Yum cha isn’t steeped in tradition like some aspects of Chinese cuisine, but with all things that have been around a while, there’s a “proper” way to do it. Since the 1960s, this has usually involved carts filled with various dim sum, buns, braised meats, and steamed rice and vegetables being wheeled among packed tables of diners all seated inside vast dining rooms. But as food and fine dining has developed into more than just good food on a plate and into something closer resembling art, modern yum cha masters are pushing and evolving traditional dim sum into places dumplings have never gone before.
For a start, the ordering system is changing. Now, a lot of restaurants are using a checklist-style a la carte method, where the diner will tick beside the dishes they would like to receive, which are then brought out to the table when ready. This is a great change for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reduces waste and stress on the kitchen, as dozens of items don’t have to be pre-prepared and dishes are only made when they are ordered. This also means the freshness and taste of the dishes are at its maximum when the customer receives it. The customer doesn’t have to wait for the right trolley to come past for them to grab their dish of choice either, meaning they have a lot more control over their dining experience. This shift in ordering is not just for the benefit of the environment or the customer, however, it is a symptom of the lack of space available to restaurateurs in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and even Melbourne and Sydney. It’s hard to find spaces big enough to serve vast swathes of people—the original Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon could seat about twenty guests at any one time! Fitting a cart in there with them would’ve been impossible.
The ingredients used and the presentation of dishes is also becoming more bespoke and luxurious. Whether it’s shipping in acorn-fed pork from Spain, barramundi from Australia or wagyu beef from Japan, the overall quality of food is continually improving. Smaller restaurants with fewer seats are able to put more time and effort into preparation and presentation, and are producing dumpling degustations for their patrons to enjoy. Instead of your basic Siu Mai, Har Gow and Shrimp Toast, you’re being served Mud Crab, Pork and Saltbush Dumplings in Double-Boiled Soup, Spring Rolls with Braised Jade Tiger Abalone in Supreme Oyster Sauce with Shiitake Mushrooms, and Marron Toasts with Davidson Plum.
Some restaurants choosing the weird, yet wonderful approach is making yum cha as much about the visual as it is about the flavour. Yum Cha Restaurant (original name, right?) in Hong Kong has a house specialty called Molten Hot Custard Buns. These yellow buns are served in a steamer with a set of googly eyes on top of each. The idea is to make a small ‘mouth’ in the bun to let the steam escape and to, courtesy of a small squeeze, make the salted duck egg custard ‘vomit’ out. Despite the rather grotesque presentation, they are absolutely delicious. Other restaurants serve Char Siu Pork Bao in the shape of little pigs, Custard Buns that look like mice and Pikachu, and Chocolate Dumplings that look like… well… the less said about them the better!
The tradition of serving yum cha at a brunch/lunch time is also evolving. Now restaurants are serving dinner time and late-night dumpling dinners so families, couples and revellers can enjoy them when it suits best. This is a big shift from the traditional mid-morning start time and shows the shift from tea being the star of the show to the food itself. And with the prevalence in the West to drink alcohol with food, it’s a great way for the restaurants to make a little extra cash and keep its customers at the table longer instead of rushing them out the door as soon as the final dish has been cleared.
So as you can see, the face of yum cha is continually evolving. The experience we’re having in dumpling restaurants across the world is very different from what was being had 30 years ago, and that can only be a good thing. So keep your eye out for an exciting new dumpling house near you, or better yet, travel to Hong Kong and try out some dumplings in the home of yum cha!