Here's how to navigate one of the most epic Chinese food traditions -- 'Yum Cha'

  • Yum cha in New York’s Chinatown neighbourhoods is a popular tradition among Chinese-Americans, and the larger New York community. There’s a similarly strong tradition in Australia.
  • It can be a chaotic and intimidating experience for first-timers
  • We went to Jing Fong Restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown to explain how to do it right. Many yum cha restaurants in Australia are similar.

Forget brunch. Yum cha in Chinatown is the better tradition.

Yum cha is the traditional meal served in Cantonese teahouses and banquet halls on the weekend mornings, where families gather to drink endless amounts of tea and nibble on tons of delicious small plates.

Like many traditions, it can be intimidating to first-timers. Chinatown is a busy place that makes few concessions to first-timers.

My first experiences eating dim sum were inevitably nerve-wracking. You often end up pointing to dishes you don’t want just to get ordering over with — or you’re confused as to why you are seated with a family you’ve never met.

I recently went to Jing Fong Restaurant, one of the best dim sum halls in Manhattan’s Chinatown, to relax after a busy weekend, catch up with friends, and chow down.

Here’s how to do yum cha right.

Welcome to Manhattan's Chinatown. It's actually one of nine predominantly Chinese neighbourhoods in New York City. It's dwarfed in size by the Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, but Manhattan's still a hub for the Chinese-American community.

Jing Fong Restaurant is one of the most popular dim sum spots in the city. On the weekends, it's crowded and chaotic, with both tourists and locals coming to get their fix. Australian yum cha restaurants look very similar to this inside.

You enter through the bottom floor. Go up to the hostess to get a card with a number and your party size on it.

Pay attention and stay inside the waiting area. The hostess will call your number, probably a lot faster than you expect. Chinese restaurants are always turning over tables.

Time to go upstairs. Dim sum is essentially the Cantonese version of brunch. Most scholars agree it dates back at least 1,000 years to the 'Silk Road,' when teahouses popped up along the route for tired travellers.

The hostess with the walkie-talkie is your friend. When you get upstairs, she'll be calling table numbers and directing you to your table.

I brought along the three Chinese food experts in my life: Annie Zheng and David Chen, both first generation Chinese-Americans, and Rebecca Slotkin, who studied and worked in Beijing and Kunming for several years.

In Hong Kong and the surrounding region, Guangdong, it is tradition for families to gather on the weekends and catch up over a long, leisurely meal. It is much the same for the Chinese-American community. Zheng and Chen both grew up hitting the banquet halls on the weekends with their parents, grandparents, and cousins. It's a treasured family tradition.

Jing Fong, like many dim sum restaurants, is massive. It doubles as a wedding banquet hall. With Chinese wedding guest lists often topping 500 people, the hall has to be able to fit every long-lost cousin and family friend you can imagine.

Because it usually hosts weddings, the tables fit 10-12 people. Unless you're with a party that big, expect to share your table.

Dim sum is really about drinking tea, or 'yum cha' in Cantonese. When you sit down, you'll be offered the house tea, but other options include green, jasmine, oolong, and chrysanthemum tea. Zheng recommends a mix of green and chrysanthemum, which is supposed to aid digestion.

Rule of thumb: Pour tea for everyone else at the table before yourself. If someone is pouring for you, tap a bent index finger as a thank you. It symbolises bowing.

Dim sum is usually served by waitresses pushing carts. Different waitresses have different dishes. On a busy day, the most popular dishes get sold out before they reach the whole hall. Try to sit by the kitchen to get first dibs.

Jing Fong is a mix of Chinese, locals, and tourists. It does tweak some aspects to to be more approachable, like offering a menu, serving beer and mimosas, and occasionally having a waiter or waitress who speaks fluent English. Avoid the menu if you're looking for traditional dim sum dishes.

You'll get a punchcard that you hand to the waitresses when you take a dish. Remember: all dishes are meant to be shared -- unless you are Chen, in which case, he will be needing his own order of rice noodle rolls.

