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Yum cha hour in Hong Kong City Hall
|Literal meaning||to drink tea|
Yum cha (simplified Chinese: 饮茶; traditional Chinese: 飲茶; pinyin: yǐn chá; Jyutping: yam2 cha4; Cantonese Yale: yám chà; literally: "drink tea"), is the Cantonese tradition of brunch involving Chinese tea and dim sum. The practice is popular in Yue-speaking regions in China, including the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau. It is also carried out in other regions worldwide where there are overseas Chinese communities.
Yum cha generally involves small portions of steamed, pan-fried, and deep-fried dim sum dishes served in bamboo steamers, which are designed to be eaten communally and washed down with tea. People often go to yum cha in large groups for family get-togethers or celebrations.
Yum cha in Cantonese Chinese literally means "drink tea". The phrase dim sum is sometimes used in place of yum cha; in Cantonese, dim sum (點心) refers to the range of small dishes, whereas yum cha refers to the entire meal.
Traditionally, yum cha is practised in the morning or early afternoon, hence the terms chow cha (早茶, 'morning tea') or ha ng cha (下午茶, 'afternoon tea') when appropriate. The former is also known as yum chow cha (飲早茶), which literally means "drinking morning tea". There has been a recent trend for restaurants to offer dim sum during dinner hours and even late at night, though most venues still generally reserve the serving of dim sum for breakfast and lunch periods. The combination of morning tea, afternoon tea, evening tea, lunch and dinner is known as sam cha leung fan (三茶两饭, 'three tea, two meal').
The history of the tradition can be traced back to the period of the Xianfeng Emperor (1850–1861), who first referred to establishments serving tea as yi li guan (一厘馆, '1-cent house'). These offered a place for people to gossip, which became known as cha waa (茶話, 'tea talk'). These tea houses grew to become their own type of restaurant, and the action of going there as yum cha.
The ways in which dim sum is served has varied over the years. The traditional method, known as teoi ce (推車, 'push-cart'), dates back to the early 1960s, when dim sum items were pre-cooked in advance in the kitchen and brought out into the dining area in baskets by the restaurant employees. These people are generally called fo gai (夥計, 'staff'); however, customers commonly address staff using the slang terms leng zai (靚仔, 'handsome guy') or leng leui/leng je (靚女/靚姐, 'pretty girl' or 'pretty lady').
Later on, pushable trolleys with a heating function (often using gas) were used, allowing more items to be brought out at once. Employees would call out the items they were carrying, and a customer who want to order items would then notify the server, who would place the desired items on the table. This allows the customers receive hot, fresh items quickly and is efficient during periods of high patronage.
Nowadays, many dim sum restaurants have instead adopted a paper-based à la carte ordering system. This method allows only those items which have been ordered to be prepared in the kitchen, reducing the need for leftovers as well as minimizing waste food or ingredients. A few restaurants use both approaches to serving, making use of push-trolleys during peak hours and switching to on-demand ordering in less busier periods.
The cost of a meal was traditionally calculated by the number and size of dishes left on the patron's table at the end. In modern yum cha restaurants, dim sum servers sometimes mark orders by stamping a card on the table. Servers in some restaurants use different stamps so that sales statistics for each server can be recorded.
Customs and etiquette
It is customary to pour tea for others before filling one's own teacup. It is considered good manners to be the first to pour tea.
Tea drinkers may tap the table with two (occasionally one) fingers of the same hand in a gesture known as 'finger kowtow', symbolising thanks. According to a just-so story, this gesture recreates a tale of imperial obeisance and can be traced to the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty, who used to travel incognito. While visiting the Jiangnan region, he once went into a teahouse with his companions. In order to maintain his anonymity, he took his turn at pouring tea. His companions wanted to kowtow, but to do so would have revealed the identity of the emperor. Finally, one of them tapped three fingers on the table (one finger representing their bowed head and the other two representing their prostrate arms).
It is considered rude to have a teacup full of tea; it is preferred that tea is poured until the cup is about 80% full. The proverb "茶满欺客，酒满敬人" means, "a full cup of tea is fraud, but a full cup of alcohol is a sign of respect."
References and further reading
- Everything You Want to Know about Chinese Cooking by Pearl Kong Chen, Tien Chi Chen, and Rose Tseng. Woodbury, New York: Barron's, 1983.
- How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao. New York: The John Day Company, 1945.
- Dim Sum: The Delicious Secrets of Home-Cooked Chinese Tea Lunch by Rhoda Yee. San Francisco: Taylor & Ng, 1977.
- Classic Deem Sum by Henry Chan, Yukiko, and Bob Haydock. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.
- Chinese Dessert, Dim Sum and Snack Cookbook edited by Wonona Chong. New York: Sterling, 1986.
- Tiny Delights: Companion to the TV series by Elizabeth Chong. Melbourne: Forte Communications, 2002.