Hong Kong Tea Traditions – “Yum Cha” (also known as Dim Sum)

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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!

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Tibetan Butter Tea

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Tibetan Butter Tea, image from Serious Eats

Okay, at this point, you might be thinking “what? butter? AND tea?”  Well, I wanted to carry on with the multicultural theme of my previous posts (Japanese and British) and explore tea cultures of more exotic locales… hence, Tibet!

Butter Tea, also known as Po Cha, is a regular part of Tibetan life.  It is made from yak butter, tea leaves and salt.  As much I enjoy tea and all things tea, this blog serves as evidence, I cannot say tea with yak butter and salt sounds at all appealing to me.

According to wikipedia, here is one method of preparation:

“The highest quality tea is made by boiling the tea leaves in water for half a day, achieving a dark brown color. It is then skimmed, and poured into a cylinder with fresh yak butter and salt which is then shaken. The result is a purplish liquid that is about the thickness of a stew or thick oil. It is then poured into clay tea-pots, or jars, that resemble Japanese teapots.”

Not sure what bothers me more, the addition of the yak butter and salt or the fact that the tea turns purplish and has the viscosity of thick oil…

I would love to hear if anyone has ever tried this (and where it was sampled) and what their thoughts are on this tea.

Afternoon Tea at Lady Mendl’s

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Lady Mendl’s – charming Victorian decor

I had the pleasure of taking a Friday off on this blistering hot summer day, what better way to while away a lazy afternoon than at Lady Mendl’s?  Located inside the Inn at Irving Place, it is an intimate place, perfect for an afternoon of catching up with friends.  They offer afternoon tea on weekdays and weekends – one thing to keep in mind if you are interested in visiting, reservations are required.

Afternoon tea here is served course by course (5 courses in total), rather than on a traditional three tiered tray/stand.  The servers here do not hover, yet they are always there when you need anything – love that.  I also love the charming Victorian decor that makes it feel like an escape from the city.  Now, on to the food!

Amuse bouche – butternut squash tart with creme fraiche and parmesan

We started with an amuse bouche while we selected our teas.  Today, they offered a butternut squash tart with some creme fraiche and parmesan.  Lady Mendl’s has a wide selection of teas – ranging from fruity teas, herbal tisanes, green teas and traditional offerings like Earl Grey, Assam, and English Breakfast.  My friend who was generous enough to keep me company while I did blog research selected the Lychee Black Tea, while I opted for the Oolong.  Normally, I prefer more traditional offerings taken with sugar and cream but in the 90+ degree weather, tea with sugar and cream felt a bit heavy!

Sandwich course – egg salad and cucumber

Next up – the sandwich course.  The choices are: turkey, cucumber, egg salad and salmon.  You are allowed to selected any combination of 4 sandwiches and after you are done, they come by for refills – up to 8 finger sandwiches each.  I am a sucker for classic cucumber and egg salad finger sandwiches, so those were my choices.  The sandwiches are classics, executed very well.

Sweets – scones with clotted cream and raspberry jam

Sweets next – starting with warm scones, one plain and one studded with cranberries.  They are served with clotted cream and raspberry jam.  Delicious!  I love that they serve course by course so the scones are still warm when you get to them.  They are very buttery, not dry at all.  I appreciated the generous helping of clotted cream provided!

Sweets – Lady M Mille Crepe cake

Next sweets course – Lady M Mille Crepe cake!  One of my favorite cakes ever!  Layers upon layers of crepes separated by a vanilla pastry cream that is light and not too sweet.  Not sure if the cake needed the extra raspberry sauce…

Sweets – more goodies!

Then we received our final plate of goodies – chocolate covered strawberries, white chocolate covered shortbread cookies, mini apple cake.  I was beyond stuffed at this point.  This is a lot – all for $35/pp.  A good value for the amount and quality of food, as well as top notched service and a great atmosphere.  This is a must go!

Note:  I have read in other reviews that they are a stickler for the 90 minute time limit.  While we didn’t linger today, I did notice our bill was dropped off at our table before we requested it – we were nearing the 90 minute mark… so I guess that was our cue to move it along.  I can say that it was definitely not busy at Lady Mendl’s today, so not sure what their deal is.  However, this did not distract from my overall experience but I can see how it would for people who want to linger a bit longer.

Afternoon Tea

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Afternoon Tea is one of my all time favorite tea rituals.

What is Afternoon Tea? 

Afternoon Tea is a tea ritual introduced in Britain in the early 1840s – it evolved as a mini ‘meal’ to curb ones hunger before the evening meal at 8pm.  It is typically served anytime between 3pm and 5pm.  It is composed of three courses, along with, tea, of course!

  • Savories – finger sandwiches or appetizers
  • Scones – served with jam and clotted (or Devonshire) cream
  • Pastries – cakes, cookies, shortbreads, sweets, etc.

Afternoon Tea is a social activity whereas the Japanese Tea Ceremony is one influenced by Zen Buddhism and more meditative by nature.

