I was out riding bicycles last week on a beautiful autumn morning when the sun was shining and finally, for once, it wasn’t too hot. A group of girls that I live with and take care of on occasion were with me, so we were all enjoying the sunshine and a little time out of the house.
We were just turning the corner to come back home, when up on the horizon arose the fabled Ming Sing Floating Restaurant, known far and wide in these parts for its dim sum.
If you don’t know, dim sum is a delicious Chinese repast consisting mainly of all varieties of dumplings and other delicacies, including pig’s feet, chicken’s feet and cat’s feet (just kidding on the last one). Usually it is taken with copious small cups of tea, which is why the pastime is commonly referred to as yum cha, or “drink tea.”
Naturally, coming in sight of the restaurant conjured up visions of towering stacks of dumplings in their rustic little bamboo baskets and my mouth started to water almost uncontrollably. I happened to have a bit of extra cash in my pocket, so for a moment I toyed with the idea of treating the group to an early lunch. It would, after all, have saved the trouble of cooking, and it was so temptingly nearby.
But then I decided that by going on such a whim, and with such a small group of people, and even worse largely for the sake of convenience, I might just risk compromising the whole purpose of yum cha: to celebrate with a large group of people.
If you have any doubt that this really is the raison d’être (that’s a French word, not Chinese), just take a quick look into your nearest dim sum restaurant.
You will see enormous round tables that you can’t even reach across, garlands and flowers and the peculiar-sounding English names of some Chinese couple sprawled in bright fuchsia letters across a satin backdrop from the most recent wedding reception, and most likely dozens of chandeliers hanging from the ceiling as well as a plush carpet on the floor.
The first time I saw the yum cha hall in all its splendour I was taken aback by the unabashed gaudiness and pomp of it all, not to mention a little afraid that the prices would match the extravagance of the décor. Thankfully that is not usually the case, as most places seem designed to offer a taste of regal life to normal people and are therefore fairly reasonable in price.
The really good thing about yum cha is that it is one of the few times when Hong Kong people actually sit around and talk during a meal. Whilst waiting for the next towering stack of ha gaau or cha siu bau or siu mai to appear, there is actually time to discuss life. It doesn’t happen very often in the fast-paced, usually stoic culture.
So make the most of your next invitation to yum cha. Enjoy all the frills and the shiny chandeliers, and eat your fill of dumplings.
A useful guide for the beginner and those of us who don’t read Chinese: