Strategising yum cha

21:13, Sep 18 2011

On Sunday I went and had yum cha with some friends, at the Regal in Courtenay Place, Wellington. I still have faint memories of a friend’s drunken stag do there many years ago in its former incarnation as karaoke joint The Steamboat; I sang Spandau Ballet’s True - brilliantly, I seem to recall.

I am conflicted when it comes to yum cha. Part of me thinks it is a bit of a rip – that it, is basically just Chinese food for brunch. There is an awful lot of deep fried food, and while I am far from a wowser when it comes to fried food, it is perhaps heading toward overload, even for me. There is also the issue of the “score” tally, where the wait staff mark what food you have taken on a sheet – I know a few places around town that are rumoured to habitually tack a few extra plates on to their Western diners' bills.

But another part of me thinks that it is an excellent idea – no waiting, just sit back and take plates of food that appeal as they are brought round to your table. I like Chinese tea. And, despite what one of my foodingest friends would dictate, I offer a resounding “YES!” to greens AND Asian desserts.

I have decided that, to make yum cha work for you, you need to strategise it so that you get to eat the things you want to eat, without compromising and chugging back a whole bunch of stuff you don’t really want to eat, out of desperation before all the good stuff actually arrives.

First, I don’t think yum cha is a good dining-out option if you are ravenously hungry. You will desperately grab any old tosh coming out of the kitchen out of concern that they will run out of food, and you will end up with a table full of soggy dumplings or beef tendons or chicken's feet or worse – please refer to my earlier post about avoiding actually ever getting totally hungry. Have some toast before you go. Be responsible.

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Second, go somewhere that is busy. More punters means more food being produced, more choices, quicker turnaround. And, to reinforce a cliché, a place that has many Asian diners is likely to mean better food than somewhere full of laowai.

I think that where you sit is important – if possible, you want to be close to the kitchen, and in the direction that the food is heading in, or all the good stuff will be gone by the time the wait staff complete their circuit. I find few things as distressing as a plate full of custard tarts, char siu pork or crispy skinned duck heading tantalisingly close, but then in the other direction.

You need to try to work it into a meal that has some cohesiveness and structure. Don’t just grab anything that comes along – maybe make a vague plan of attack to start with dumplings (I like fried better than steamed), some greens (bok choy or broccoli stems) and sticky rice, then get some proteins in (my faves: duck, pork, and salt and pepper squid), and then finish with a flourish of custard buns, coconut jelly and mango pudding. Voila!

Do not show any weakness or mercy when eating yum cha. Do not ask anyone if you can have the last prawn and sesame dumpling. If you want it – take it. Someone will be around with some more, sometime. Or they won’t – whatever. It’s the quick and the dead when it comes to eating yum cha. There are no prizes for “most courteous diner”. 

But, for heaven’s sake, pace yourself. Plates of yum cha food are a bit like buses – even if you do miss one that you wanted to catch, another will be along in a little while. I would suggest, though I’m sure the restaurants would disagree, that 90 minutes is an appropriate period to spend yum cha-ing. Take it easy. Kick back. Drink some tea.

(On the subject of tea - though I’m sure most people know already, as I only found out relatively recently, I thought I’d share – if you want your teapot topped up, you need only flip the lid and someone will notice and come fill it. An ingenious system, to be sure.)

So, there you have it – The Omnivore’s rough guide to enjoying the heady dining experience that is yum cha. I am interested in learning other people’s tips and hints as to etiquette and strategy – bring it on. 

Where are your top yum cha restaurants? Where is the best you have ever had, and what made it so good? And how do you go about maximising this style of eating?

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