While I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed Afternoon Tea at some pretty fantastic places including:

I haven’t been to as many places in New York City (only Tea & Sympathy, The Palm Court at The Plaza Hotel, The Mandarin Oriental).  I guess since I live here, I tend to take what we have in the city for granted.  Plus, it is so easy to get caught up in work, school, and everyday life that we often forget to take time out for ourselves when we are not on vacation.

However, I did find a great resource for me to start my exploration of afternoon tea in NYC – “The 8 Best Places for Afternoon Tea in New York City“.  While I am not sure The Mandarin Oriental (maybe The Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong set my bar too high?) should have made it on the list, I do respect this blogger’s opinion as I have been following her for a while now.  I will have to check out some of her other picks on this list!  I plan on visiting Lady Mendl’s later this week, please stay tuned for my post!  If you can’t wait, here is her review from March 2011.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Cha-An

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What is the Japanese Tea Ceremony? 

It is a Japanese cultural ritual involving the preparation of presentation of matcha.  There are different preparation styles according to the season, time of day, and the level of formality of the gathering.  For those interested in the history of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, here are two very helpful links, here and here.

A woman performing a Japanese Tea Ceremony (Wikipedia)

My experience

You might recall my recent blog post on Cha-An.  One of my favorite places to escape the city – I had the privilege of being able to experience my first Japanese Tea Ceremony here.  (Disclaimer: I am writing this completely from memory as it seemed disrespectful to the ritual to take copious notes and photography during the tea ceremony)

First, we were invited to take our shoes off and then enter into the tea room by Noriko, our host for the afternoon.  The tea room at Cha-An (as well as most other tea rooms) is modest in size.  Once inside the tea room, we sat on tatami mats and were formally welcomed by Noriko.  She started the ceremony with a cleansing ritual for all the equipment that she will be using during the ceremony, including the tea bowl, tea scoop and tea whisk.  She performed this with graceful, exacting motions – all while kneeling in a kimono. Once she was done with the cleansing ritual, she invited us to eat some Japanese sweets or Wagashi, at Cha-An, they served some red beans and mochi.  After that, she began to prepare our matcha, one cup at a time, again with perfectly precise motions.  When the first guest was served, he asked all other guests if he could drink first (Noriko taught us the Japanese phrase to say, however, as I didn’t take notes, I don’t remember the phrase), then proceeded to place the tea bowl in his left hand and bowed to host.  He then rotated the bowl two times clockwise, 90 degree movement each time, so the ‘front’ of the bowl faced away from his mouth, he then enjoyed his matcha.  This went on until all the guests were served.  After that, Noriko cleaned all the tea utensils and thanked us for coming.  Noriko was also kind enough to provide more details on the history of the tea ceremony, health benefits of matcha and answer any questions we might have had.

This was definitely a new experience for me, I am not quite sure what I expected.  It was a relaxing, escape from life, where I felt I could self-reflect and maybe even meditate.  For those interested in checking this out, it is offered on Sundays between 12pm and 4pm.  Click here for additional information and reservations.

Staying cool with some Kung Fu Tea and Anmitsu from Ootoya

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Another weekend, another heat wave – we are being SLAMMED this summer here in New York City.  The only good thing about this – ice cream treats and refreshing icy beverages!

Matcha Anmitsu from Ootoya

I stopped in Ootoya for a quick, reasonably priced, tasty lunch today.  For those of you not familiar with Ootoya, it is often described as the TGIF or Applebee’s of Japan; while this might not inspire confidence, keep in mind the standard for food in Japan is definitely (way) higher than American standards.  Since it was so terribly hot outside, I decided the Matcha Anmitsu was the perfect way to cool off.  Anmitsu is a popular Japanese dessert that contains agar jelly cubes, azuki (red) beans, shiratama, ice cream and kuromitsu syrup.  Ootoya’s version contains green tea agar jelly cubes, green tea ice cream, azuki beans sitting in a small pool of soy milk and kuromitsu syrup on the side for you to pour as much or as little as you want.

*shiratama is a chewy rice flour dumpling and kuromitsu is a black sugar syrup used many in Japanese desserts

Here are some other versions of anmitsu around New York City – @ Sobaya, @ Kyotofu.

Kung Fu Tea

Those who know me, know that I am OBSESSED with Kung Fu Tea – I stop by at least once every weekend, if not two, three times.  My favorite drink is simple – “Kung Fu Black Tea, medium, no milk, with grass (herbal) jelly, half sugar, half ice.”  For $3, it is a delicious and cheap way to cool down in this New York City heat.

Dragon Well (Longjing) Tea – to drink and eat

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I was recently introduced to Dragon Well (Longjing) tea by a co-worker.  I’ve always been more drawn to partially fermented and fermented Chinese teas such as, Oolong and black teas (especially Pu-erh), respectively.  And for green teas, I’ve always gravitated towards Japanese green teas like Sencha, Hojicha and Matcha.  After tasting such a wonderful tea, I decided to find out a bit more.

