Anatomy of a dish: yum cha

Load up the lazy Susan for the ultimate breakfast of champions.

All the essential makings of a yum cha feast.

Photo: Ben Dearnley

The Cantonese words “yum cha” refer, quite literally, to the act of drinking tea, which has been practised across China for millennia. It wasn’t until 200 years ago, however, that the extensive Cantonese canon of teatime snacks collectively known as dim sum began to take shape in teahouses in and around Guangzhou, and later in Hong Kong.

Sydneysiders had their first taste of the ritual of enjoying the two together at Denis Wong’s Mandarin Club in the 1970s, but the wider public began to take notice when The Australian Women’s Weekly first published a series of yum cha recipes in 1979.

Anatomy of a dish: yum cha

(Photo: Ben Dearnley)

1. Phoenix claws

One of the more labour-intensive dishes in the yum cha repository. Whole chicken feet are thoroughly scrubbed, de-clawed and deep-fried, then braised in aromatics, marinated

in a fermented black bean and garlic sauce and, finally, steamed to serve. A gelatinous, collagen-rich cult favourite.

2. Char siu bao

These steamed barbecue pork buns, a trolley stalwart, are all about contrast: spongy, springy and pillowy on the outside; juicy, saucy and salty-sweet within. Properly risen dough should split at the top to reveal the glistening barbecued pork inside.

3. Spring rolls

Extra-brittle pastry is crucial, as are crunchy vegetables such as cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts. Not a bona fide yum cha classic, but they’re everywhere – and they date back to the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 317-AD 420), when thinner vegetable pancakes signalled the arrival of spring.

4. Har gow

Perfecting these beloved parcels isn’t easy. The delicate wrapper must be sturdy, yet not too thick, allowing the stuffing of diced prawns, bamboo shoots and pork fat to do all the talking. Crystalline translucence and intricate pleating are signs of a job well done.

5. Siu mai

The best of these open-faced favourites are generously stuffed and flavour-packed. Think minced pork belly, prawns, shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, ginger, spring onion, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sesame oil. Crab roe is a time-honoured decorative touch.

6. Jiaozi

Whether pan-fried, steamed or boiled, crescent-shaped dumplings are enjoyed all over China. Fillings and folding techniques differ from region to region, but steaming is the Cantonese way, with egg and cellophane noodles sometimes added to the vegetable mix.

7. Pork spareribs

Distinguished by their bite-sized cut and the bone that juts out from both sides, these tender, cornflour-coated cubes of steamed rib meat come to life in a marinade of ginger, garlic, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, sesame oil and fermented black beans.

8. Salt and pepper squid

The most authentic dish on the punch card? Not by a long shot. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a better hangover cure than a plate of this ferociously seasoned, crisp-fried go-to with an ice-cold cola. Sometimes straying from convention has its rewards.

9. Stir-fried egg noodles

A scorching wok lends an optimal bite to the noodles, and also slightly caramelises the sauce – a blend of light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil and sugar. Bean sprouts, spring onions and sesame seeds amp up the texture.

10. Cheong fun

The Cantonese name for steamed rice noodles translates to “intestine noodles”. Made from both rice and tapioca flours, the pliable, slippery sheets are rolled up plainly or wrapped around the likes of char siu pork, prawns or savoury pastry, and finished with sweet soy sauce.

11. Tripe

Honeycomb is the preferred variety in this traditional recipe, which calls for the beef tripe to be a little bouncier than Western palates might be used to. Ginger and star anise perk up the braising liquid of dark and light soy sauce, Shaoxing wine and sugar.

12. Congee

Cantonese-style congee uses long-grain rice and a high water-to-starch ratio to ensure a silken consistency. Pork mince or salted fish can be stirred through, but the toppings are the fun part here. Fried doughnuts and century eggs are a strong start.

13. Custard egg tarts and sesame balls filled with bean paste

English and Portuguese custard tarts inspired the Chinese interpretations that rose to fame in the mid-20th century. Chewy orbs of deep-fried glutinous rice dough covered in sesame seeds, meanwhile, are an ancient palace food, best hot and fresh. Fillings vary, but a dense paste made from lotus seeds and black or red beans is customary. Sweets should be eaten throughout the meal rather than at the end.

Soy sauce, chilli sauce and tea

Soy and chilli take pride of place on the table, but black rice vinegar and other sauces like plum, hoisin, oyster and XO are likely to appear. (Pay no mind to the sweet chilli or Worcestershire.) Tea not only cuts through the grease, but also aids digestion. Jasmine, green, oolong, pu’er and chrysanthemum are the most common.

Where to find yum cha

For a taste of the old-school with a side of nostalgia, head to Hong Kong’s Luk Yu Tea House, which has been operating since 1933.

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