I recently went to a yum cha in Sydney with my friend Happy, who is from the Philippines. She had never been to yum cha before in Australia and I felt a huge sense of responsibility in using my 30 years of yum cha experience to make her the first time ever.
It started when I suggested we meet at 10:30 to avoid the queues.
You may have already decided in that act alone that it’s not fun to have yum cha con. “Weekends are for sleeping!” you could protest. “Dim sum is for lunch!” you could reason. But I will do everything to avoid queuing for food, plus 10:30 is not that early when you consider the fact that yum cha already opens at 6am in Hong Kong.
Related: Flash in the pan: Adam Liaw’s 20-minute wok dishes
If you have to queue for something though, yum cha it’s really worth it.
A few months ago at lunchtime I was in a yum cha queue about eight meters long. We estimated we were about 20 minutes from our first har gau (shrimp dumpling) and that was enough of a carrot (shrimp dumpling) for this donkey (me).
Once I sat down with my friend Happy and her husband Kerwin, I soon learned that there is a lot of Chinese food in the Philippines, and even though she had never been to something called “yum cha”, she knew many dishes of yum cha di eating them at special Chinese banquets called lauriats.
So for her so far, yum cha simply meant not sleeping late.
As I was a few minutes late, Happy and Kerwin had already ordered tea for the table which meant they could avoid listening to a Tea Talk presentation I had prepared: pu’er is dark and flavorful, jasmine is great for something lighter and more floral, ti kuan yin tastes somewhere between pu’er and jasmine, and pu’er with chrysanthemum means you get both an earthy and floral flavor.
But there was little time to dwell on this as a trolley lady was already at our table. “Aubergine?” she asked. I looked at Happy and Kerwin to see how interested they were in the minced fish stuffed braised eggplant and fish mince stuffed tofu.
Yum cha is an ecosystem that thrives when the most assertive and assertive person at each table sits closest to the carts
They were interested.
So I, as the person sitting closest to the cart, said “Yes, please”. And in that moment I realized … maybe that was the scope of the yum cha knowledge I needed to pass on to Happy. She is very smart, and really, maybe that’s all you need to know about yum cha. Food arrives: you say yes or no.
Of course, I could explain all the different groups of dumplings and small plates and urge her to plan carefully so that she can curate a pleasing variety of foods that are steamed, fried and baked.
But I had already deprived her of a good two hours of sleep on Saturday, and what better way for someone to experience yum cha than to simply say yes or no to whatever happens? Much better than my mini lesson on every dish.
However, my decision to withhold knowledge sharing required quick psychological footwork. It meant that I had to accept that I would no longer share my views on the fact that yum cha is an ecosystem that thrives when the most purposeful and assertive person at each table sits closest to the carts.
It’s certainly not the funniest version of yum cha, suggesting that people should install a leader at each table to allow for the smooth flow of traffic which would maximize the likelihood of food retaining its freshness as it makes its way into the restaurant.
It also seemed like I was trying to be elected leader of the table, and this was not the time for that (the time for this is at a much bigger table, when the leadership position holds much greater power).
Related: In praise of the dumpling
Nor was this the time to share my views that some dishes shouldn’t be ordered at yum cha. Like Edamame (not Chinese; a $ 7 waste). Or the xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) that came to you with the trolley (they are from Shanghai, not Cantonese; they should only ever travel straight from the kitchen to your table so that the soup inside stays warm). Or grilled meats (always heavily marked; grab them from your local grilled meats instead and stick them to yum cha grilled pork sandwiches).
No, this wasn’t the time to say no.
It was the first time, and it was time to say yes. Yes to fried taro dumplings, har gau, stir-fried radish pie, barbecue pork cheung fun (steamed rice paper rolls) and freshly blanched Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. Yes grilled pork served with mustard; yes to pan-fried cheung fun; yes to egg tarts.
Ok, so we ate hardly any steamed dim sum. We didn’t start, like Kerwin as a child, with six bamboo steamers banged on the table. And to Happy’s chagrin, there were no fried sesame dough balls stuffed with black sesame.
But you can’t really do yum cha wrong. And there is always next time. Which is possibly the best takeout of all.
• Is Jennifer Wong a writer, comedian and presenter of Chopsticks or Fork? on ABC iView