What is Dragon Well tea?

It is one of China’s most famous teas, also called Longjing tea – which is a literal translation of dragon well, it is a variety of green tea that originates from Hangzhou.  Like other Chinese green teas, the leaves are roasted early in the process to stop the fermentation process.  The result is a tea that produces a very light yellowish-green when steeped.  It is a very fragrant tea with a toasty, almost buttery nose.  The taste is extremely smooth and mellow, almost sweet.  It has none of the bitterness and vegetal taste that some other green teas possess.

It is said that Dragon Well tea has a “cooling effect” so it is popular to drink in the spring and summer time.  It might seem counter-intuitive to drink hot tea in the summer, but this was the most refreshing cup of hot tea I’ve ever had.

While I was trying to find out more about this tea, I kept coming across a recipe for Dragon Well Shrimp.  It sounds really delicious, if anyone knows of a restaurant in New York City to get this dish, let me know!  P.S. I am willing to trek out to Flushing or Brooklyn Chinatown to eat this!

Green Tea Cookie Recipe

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In today’s post, I want to share a green tea cookie recipe.  I love the green tea cookies from Kyotofu and wanted to try making it at home.  This is the perfect treat to drink with a cup of warm matcha.  It is also such a simple, quick, yummy recipe, there’s no reason not to try it!

Green Tea Cookies (makes about 2 dozen) – recipe from Lovescool

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup – Confectioners sugar
  • 5 oz – Unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 1 3/4 cup – All-purpose flour
  • 3 – Large egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 tbsp – Matcha (powdered green tea)
  • 1 cup – Granulated sugar (for dusting)

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Directions

  1. Whisk confectioners sugar and matcha/green tea powder together in a bowl.
  2. Add the butter and green tea/sugar mixture to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
  3. Mix until smooth and light in color. Add the flour and mix until well combined.
  4. Add the egg yolks and mix just until the eggs are fully incorporated and a mass forms.
  5. Form the dough into a disk and chill in the refrigerator until firm (about 30 minutes).
  6. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
  7. Roll the dough out to ½” thickness.
  8. Cut the dough with a cookie cutter. Toss each cut cookie in a bowl of granulated sugar to coat.
  9. Place the sugar-coated cookie on a parchment lined pan. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until slightly golden around the edges.

Staying cool with icy tea treats at Cafe Zaiya and Kelvin Natural Slush

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With summer quickly approaching and New York City experiencing record heat in the last 3 days, I thought it was appropriate to sample some icy treats inspired by tea flavors.

Here are two very different but just as delicious icy tea treats:

Green Tea Shaved Ice from Cafe Zaiya

This treat is offered at the midtown location of Cafe Zaiya at 18 East 41 Street.  It use to be a favorite lunch spot of mine, back when I toiled away at PricewaterhouseCoopers.  One of their best treats is this Green Tea Shaved Ice – alternating layers of shaved ice, their homemade green tea syrup, condensed milk and topped off with some red bean and a single, fantastic, chewy, piece of mochi.  This treat is great!  My complaints are:

  • While the price has not changed ($3.99 +tax) from 4 years ago, the size of the product has shrunk by 1/3.
  • The shaved ice is not as fluffy as I would like
  • They only give ONE peice of mochi!  I want more!

But, I will still definitely recommend this flavorful, satisfying, and cooling treat!

Arnold Palmer Slush with Strawberry Puree mix in from Kelvin Natural Slush

Kelvin Natural Slush has won numerous awards, including the 2010 Vendy Award for Best Desserts.  This is THE TRUCK you want to encounter when it is 90+ degrees out.  I sampled the Arnold Palmer Slush and selected the strawberry puree mix in.  Absolutely the most refreshing way to stay cool – this reminds me of a 7-Eleven Slurpee, only more natural, and more grown-up.  While the flavors were not as intense at the Green Tea Shaved Ice, I think the lightness of this treat makes it more refreshing.  Highly recommended!

In closing, both treats are awesome – it just depends on what you are craving!

Tea Vs. Coffee – Starbucks to get into the game?

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tazo_tea

Picture courtesy of DailyFinance.com

Tea Vs. Coffee – what is your preference?  You should all know by now what my preference is, but regardless, I believe it is hard to find a clear ‘winner’.  These are two completely different beverages, for different people, for different situations.  I found a great infographic that details some health benefits of both.

Tea is #1 consumed beverage in the world (if we don’t count water.)  In the US, tea is #6, behind, water, soft drinks, coffee, beer and milk.  Why?  Is tea too British?  According to wikipedia, tea consumption in the US dropped significantly after the American Revolution.  However, in the recent years, tea consumption has been going up.  Is Starbucks the game changer that is going to accelerate this growth even further?  Starbucks recently announced the launch of Tazo, its first tea-only store.  Can Starbucks, with their expertise in running a beverage operation and significant financial backing, turn tea drinking into the Next Big Thing?