The literal translation of Dim Sum, the food served at Yum Cha, is 'touch the heart' which can be taken to mean your heart's delight.
It is said that the meal Yum Cha (meaning to drink tea) began as a range of snacks on offer in the tea houses that dotted The Silk Road from 300BC, connecting China to the trade routes of Europe and Africa via Asia Minor. Today there are in the vicinity of two thousand varieties of dim sum with a repertoire of sixty different dishes being served in the larger Cantonese Yum Cha restaurants.
Some venues bring the dim sum to the table for your selection on trolleys, while more traditional and smaller places bring them by tray, suspended by a strap around the neck of a waitress. When a dish is selected by a table, it is marked off on a sheet which is tallied at the end of the meal, with each priced according to their ingredients and skill level. Increasingly the trays are disappearing in favour of the venue offering a you a carte where your selection is marked and then the order is placed with the kitchen.
Served from the small hours of the morning until the early afternoon, diners will select at least one steamed, one fried and one braised dish, plus a blanched vegetable dish for a properly balanced meal and sometimes a plate of sliced roast meat is also taken. Depending on the number of diners at the table, often the repast will be finished with a shared plate of noodles or filled out with a bowl of congee. To aid the digestion tea is always drunk with Dim Sum and tiny sweet dishes are offered to finish the meal.
Yum Cha Nostalgia
I sit in a high chair in a bustling restaurant on The Peak in Hong Kong. My Chinese Grandmother is dressed in a modern Cheung Sam. She removes the translucent white rice pastry skin from a steamed prawn dumpling that she has cooled and leaning in, hands me it on a toothpick, making it simple for me to savour the filling.
1970. I am crunching my way through a deep fried wonton with sweet sauce in a Chinese restaurant when suddenly deafened by firecrackers. My nose wrinkles as the gunpowder drifts up from the street. We are eating Yum Cha upstairs. A waiter moves through the room with a broomstick, attached to which are a Chinese cabbage, a roast duck and some Lai See (lucky red money packets), which he suspends over the street from a nearby window.
Next I am being held at the hips by a family friend so that I can pivot out of another window to watch the Lunar New Year festivities below. An ornate Chinese Dragon climbs up to retrieve the spoils from the broomstick and two lions dance in the street amongst more exploding fire crackers. Drummers & cymbals beat and clash in a steady rhythm that I carry in my head for the next two days and when stirred, I can still hear them today.
We were in Gerard Street, London. The Dim Sum languished on a large round table in the midst of the excitement at Lee Ho Fook, the restaurant immortalised by Warren Zevon in his song 'Werewolves of London'.
My father dresses me in one of my prettiest and most expensive outfits purchased in a London Boutique. I am seven and we are in Hong Kong, going to lunch with his father and my grandfather's cousins.
The cab pulls up at the restaurant door. We are at Luk Yu, at the time Hong Kong's oldest Tea House. The senior staff wear long traditional robes and the tables and stools are carved antiques. There is fine porcelain on the table and in between us are spittoons plus other accoutrements of times gone by. One gentleman has even brought his caged song bird along and it sits by him at the table.
My Grandfather seemed to be as much a part of the furniture here. Like an Oriental Gentleman's Club the clients all seemed to know one another. Smiling benevolantly like Sau Sing Kung, the diety of longevity, he was in his element.
There was no need to order food here. As a regular at the venue for over thirty years, they knew what he liked and unobtrusively brought the dim sum to the table in a steady stream. Too enthralled to take much notice of what we ate, I sat mesmerised and observed quietly while the men talked.
Sundays at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley. Our family had a standing reservation for Yum Cha in one of the large Cantonese venues overlooking the race course. Over the clatter of chopsticks and enthusiastic conversations we would hook up around an enormous round table, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Each week the order was the same. Towers of bamboo steamers would crowd the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table that included Grandfather's favourites like braised tripe, mango pudding and Mah Tai Goh, a steamed sponge cake, and my childhood favourite of fried wonton with sweet and sour sauce.
There would be three teapots on the table, one with Pu Erh (Bo Lay) for the older people, one with rose petal scented Jasmine tea for the younger generation and a pot of hot water to dilute either tea when it became heavily steeped. It was my task to pour tea for my elders. I learnt to hold a pot in each hand and pour steadily.
By the end of the meal the starched table cloth was covered in sauce stains, teapot drips and the bony detritus left from discarded chicken feet and spare rib chomping. The world's problem's had been solved, jokes had been cracked and our bellies were full enough to have us seeking out a place to nap. The crackle and clatter of the Mah Jong tables drifted over from another room and some of the older generation moved off to play .
It's four in the morning in a street just above Lang Kwai Fong, the nightclub district of Hong Kong Island. Three people dressed as though from the Rocky Horror show, a French hooker with a Freddy Mercury moustache in a black PVC trench coat and thigh length boots sits alongside a nun and three men in flamenco dresses with Timberland boots.
We sit on low stools eating dim sum including chicken feet, dragon's balls and Tofu skin rolls. One friend skewers a silky dumpling with a chopstick and feeds it to me. My feet hurt, I am a Yoko Ono clone in hot pants with soaring platform soled boots. The elderly people sitting around us behave as though we are invisible.
We had been up all night celebrating Halloween. All the expats and American born Chinese donned fancy dress to attend the Halloween parties at the city's nightclubs. My flatmate ran a popular club and restaurant, so naturally I was obliged to join the fun there. Navigating the steep cobblestoned hill that made up the nightclub district was hard. Newscasters were filming the streets lined six deep with local Chinese watching the crazy foreigners arrive in fancy dress.
