Yum cha etiquette 101

Go with a gang or bring the extended family. Six to eight people means there's a great spread.
Go with a gang or bring the extended family. Six to eight people means there's a great spread. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

"If you can't eat chicken feet, I'm not going out to yum cha with you." So says Dan Hong, whose own Mr Wong boasts one of the best yum cha menus in Sydney.

Yum cha, or dim sum to Brits and North Americans, is one of those adopted Australian customs that we feel is basically ours now. And yet so many of us are still confounded when it comes to the rituals of this delicious meal – who's refilling my tea? How do I get a drink? And where's the dumpling trolley?

A lunchtime crowd enjoys yum cha at the East Phoenix Restaurant in Zetland, Sydney.
A lunchtime crowd enjoys yum cha at the East Phoenix Restaurant in Zetland, Sydney. Photo: James Alcock

Arrive early

The first rule, says Hong, is to go early. "Eleven am is the ideal time – the food is fresh and the restaurant won't be too crowded, so you'll get a good position." And position is key. Get stuck in the corner and at best, you'll get a pity visit from a trolley "aunty", particularly if there's only one or two of you at the table. Speaking of, you'll have a cheaper bill – and get to try a better selection of dishes – if you go with a crowd. "Six to eight people is good," Hong says.

Drink tea

When it comes to tea, first up: drink it. Drinking tea with yum cha is traditional because it aids digestion. Serve others at the table first, then yourself. When someone serves you, it's traditional to show thanks by tapping your pointer and middle finger on the table (the ones you'd use if you made a peace sign). And if you've run out, simply turn the lid over – it'll soon be refilled. As for alcohol, it's not traditional in China or Hong Kong, but it's certainly part of Australian yum cha. If you have reservations, heed Hong's words: "You're giving them more money. So that's fine."

Look beyond dumplings

But though it's named for tea, for Australians yum cha is much more about the food. If you're stopping at the dumpling cart, though, you're missing out. "I'm not satisfied until the braised trolley comes out. I probably enjoy it more than dumplings," Hong says. Where dumplings can be hit and miss, you can always count on the braised stuff to be really good, he says. And yes, that includes the chicken feet, braised to a smooth, gelatinous magic.

Har gau (steamed prawn dumplings) at Spice Temple.
Har gau (steamed prawn dumplings) at Spice Temple. Photo: Eddie Jim

Dessert before dumplings?

As the trolleys roll by, grab whatever takes your fancy, even if it's technically dessert and you haven't spied the pork buns. It's perfectly acceptable according to custom, and as Hong says, "Who knows when the egg tarts will come back? You can't take that chance."

Sauces

If a dish is meant to be dipped in soy or sweet and sour, you'll know as it'll come as an accompaniment. That said, it's also fine to ask for soy or chilli sauce on the side. Don't ask your trolley "aunty" (and for that matter, don't ask them for anything but the food on their own trolley), ask the maitre'd.

Chopsticks

And finally, the most pressing question.

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"What are your thoughts on people who don't use chopsticks?" I ask Hong. He pauses and clears his throat. "I think you know my thoughts on that."

What you should be eating

Siu mai – AKA dim sims
These cup-shaped dumplings are filled with pork, prawns and vegetables, and steamed to shiny, silky goodness.

Char siu bao
Pork buns, otherwise known as The Best Hangover Cure Ever. In Hong Kong, char siu bao have a bit of reputation as "mystery meat" (like hot dogs or sausage rolls) but don't let that stop you.

Don't stop at the dumpling cart, advises Dan Hong.
Don't stop at the dumpling cart, advises Dan Hong. 

Cheong fun
Rice noodles. Thick noodles filled with prawns, beef or pork, and doused liberally with warm sweet soy sauce on serving.

Har gau
Kidney-shaped dumplings with steamed prawns. Light and delicate, they're amazing with a dab of hot chilli.

Lo mai gai
Sticky rice in lotus leaves. Gelatinous sweet rice is packed around a filling of chicken or BBQ pork, then wrapped in a dried lotus leaf and steamed.

Tip: Grab some egg custard tarts at the earliest opportunity.
Tip: Grab some egg custard tarts at the earliest opportunity. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

Hom sui gok
Fried football-shaped dumplings with a sweet thick pastry and a savoury filling.

Mango pancakes
There's no Cantonese name for these because, according to food writer Fuchsia Dunlop, they're not Cantonese. Actually, she says, they're a Sydney invention of sweet, thin crepe filled with the fluffiest whipped cream and chunks of sweet mango. Chinese or not, we're fans.

Liu sha bao
Freshly steamed bun filled with sweet, salty egg yolk custard.

​Douhua 
Silken tofu with ginger syrup, almost like an Asian panna cotta.