A Guide To Yum Cha (For White People Who Are Doing It Wrong)
Dim sum is not the same as dim sim.
A common refrain when someone is accused of being racist is to say: “I love [insert minority here]! I eat the food of [insert minority here] all the time!” Like anyone in their right mind would refuse a plate of pan-fried pork dumplings or garlic naan. Even racists have tastebuds.
What is often ignored, however, is the way in which white people actually consume the food of minorities. Whenever I go out for Thai or Indian with my white partner and chefs purposely downplay the spiciness of dishes, I can’t help but laugh. Despite my requests for mind-blowing levels of heat, we often end up with food that is ‘white-level spicy’. It makes sense. These places want to make money, which means minority cultures often have to significantly reconstruct their own food to meet the palates of the dominant white culture.
But this practice enters murky territory when white people assume that what they consume is the singularly authentic version of a minority culture’s food. I still remember visiting a Northern Chinese restaurant years ago with mostly white mates and suffering through their groans as they scoured the menu for ‘honey chicken’ or ‘lemon chicken’, not finding what they were looking for. It turns out a country of 1.36 billion people doesn’t subsist on just two (arguable) staples.
Nowhere do white people love asserting their authority more than at yum cha. White people love the shit out of yum cha, and there are plenty of lists out there (mainly written by well-meaning white people, like this one) outlining what you should order. As a little curative measure, I’m here to tell you what you probably shouldn’t…
If you’re an avid watcher of Family Feud or maybe just so happened to be at the gym the exact moment this episode was televised, you may have been privy to an Australian family winning points by answering the question: “What do you order when you go out for dim sum?” with “dim sims”. Chicken feet would have been my answer.
For those playing at home, yum cha refers to the experience of eating dim sum, and dim sum is a style of Chinese cuisine served up as bite-sized portions of food in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Heaven, basically.
Dim sum actually originates from an ancient Cantonese tradition in Southern China where teahouses used to serve various snacks and tea for the Silk Road travellers that needed a respite. Dim sims, on the other hand, were invented by a Chinese Australian chef who is also famous for bringing us the Chiko Roll.
Dim sum comprises a varied selection of steamed and fried foods such as steamed prawn dumplings (har gaw), pork and prawn cup-shaped dumplings (siu mai) and rice noodle rolls encasing barbecued pork or prawns (cheong fun). Dim sim is a mystery meat and vegetable dumpling that can be fried or steamed and is served in fish and chips shops around the country.
Pauline Hanson will probably never step foot in a dim sum restaurant, but chances are her fish and chip shop served dim sims.
If you’re Singaporean, chances are you’d never heard of Singapore noodles until you visited Noodle Box down the road because this dish isn’t Singaporean. I call it the Mongolian Beef of noodle dishes.
Gaining popularity in English, Australian, Canadian and American Chinese takeaway restaurants, Singapore noodles isn’t a mainstay on dim sum trollies and nor should you embarrass yourself by asking for it. (Note: just because a yum cha place has it on the menu, doesn’t mean you should necessarily order it. Refer to Dim Sim above.)
Lo mai gai, or sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves is a dim sum classic, but fried rice is not. Fried rice is what you order when you can’t make up your mind and the waiter sneaks up on you and you have to make a split-second decision so you go for the last thing you read on the menu.
Why would you fill up precious stomach space with miscellaneous rice when you could have fragrant glutinous rice flavoured with chicken, shitake mushrooms, Chinese sausage and salted egg yolk instead?
Dim sum is traditionally served from the wee hours of the morning until the early afternoon, which typically doesn’t call for the consumption of alcohol. In fact, yum cha literally translates to ‘drink tea’ in English, so unless you’re drinking a Long Island Iced Tea, maybe stick to the jasmine and pu’erh varieties.
Tea is also said to cut through the grease of the meal and prevent bloating. Yum cha is as much about the tea drinking ritual as it is about the food.
Too Many Things
This is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black, because I would typically love nothing more than ordering a gazillion plates off dim sum trollies, but do you know what I love more? Being able to finish my food. No Asian child ever leaves the table without having ingested every morsel on their plate.
Dim sum translates to ‘touch the heart’, with the small portions designed to ‘merely touch the heart and not sate the appetite’. While its purpose may have morphed over time (I know I like dim sum to do more than touch my heart, unless I’ve got heartburn due to eating too much), you should always order only what you can eat at the time, lest the dishes become cold. And the best part about yum cha is: if you’re still hungry, there is almost a 100 percent chance there is a trolley making the rounds within ten metres of your table.