Did you know the bustling dining experience known as yum cha began as sharing tea with others in the Qing dynasty? In this Tea Journal entry, we discuss the origins behind this famous feast and our favourite yum cha tea pairings!
We love siu mai and we love the trolleys, but don’t let that distract you from this: yum cha has never just been about the food…or even the tea! True, yum cha translates to ‘drink tea’ (飲茶 ) in Cantonese. However, that’s because tea is a fantastic excuse in Cantonese communities to bring people together.
Looking at the history of this dining experience brings about a wealth of knowledge. The origins of yum cha touches on the history of Cantonese-speaking regions and on how tea has been a tangible conduit for promoting togetherness in Chinese culture for a millennia.
Let’s get basic definitions out of the way first!
What is Yum Cha?
Yum Cha restaurants specialise in small plates of warm, bite-size eats known as dim sum. These small portions come in steaming bamboo baskets and are often part of large menus. For example, some yum cha restaurants will have 50+ dim sum items up their sleeves!
The whole architecture of a yum cha restaurant—the trolleys bringing out dim sum, the large round tables, and the Lazy Susans (餐桌转盘)—is conducive to sharing. This collectivist mindset towards dining is what sets yum cha apart from other hospitality experiences.
All yum cha restaurants will provide either complimentary tea (usually jasmine green tea) or have tea on hand to order. Moreover, all the best yum cha restaurants will serve not just jasmine, but these teas too: pu-erh, chrysanthemum, and Ti Kuan Yin oolong. This wide range makes experimenting with yum cha tea pairings an even more enjoyable experience.
Origins of yum cha: teahouses and tiger stoves
Historians Madeleine Yue Dong and Joshua Lewis Goldstein posit that the origins of yum cha lie in the Chinese teahouses and tiger stoves of lore. According to Everyday Modernity in China, tiger stoves (laohu zao) incidentally became one of the first examples of a third space hub in China due to a collective need for safe drinking water.
Reaching its peak in the late Qing dynasty (1800s), tiger stoves became indispensable when coal and wood supplies were scarce. For this reason, communities would band together to conserve coal by organising tiger stoves to serve, and in turn be run by, the collective.
Boiling water was indispensable as it kept the community warm and would also remove some harmful bacteria from the water. As you can imagine, serving tea became a natural extension of tiger stoves.
Tiger stoves eventually evolved into teahouses. This came about organically as the cultural need for community spaces grew concurrently to tiger stoves’ becoming obsolete with the advent of electricity.
Specifically, the late Qing dynasty was a period of huge political change in China (marking a transition from monarchy to republicanism). Subsequently, tea drinking in commercial teahouses—undertaken by all classes in China—became one of the few safe places to air one’s ideas.
As anyone who loves a good cuppa will tell you, time flies when you’re chatting over tea! This meant that people were spending more time than ever in tiger-stoves-come-teahouses. This meant hunger needs now had to be met.
No one knows for sure when in the 1800s that dim sum began cropping up in teahouses. However, we do know that it began in Guangdong province (formerly known as Canton). This is why the yum cha you know and love today is a subset of Cantonese cuisine.
Our favourite tea pairings
If you find the plethora of yum cha choices overwhelming, pairing dishes with the smaller tea menu is a good strategy! Here are our favourite yum cha tea pairings:
Floral green teas are the perfect palate cleansers between bite-sized pieces of light seafood dishes or greens. Think har gow (shrimp dumplings), cheung fun (seafood/meat filling in rice rolls) and siu mai (open pork and shrimp dumplings).
Just when you think that you’ve eaten too much, a sip of pu-erh saves the day. The mellow earthy flavours of shou pu-erh work great at cutting through heavier dishes. Pair this loose leaf with the likes of feng zhao (chicken feet), char siu hum bao (barbeque pork buns, and pork spare ribs in black bean sauce (豉汁蒸排骨).
As the Goldilocks of the tea family, it’d be hard to find a yum cha dish that didn’t pair nicely with versatile oolong. When it comes to Ti Kuan Yin (the most likely oolong found on a yum cha menu), fluffy textures and white meats pair the best! Prioritise dishes like hum sui kok (deep-fried glutinous rice dumplings), salt ‘n’ pepper tofu (椒盐豆腐), and lo mai gai (sticky rice in lotus wraps).
Hands down, an egg custard tart (蛋撻) paired with any digestion tea is one of the best ways to finish off a yum cha feast. Try it and let us know what you think!
Quick-fire yum cha tips
- Ask what tea options are available
If you don’t ask, yum cha restaurants will defer to jasmine green tea or no tea at all! Even if teas aren’t on the menu, all good yum cha restaurants will have at least two or three tea options available.
- Rest the lid of the teapot on the handle
When you want your tea topped up with hot water, that is! This is the universal sign to yum cha waiters that your pot is empty but you would still like more tea.
- Just order for yourself
If you read the start of this blog, you should know why just ordering dim sum as individual meals is a big no-no. Just like tea, dim sum is made to share! Get into the spirit of the experience, bring lots of family/friends, and order for the table.
- Come at night time*
We’re putting an asterisk on this one as it has become popular in the last decade for Chinese restaurants to offer yum cha at all times of the day. As a general rule of thumb, however, yum cha is lunch hours: 10 am–3 pm. It’s also important to note that Sundays are the busiest time of the week for yum cha restaurants! So if you’re heading in on a Sunday, get in early or prepare to wait.