe, if we as a planet are really lucky, they will finally settle on a name and just call in Yum Cha all over the world.
Dim Sum my arse.