A guide to yum cha: What to eat and how to order

by Jean Teng / 08 May, 2019
Photography by Ken Downie

From how to get your teapot refilled to turnip cake (sweet or sour?), yum cha can be daunting for novices. Find out how to get the most from the great Chinese brunch with yum cha maven Jean Teng.

Yum cha was only legitimised in certain culinary canon with a Michelin star in 2009, but some of my earliest memories take place at that vast, round table, a lazy Susan plopped in the centre.

We would be called forth in bursts of brisk Cantonese telling us our table was ready, but it never was completely: workers would still be rolling up the last group’s tablecloth, stained with dollops of chilli oil, black bean sauce, spilled tea and other splattered evidence of an unfussy meal. Chopsticks, bowls and small plates would be placed in front of us without a word. And the theatre would begin.

There’s always a supremely satisfying hustle to yum cha; it recalls family reunions, Chinese New Year celebrations, and the relief of belonging in a country where, initially at least, I didn’t feel like I belonged very much. My accent would run amok, let loose from the looming consideration to sound as Kiwi as possible.

It took me an age to learn how to use knives and forks, what Marmite was, and how to puncture the poached egg in a Benedict, but I always knew the sweetness of a char siu bao. And goddamn, is the food good. Smashed avocado should shake in its boots.

yum cha jean teng

Jean Teng and her yum cha selection.

The Guide

We’ll start at the beginning. Often, you’ll turn up with a belly that’s been empty since 8pm the previous night (in preparation, clearly) to a crowd of equally hungry punters elbowing their way to snag a seat. So you really should make a reservation. If staff bark down the phone that there’s a one-hour limit, I wouldn’t argue. It’ll be enough.

The first thing you’ll be asked is what kind of tea you want. If you’re the Teng family, the answer’s easy: jasmine, pronounced “heung peen” in Cantonese. Yum cha literally translates as “drink tea”, so be liberal with what you wash down, as it’ll cut through the grease and act as a cleanser between bites. Other options include chrysanthemum tea (guk-fa), a black tea called pu-erh (or bo lay), a green tea (longjing) or an oolong (tieguanyin).

Tip: If you’d like to get your tea refilled without waving down a waiter, lift the lid of the pot and replace it on an angle, or completely flip the lid.

A record of your order will be marked on a small rectangular piece of paper split into categories: small, medium, large, special and from the kitchen. Keep that on the edge of your table for easy access, near where the trolleys wheel by. It will also usually say how many of you are dining, as tea is charged per person. At the end of the meal, take that up to the counter to pay.

Wait staff pass by regularly.

Wait staff pass by regularly.

There’s generally no need to call over the wait staff serving food; they’ll stop by. Every family has their favourites, and mine often ends up with the exact same array of steamers on our table, curated through years of experimentation and refining. Discovering you don’t like something is a small $6 lesson, and if you’re with a group (always recommended), the chances are someone else will eat it, anyway.

Depending on the restaurant, sometimes you just gotta be fearless. Ask them to lift the lids on the mysterious bamboo steamers for a visual aid, because often they’ll rattle off a list of what they have and miss a few, not to mention the occasionally impenetrable language barrier. The “aunties” who typically commandeer the trolleys are an impatient bunch, and who can blame them? They’ve got the whole room to get through.

Brusque service is not rude; that’s the culture. If you know exactly what you want, you can always order directly from the staff, but isn’t it more fun to wait and see what falls in your lap? Baked goods, such as egg tarts, will often be sitting in a heated cabinet and can be whisked out straight away. With steamed goods, the mileage may vary.

yum cha

A selection of dishes from Grand Harbour.

My Lazy Susan Selection

Some yum cha restaurants will have more than 70 dim sum dishes on their menu, so this is by no means an exhaustive list – it’s what ends up on my own plate:

Chicken feet (fung chau): Now, my eyes roll if a non-vegetarian tells me the idea of chicken feet is gross, but I have to admit 10-year-old me was similarly sceptical. Like many other “gross” yum cha dishes, chicken feet are all about the texture, tender with gelatinous skin that can be sucked off (spit out the bones). And no foot-fetish jokes at the table, please.

Rice noodle rolls (cheong fun): Rice paper rolled like a crepe, a bit doughy, around a filling of some sort – places have been known to experiment. Generally, though, it’ll be prawn, or my personal favourite, youtiao (fried dough), because bread and rice do deserve to go together. They come doused in soy sauce and a sesame paste, which I recommend you ask the waiter to drizzle generously.

yum cha

From left, chicken feet, egg tarts.

Taro dumplings (wu gock): This is a bit of an acquired taste: a crisp, wispy shell encases a filling of savoury minced pork, insulated by a layer of taro paste, deep-fried so it crunches in your mouth.

Pork buns (char siu bao): Hot, pillowy and a test in restraint.

yum cha

From left, pork buns, congee.

Turnip cake (lo bak go): A rather misleading name – it’s made from a well-balanced ratio of grated daikon radish and rice flour, not turnip. Either way, the hits of umami from the hebi (dried shrimp) and pork is a delight.

Curry fish balls (gaa lei yu dan): Not always readily available in New Zealand, but grab them if you can. A common street-side snack in Hong Kong, they’re perfect skewered on one chopstick.

yum cha

From left, beef tripe, shrimp dumplings.

