28 August 2012
yum cha etiquette
We dish up some essential tips to help you make the most of your next yum cha experience.
Yum cha is a culinary tradition that originated in China. It is said to have started along the Silk Road where farmers, labourers and travellers often stopped at roadside tea houses to recuperate and relax. The term yum cha loosely translates to “drink tea”, although it is typically synonymous with the consuming of small snacks and morsels known collectively as dim sum.
Yum cha is usually taken at brunch or lunch and before afternoon tea. A revelrous and often messy affair, it’s designed for large groups of friends and families, and is an opportunity for a casual catch up over the weekend.
The beauty of yum cha is that noise is encouraged, and the eating style is one of the best excuses for bad manners ever invented. What other cuisine judges its success from the greatest number of soy sauce stains left on the tablecloth? It is also very common to hear guests expelling hearty burps during yum cha – considered a sign of appreciation.
To get the most out of your next visit to yum cha, here are a few insights we have garnered from those in the know:
1. Traditionally, when serving tea, you are to fill other guests’ cups first, beginning with the eldest member.
2. The person who pours the tea is considered to be the most gracious. To show your appreciation and gratitude of their tea pouring skills, it is customary to tap the table with two fingers – an action known as ‘kowtow’.
3. When your teapot needs to be refilled, just lift the lid off the pot and balance it on the teapot handle, the waiter will come to refill the pot for you.
4. Sit near the kitchen. This is not rocket science, as generally the closer you are to the source the more likely you are to be the first target the trolley lady and her cart laden with steamed goodness hits up.
5. Understanding that each of the wait staff/table attendants have been assigned different roles will go a long way in diminishing any frustration during service. The trolley pushers are strictly for presenting the food on their trolley and won’t refill your pot of tea. Likewise, drinks can only be ordered with designated barmen. Typically they have different uniforms to help identify their role in the yum cha restaurant.
6. A slight curve ball here is that the barmen can usually assist with the condiments. Any yum cha regular knows that these need be ordered as soon as you are seated to ensure you’re not eating your dumplings sans soy. And don’t be shy here – we suggest you order enough soy/ chili dishes per person as no one likes double dipping in another person’s goober mess.
7. When the cart lady transcends upon your table you have two options; choose the dishes you want by pointing with your finger and nodding your head, or simply wave your hand to signal no thanks to send the trolley away. At this point it’s important that you refrain from any shrieking at the sight of chickens feet or tripe – your screwed up face only makes you look like an uncultured amateur.
8. Be adventurous with your yum cha experience, if you’re only ordering the spring rolls, you’re missing out. It’s always good to experiment with another culture’s cuisine – “if in doubt, try it out”.
9. Order plenty and order when it’s in front of you. Gluttony is street smart. A wise man orders as they spot their favourite dish in front of them. It is very common that this could be the last time you see it pass by. And if you find your table laden with baskets, simply pile them on top of each other into small towers – this will keep the dishes that you are not ready to eat warm.
10. Don’t be afraid to mix sweet and savoury. Chinese custom does not include saving sweets for the end of the meal. Forget the standard entrée, main and dessert routine, throw caution into the wind and mix it up.