The exotic flavours and affordability of Chinese 'street food' makes dim sum a favourite with local diners. Trend forecaster Dion Chang explains the allure.
The first time I ever experienced an authentic dim sum teahouse was in Hong Kong at the age of 12. I’m a third generation South African and it was my first trip to the East, so the experience was somewhat surreal: familiar food, but a totally unfamiliar context.
Yum cha (literally “drink tea” in Cantonese) houses are noisy, raucous affairs, and families and friends traditionally get together on Sundays for dim sum.
The concept is not unlike Spanish tapas. A variety of small, usually steamed, dishes is served communally, as all Chinese meals should be. A steady flow of exotic dishes helps the conversation along, which is always lubricated by copious pots of tea (these are magically refilled if you leave the lid of the tea pot angled open).
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In Hong Kong, where people live shoulder to shoulder, it is quite acceptable to stand and wait at a table while the previous occupants are still finishing off their yum cha session. It’s not rude, it’s just a way of life in this densely populated city.
But for well mannered South Africans this was a baptism of fire, as we stood like vultures watching a family finish their meal. However, once seated, the yum cha ritual unfolds, and I’m pleased to say it’s still the same today.
Once seated, your table receives a long checklist of the dishes on offer, which are ticked off as they arrive at your table.
Traditionally, waitrons push steaming trolleys around the restaurant calling out whatever they have on offer. This builds expectation, ensures variety, and increases the noise level.
In South Africa, however, most of the yum cha houses have a buffet table that you choose from and, like the trolley system, different dishes come out at different times, so you need to keep a lookout for what’s being refreshed.
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If you’ve never experienced dim sum, it might be an acquired taste. The textures are quite unusual, as are the taste combinations. If you’re unadventurous you’ll probably give the steamed chicken feet a miss – as do I.
However, most dim sum dishes are little taste explosions. You’ll find plump pieces of citrus pork sausage embedded in a savoury turnip cake, which is sliced and fried until crisp.
The popular har gow (dumpling) tastes as delicate as it looks, while the ubiquitous bao (fluffy steamed buns) contain anything from dark honey-roasted pork to sweet bean pastes. It’s an experience that ebbs and flows. Savour each mouthful.
WATCH YANG ZHAO MAKE DIM SUM
Yang Zhao is best known for the moreish mouthfuls she purveys from her Touch Heart dim sum den at 66 Albert Road in Woodstock, Cape Town (072 530 9654), and is the perfect tutor when it comes to making these delicious morsels at home.