Congee: Eat this if you have a cold – or a hangover – and you’ll leave feeling like the gods have blessed you. Essentially porridge, the Chinese version is hot and mushy, spooned into the mouth with a side of croutons and sprinkle of spring onion.

Beef tripe (ngau pak yip): This is my dad’s dish of choice, and it’s a textured, chewy party in the mouth – and by party, we mean a summer holiday day trip you didn’t really want to go on but did because your parents forced you to, and now that you’re here you grudgingly admit you kind of like it.

From left, shrimp and chive dumplings, and taro dumplings.

From left, shrimp and chive dumplings, and taro dumplings.

Dumplings: Cantonese yum cha dumplings differ from the boiled or pan-fried ones you’ll find at your local Shanghainese restaurant (where they’re known as bar soup dumplings), but the concept is more or less the same.

The skin is often thicker and stickier, and will sometimes do a poor job of holding in the bursting filling; the casing should be just transparent enough for you to peer at the goods inside. One I had recently became a deconstructed dumpling at the first touch of my chopsticks. Just shove it all in your mouth, anyway – taste is king.

Dumpling fillings are generally a combination of shrimp and herb or vegetable, or shrimp by itself (har gao). My favourites are shrimp with chives (gao choi gao), with coriander or with spinach. Dip in a bit of chilli oil, which will sometimes be self-serve but is hardly ever on the table. Look for it at the tea-filling and cutlery areas on the periphery of the dining room.

yum cha

From left, siu mai, rice noodle rolls.

Siu mai: Bite-sized lumps of chewy saltiness. They’re a comforting parcel of pork, shrimp, mushroom and other miscellaneous seasonings, garnished with a signature small dot of orange (usually carrot) at its centre.

Soft tofu soup (tau fu fa): This is a dessert. Slide your spoon across the top to avoid breaking up the silkiness, and slurp it up with sweet gingery syrup.

From left, molten egg custard buns, turnip cake.

From left, molten egg custard buns, turnip cake.

Molten egg custard buns (liu sha bao): If you don’t like egg, it’s best to stay away from this one. One tooth-sized incision in these white clouds will squeeze the creamy, salted egg-yolk filling out of its shell, hot and lava-like – do not bite them in half, so help you God.

Egg tarts (dan tart): When I was in a particularly fussy eating stage of childhood, this was the only yum-cha dish I would deign to put in my mouth. With flaky pastry caging bright-yellow custard, they’re still a lovely way to cap off the meal.

There’s plenty more: beef meatballs, pork ribs, lo mai gai (sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves), clams in black bean sauce, fried sesame balls, sponge cake… My closing advice? Go back again and again and again.

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.

yum cha

Grand Harbour restaurant in downtown Auckland. “There is always a supremely satisfying hustle to yum cha,” says writer Jean Teng, pictured further below.

LatestDiningArticlesWidget - Latest Dining Articles with RestaurantHub
Error loading section - Error executing child request for handler 'System.Web.Mvc.HttpHandlerUtil+ServerExecuteHttpHandlerAsyncWrapper'. The remote server returned an error: (404) Not Found.
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need for nationhood
105738 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond on the need fo…

by Andrew Anthony

Jared Diamond’s new book about empowering national identity to respond to crises is bound to tip off yet another controversy, but...

Read more
Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survive adversity and thrive
105744 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z History

Jared Diamond: Finland shows how nations can survi…

by Jared Diamond

Today, Finland is one of the world’s richest countries, but it’s had to fight for it, as this edited extract from historian Jared Diamond’s new...

Read more
Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to connect Wairarapa Māori
105544 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Music

Musician Warren Maxwell returns to his roots to co…

by Sarah Catherall

Trinity Roots frontman Warren Maxwell is laying down history, recording 25 waiata composed and sung by Wairarapa Māori.

Read more
George Clooney is the driving force behind a new adaptation of Catch-22
105911 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Television

George Clooney is the driving force behind a new a…

by Fiona Rae

World War II-era Catch-22 swings from drama to comedy as John Yossarian slowly loses his mind.

Read more
How to listen to your body's cues for the optimal time to eat
105454 2019-05-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to listen to your body's cues for the optimal…

by Jennifer Bowden

Your body tells you when it wants food, so you just need to listen.

Read more
Why Te Papa's latest shake-up is raising alarm among experts
105796 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

Why Te Papa's latest shake-up is raising alarm amo…

by Sally Blundell

Te Papa’s new nature zone is just one of the big shake-ups at the national museum. Another involves restructuring that some experts warn will...

Read more
MMA fighter Shane Young is on a mission to fight bullying and toxic masculinity
105994 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

MMA fighter Shane Young is on a mission to fight b…

by Noted

Napier-born Shane Young is calling out the idea that sharing your emotions is weak.

Read more
The 'Christchurch Call' is just a start. Now we need to push for systemic change
106007 2019-05-17 00:00:00Z Social issues

The 'Christchurch Call' is just a start. Now we ne…

by Kevin Veale

A great deal of evidence suggests that algorithms designed in pursuit of profit are also fuelling radicalisation towards white supremacy.

Read more