Just like in China, ‘yum cha’ in Australia means ‘drink tea’ too. After all, there is a huge population of Chinese people in Australia and some things just don’t change. Yum cha was only really introduced properly here in the early 1980s when restaurants and Sydney and Melbourne’s Chinatowns started offering it.
A little earlier, in the mid-1970s, yum cha was introduced in Sydney at the Mandarin Club. Then, in 1979, yum cha recipes began appearing in the Australian Women’s Weekly, making it more accessible for the average Aussie who could then prepare the tasty little dishes at home.
Well, aside from meaning ‘drink tea’, it’s kind of like High Tea in that it’s a gathering of people for a social occasion over food and tea. Whereas High Tea is aimed more at women, yum cha is for everyone; families, couples, young professionals, the elderly, men, women, kids, the lot. It’s a fun meal out because you don’t just order from a menu like in regular restaurants. Yum cha involves being seated in a restaurant, usually at round tables, and trolleys are wheeled around laden with all kinds of Chinese goodies.
Think barbecued pork buns, crispy prawn toast, spring rolls, dumplings, rice noodle rolls, dim sims, sticky rice and for the sweet tooth, mango pancakes and delectable little egg custard tarts. There are always vegetarian options too. The food is quite carb-heavy so be prepared to slip into a delightful ‘food coma’ afterwards. Perhaps you should park a distance away from your yum cha restaurant so you can feel revived by the walk back to your car!
The Cantonese people of Hong Kong and Southern China are renowned as the best purveyors of yum cha in the world. They actually call it ‘dim sum’ which means ‘light snack’. In Hong Kong, dim sum has evolved from a social get-together meal to a high end, upscale indulgence, especially in 5-star hotel restaurants.
Exquisite gourmet ingredients such as black truffle and caviar are incorporated into the menu. For instance, the posh Mott 32 serves up quail egg and black truffle siu mai which has to be delivered to the table with precision timing so that the yolk is absolutely at its perfect stage of readiness.
The flagship restaurant of the Four Seasons hotel, Lung King Heen (the world’s first three-Michelin star Cantonese restaurant) serves baked whole abalone puff as well as steamed scallop and lobster dumplings.
But back down to earth, yum cha at street level is popular all over the world, from the many Chinatowns in the US, Europe, Britain and Australia to vibrant, noisy establishments near busy markets in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Every restaurant will have its own specialties based on locally sourced ingredients, even if they are removed from the ‘traditional’ yum cha repertoire.
In Australia, as with all ethnic cuisines, yum cha is modified and adapted to Australian tastes. You will still find tender, gelatinous steamed chicken feet but they are more likely to be ordered by Chinese customers. Chopsticks are provided at the table and it really is a part of the yum cha experience to use them to eat, but you are welcome to ask for silverware if you find you’re dropping too much of your spring roll in your lap instead of your mouth!
Australians are increasingly adventurous with their food choices but sometimes, Chinese restaurants will have two menus; one for regular Aussie customers and one for Chinese folks craving a taste of the foods they enjoyed back home. Even at yum cha, sometimes there will be dishes that may not be circulating on the trolleys but they can be requested. If you feel like you’d like to try something more authentic, then enquire with your server and they may be able to offer you a more traditional menu. But be warned, it could be written in Cantonese so be ready with your translation apps. Yum cha servers are busy people!
Whilst you can get yum cha on most days in Australia, depending on the restaurant of course, Sunday is when Aussies make an occasion of going out for it. And this is the day when Chinese restaurants are packed to the rafters, with hungry people crowding in for their yum cha fix. Luckily, once seated, you don’t have to wait long to be fed because the trolleys never stop rolling around.
Simply browse the selection, choose what you want and get eating! And yum cha is very filling. Your eyes may be bigger than your belly, as they say. Just when you think you’ll wait for a particular dish to come around, you might already be full by the time you spot it.
A lot of Australian families go to yum cha once a month. It’s a great excuse for a get-together and a feed, sometimes preceded by church or a friendly sporting fixture, sometimes followed by a wander around some markets or a movie at the cinema.
Sushi has exploded in popularity in Australia because of its convenience, its variety, its flavours and its departure from long-time favourite foods. Similarly, yum cha is a popular way to get your fill of Asian cuisine without it costing a fortune or taking too much time. And just like sushi, not all yum cha is made with seafood. There’s chicken, pork, vegetables and egg, and of course, plenty of rice and noodles.
If you want really good yum cha in Australia, ask around and you’re sure to hear from others what their favourite yum cha restaurant is. Otherwise, ask your hotel concierge, wander around the nearest Chinatown or do an online search. And whatever you do, be sure to wear comfortable pants that allow plenty of room for that full tummy! When faced with all those delicious temptations, you want to be confident you’ll feel comfy enough to eat to your heart’s content.