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In my next two posts – I want to explore two Hong Kong tea traditions that are very near and dear to my heart.  When I think of Hong Kong and Tea, two things immediately come to my mind:

  1. Yum Cha“, the literal Chinese translation is “drink tea”.  Yum Cha is the term that one would use to describe the meal which involves drinking tea and having dim sum dishes, while dim sum is just the classification of dishes one has during Yum Cha.  The meal itself is often just referred to as “Dim Sum” in the US.
  2. Hong Kong-style milk tea, this is one of the most popular beverages in Hong Kong and it is typically served in Hong Kong-style western restaurants and “cha chaan tengs“, the literal translation is “tea restaurant” – although these establishments serve much more than just tea.

In this post, I will focus on Yum Cha.

Brief History

It is said that the tradition of Yum Cha originated hundreds (and hundreds) of years ago in teahouses that sprang up to accommodate weary travelers, farmers, and laborers along China’s famed Silk Road.  It was still hundreds of years more before the culinary art of dim sum really began to develop.  In the 3rd century, people believed that drinking tea along with eating food caused excessive weight gain.  However, tea’s ability to aid digestion soon became known, and teahouses began offering small snacks in addition to tea – dim sum was born.

Tea and Dishes

Once you are seated for yum cha, one of the first things you are asked is what kind of tea you want.  The most common choices are:

The dishes… my favorite part – it is endless, there are so many choices, here are some of the more popular ones (and my favorite ones):

  • Har gow” – shrimp dumpling with a wheat starch dumpling skin
  • Char siu bao” – roast pork buns, there are steamed and baked versions.  My favorite version is the “polo char siu bao“, with a crispy, sweet crust baked on top – made famous by Tim Ho Wan, Hong Kong’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant
  • Phoenix claws – a nice name for chicken feet
  • Cheong fun” – served plain, studded with dried shrimp and scallions, stuffed with shrimp or roast pork.  It can be pan-fried, or steamed
  • Dan tat” – a dessert, egg custard tart
  • Yeung chi gum lo” – mango pomelo sago dessert, my favorite!

Traditional vs. Modern

Traditionally, dim sum dishes are pushed around the restaurant in carts with servers offering and showing dishes to restaurant patrons.  Each dish (and hence, its price) is classified as small, medium, large and special.  You get a stamp on your bill card to indicate what you ordered and how many.  Today, in many of the better dim sum restaurants, you are provided with a paper menu that lists out each dim sum dish and you use a pencil to indicate which dish you want and how many of each you want.  I find this to be much better, you are guaranteed that your dim sum is more fresh and there is less waste for the restaurant – win, win for all.

Did you know?

Here are some quirky things you might see going on during dim sum:

  • You might see people tapping their fingers by their cup as someone else is pouring them tea.  This is a customary way to thank the person for pouring them tea.  The origin of this practice can be found here.
  • When the teapot is out of water, one tilts the teapot lid on its side or rests it against the teapot handle.  That is the universal sign for the servers to top you off with more hot water.
  • In Hong Kong specifically – you might see people rinsing their bowl, cup, plates and chopstick with tea, even if it’s not noticeably dirty.  It is a cleaning ritual that is often done even at the nicest dim sum restaurants.  Obviously, if there is visible pieces of old food stuck on your plate, you ask for a new plate.  However, I was told this cleaning ritual is done mostly to ensure that all the detergent is rinsed off… I’d love to hear other thoughts on this.

What’s your favorite dim sum dishes?  Where is your favorite place to Yum Cha?  I’d love to hear from you all!

Stay tuned for Part II of Hong Kong tea traditions coming soon!