Is it the siu mai, the congee or the quality of the tea? Is it the buzz from the kitchen, the hum of happy diners or the soothing spirals of steam pouring from the trolleys? Neither man nor food critic will ever define the true key to the appeal of yum cha. It’s a mystery and only one thing is clear: we should be very suspicious of anyone who doesn’t enjoy yum cha.
Very recently, I was able to introduce some country relatives to my dim sum nirvana. And, I’m happy to report, I have no need to be suspicious of them. They adored the food and the rush and the experience of being able to pick-and-choose from a flotilla of hot little trolleys.
When one is tired of yum cha, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, one is tired of life. There is nothing that is not to like about this mad dash of dumplings. If you’re not a habitué of this relatively low-cost treat, we offer you a few hints for spotting the best.
Not all yum cha joints are created equal. To find those that that bob above the rest is a difficult test. To state the unforgivably obvious: let your taste-buds be your guide.
There is nothing whatsoever preventing you from just ordering a single dish at yum cha. When you’re searching for a favourite, minimise your risk and just order one or two bites to assess the quality of the place. The prawn dumpling, or ha gaau, is a steamed standard that can offer a great guide to a kitchen’s quality. Is the rice flour dough translucent and even? Is the filling at once juicy, savoury and sweet? Do you wish to eat fifty more? If the answer is yes, this might be your joint.
Again, to flirt with the painfully apparent, ask yourself: is this restaurant full to bursting? Big business means high turnover which means hot, spanking new bamboo steamers. Big business does not mean you should be ignored. Although you may wait, particularly on a Sunday, up to an hour for a seat in a yum cha restaurant, a truly great joint will feed you fresh food relentlessly. Part of the pleasure of yum cha is the pace; if your tea pot is not regularly refilled and there is not, at some point, a Hong Kong skyline of steamer baskets on your table, then you’ve come to the wrong place.
Fill your cup with oolong and your person with rice-wrapped parcels of pleasure and don’t forget to report back on your favourite dim sum diner.