If there is anyone who knows all about yum cha, it is the leading China tour specialist Helen Wong, whose travel company is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2012.
Having yum cha for brunch on a Sunday morning is more than a treat . . .
It’s a tradition, as much a routine or way of life for the people of the southern Chinese city Guangzhou, formerly Canton, as it is for Australians to order bacon and eggs and coffee while reading the Sunday newspaper.
To have yum cha on a weekend is something I have been enjoying since I was a child growing up in Hong Kong – long before moving to Australia to establish Helen Wong’s Tours.
An old Cantonese custom, yum cha or “drinking tea” is focused as much on the accompanying food known as dim sum – literally meaning “to touch the heart” – as it is on the serving of tea.
Dim sum are special Cantonese snacks, usually small and served as three or four pieces in one dish chosen from steaming bamboo baskets.
They include such tantalising delicacies as steamed buns with roast pork or chicken, spring rolls, assorted dumplings (including the opened-faced “siu mai”), rice noodle rolls and the real treat for Chinese – chicken feet.
Typical desserts include such sweet tasting dishes as egg tarts, mango pudding and tapioca puddings.
And as with all yum cha gatherings, it is customary for guests to share all dishes among while seated on the same table.
Whenever the teacup is filled, it is a Chinese custom to tap your fingers on the table near your cup twice as a sign of reverence and thanks.
And, as confusing as it may be, the cost of the meal is calculated based on the number and size of dishes left on the table at the end.
It was always fun to watch the arguments between the patrons and waiters as to the final count of the dishes. In the modern restaurants, the waiters place a tiny stamp on the slip of paper with each order.
Such is the popularity of yum cha in Guangzhou that it is not unusual for diners to form long queues and wait an hour for a table. Then again, that’s part of the excitement, that feeling of anticipation.
Of course, whenever someone mentions Cantonese cuisine, it doesn’t just mean having yum cha.
Cantonese food is the most popular style outside China.
For traditional Cantonese chefs, many cooking methods are used . . . steaming and stir-frying being the most favoured, other techniques including double boiling and braising also used. The flavours of a finished dish should be well balanced, and never greasy, and spices should be used in modest amounts to avoid overwhelming the flavours of the primary ingredients of their freshness and quality.
The Cantonese usually serve soup before a meal, normally a clear broth prepared by simmering meat and other ingredients such as Chinese herbs over a low heat for several hours.
It is a regular dish in Cantonese families as most believe in its ability to heal and maintain or strengthen health levels.
There is a popular saying in Cantonese which remains etched in my memory since those childhood days dining with the family: “To keep a husband, a woman needs to first cook good soups.”
I wonder if the people of Guangzhou still think the same.