As costumed people walked through the crowd they were pummelled by gentle blows. The locals hit the Gwei Lo (Ghost people/Foreign Devils) to ward off any bad spirits that may accompany them in their hideous costumes. My arms felt black and blue by the time I got in the door but my friend, 'The French Hooker', greeted me with a Flaming Lamborghini cocktail and from then until we sat down to Yum Cha, my night was a blur.
It was five thirty in morning when the phone rang. Grandfather said brightly in Cantonese "I'm downstairs, it's time for breakfast". I had arrived in Hong Kong a matter of hours earlier. With a resigned sigh, I rolled out of the hotel bed and quickly pulled on some clothes, brushed my teeth and joined my grandfather. He had been muttering and pacing back and forth across the lobby in anticipation, much to the amusement of the staff.
Aged in his eighties and dressed immaculately as always in a three piece suit and tie, he looked at his elegant Rolex and strode out to a cab on the kerb. He took me to a humble Yum Cha venue filled with other elderly men, a place where in his youth he would never have dared venture.
The other customers were cut from a different cloth, had missing teeth, bulging hairy moles and craggy faces. Their clothes were cheap, synthetic and casual. My grandfather's bespoke attire was an anomaly here and I - a jet-lagged Eurasian woman with a spiky haircut - was a curiosity. "My number one grand-daughter!" he announced proudly in Cantonese whenever anyone stared at me at length and he would squeeze my arm with a grip like a monkey wrench.
Here the steamers containing the dumplings were metal, the bowls melamine, the lighting burned holes in your retinas, the tables were unadorned Laminex and the waitresses hawking the dumplings were loud, old and coarse. The din was deafening.
Men argued about the racing form, roared riotously and cursed one another. They fought loudly over the bill and spat poultry bones on the floor. But they welcomed my grandfather like a long lost friend, and I, sitting in this strange place, wondered at how he had come know to these people in the course of his pampered life. He waived my queries off with a shrug. Just another facet of his eternal mystique it seemed.
These days it is I who look at the face of his Rolex in anticipation of adventures to come.
Jalan Alor, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My infected foot throbs with pain, my face is blotchy with heat and humidity but thoughts of myself dissolve as I discover the crispiest roasted belly pork I have ever eaten whilst sitting on the pavement of an inner city street waving lurid green chopsticks over orange plastic plates.
The delicious dumplings of dim sum on the table pale into insignificance as I crunch my way through the fatty, meaty, fatty, meaty, crispy pork accompanied by Hoi Sin sauce and fresh chilli. I share a dumpling with a stray cat and chat in Cantonese to the Chef. My holiday was ending.
Twenty four hours later I would be pulling on an overcoat, at home in Melbourne again.
As the lazy susan of dim sum spins like the Wheel Of Fortune, Mr Stickyfingers is sucking the flesh off a braised chicken foot at the Hong Kong Police Club and discussing how well he has done punting on the Hong Kong Cup. My extended family look on with approval and have obviously taken him in as one of them.
It is the second day of my grandmother's funeral. My beloved has sat through rituals in a language he does not speak and helped to fold sacks and sacks full of paper gold ingots to incinerate. They represent the wealth that my grandmother has enjoyed during her time with the living and once burnt, are taken into the afterlife along with paper clothes and shoes, credit card and passport and a beautiful paper home furnished with all the luxuries in life with servants, set in a spectacular garden.
The family astrologer had told us that Grandmother had attained enlightenment by the time of her death and that her journey was now over. She would not, unlike my grandfather, be re-incarnated. Her funeral was a Tao Buddhist celebration of her life, heavy with ancient rituals and symbolism.
Amazingly just days before she died, Grandmother accurately foresaw that there would be a mix up with her body at the morgue, but said that it would all eventually be sorted out. That she did this didn't surprise me in the least. After all, this was a woman who had chosen to wake herself out of a coma, years before.
Before she left, she reassured us that she was looking forward to moving on to a spectacular place where the garden of her new home was filled with beautiful exotic flowers. I think of her now, strolling amongst the blooms in her eternal paradise, free of the frustrations of day to day life on earth.
I love the conviviality of Yum Cha. I love Dim Sum - and I love that I now can enjoy it at home. You see it is almost taboo in Chinese culture to make Yum Cha yourself.
Dim Sum Masters are revered and as an Asian you do not enter their territory by attempting to make your own - God forbid! Good dim sum takes time. Years of apprenticeship are involved to study making the dishes with recipes as old as ancient Chinese history.
Special consideration must be made as to the balance of proper ingredients, textures, flavours as well as auspicious symbolism in naming and in the balance of the components. As in all Chinese food, the Confucian principles of harmony are addressed in their production.
So what am I eating at home? Takeaway. The Linx Chinese food stall and cafe at South Melbourne Market is now selling frozen dim sum. The proper kind, not the aproximated yuppie version on offer elsewhere in the market. At Linx, it is the real deal. I can get all my favourite dumplings, buns and braises and the fried items like Gee Ma Ha (Prawn toast), Ham Sui Gok (stuffed deep fried glutinous pastry dumplings), Wu Gok (Panko crumbed mushrom and pork filled taro dumplings) or Chun Goon (Spring Rolls), I take away hot. Once defrosted, the steamed items only need a ten minute blast in the wok to heat.
I don't use the cliched bamboo steamer. Mine died years ago. From an Asian supplier I have a metal disk with large holes cut out of it to suspend within my wok. I use it for steaming whole fish etc too. I lay some baking paper under the softest dumplings to keep them from losing their pastry bottoms to the metal plate and the braises go into shallow dishes. The Lor Mai Gai (lotus wrapped stuffed glutinous rice) sits to one side and then I pop on the wok lid. Simple, quick and the result is deeply satisfying.
Lifting the lid to examine the glossy morsels in my wok, water drips down on my dumplings. As I inhale their aroma, hundreds of memories wash over me with the unfurling of the steam. Dim Sum is deep in my heart.