Let's get to the food. First up is Zheng's favourite: steamed spare ribs cooked in fermented black beans and oil ('pai gwut'). This is a more familiar option, flavour-wise, but one of the most delicious. Chewy, juicy cubes of meat on bone in a rich sauce that is salty and savoury without overpowering.

All Chinese dish names are in Cantonese in the parentheses.

Cantonese food is all about simple, clear flavours. At a dim sum restaurant, that can often mean sweet, savoury, or a mix. Don't expect to get anything spicy. If you need it, you can ask for chilli sauce (la jiu).

I love spicy food, so I end up dipping a lot of dishes in the chilli sauce.

Next up -- pork siu mai ('siu mai'). These open-topped dumplings are filled to the brim with savoury ground pork and bits of black mushrooms. It is considered on of the 'big three' true staples of Cantonese dim sum. At Jing Fong, the dumplings were plump and juicy, just how they should be.

Most first-timers turn up their nose at chicken feet ('fong djau'), but these are many veterans' favourite dish for a reason. The feet are deep fried, braised in a garlicky, sweet sauce, and then steamed. Eat the feet by sucking the tender, soft skin off the bone and discarding the bones as you go.

The chicken feet are the left-front dish.

This is a steamed tofu skin roll ('xian zhu juan'). This dish is all about the interplay of different textures. Layers of paper thin tofu skin play off the pleasant crunch of bamboo shoots and the hearty bits of ground pork that fill the roll.

The tea is meant to be a palette cleanser, according to Zheng. Take a sip between each bite of a dish or when switching dishes so you can taste the full flavour. When you finish a pot, turn the top up so your waiter knows you're ready for more

If you get impatient or don't see what you want, you can try to track down the cart with your favourite dish. Most of the time it's not necessary. Just keep your eyes peeled.

Next up, beef and shrimp noodle rolls (ngau cheung and har cheung). This dish features a barbecued or steamed filling stuffed in a sheet of rice noodle, then topped at the table with warm, sweetened soy sauce.

Another one for the adventurous -- steamed beef tripe (ngau paak yip). Though there is rarely something I won't eat, I tend to avoid tripe. But we all gave it another try at Jing Fong and agreed it was surprisingly delicious. Slotkin likened the meat to an almost octopus-like texture, and the flavour resembled a garlicky soup broth.

Another safe choice for the newbies: chive shrimp dumplings. Nothing crazy here -- just a tasty dumpling with crunchy skin and soft shrimpy-chivey goodness on the inside.

Though this dish is nominally called a 'cake,' don't expect the pan-fried turnip cake (lohr bahk go) to be dessert. The dense, starchy sweet turnip base is brightened by umami bombs of dried shrimp and Chinese sausage sprinkled through out.

And the pièce de résistance (for me, anyways) is the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf (nor mai gai). These little green packages are filled with sticky glutinous rice and the tastiest pork, chicken, Chinese sausage, and mushrooms you can imagine. You'll probably need to order a couple.

In Hong Kong, many people eat dim sum as early as 5 am. In Australia, however, dim sum parlors tend to open around 10am, and get really busy between 11am and 3pm.

When you're all done, bring your punch card to the cashier to pay. Jing Fong accepts credit cards, but most places are cash-only.

'Dim sum' shouldn't break the bank. Our meal cost $A80 with tip for four people and we probably could have done with 1 or 2 less dishes. I would recommend ordering around 2-3 dishes per person depending on how hungry you are.

One of the downsides of a big hall is that it can be hard to find the most popular dishes. We took a walk to Hop Shing, another dim sum restaurant, to get the traditional egg tart ('daan taat') dessert. Hop Shing sells the tarts from a counter.

We couldn't resist getting a baked pork bun (gohk char siu bao), another dim sum staple Jing Fong was sold out of. Hop Shing's buns, in the humble opinion of this New Yorker, are the best.

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