by Rick Green
There's something infectious about the atmosphere of a European football match or the French Quarter in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Many Cantonese, however, reserve this kind of fervour for dim sum, which can have all the cacophony and excitement of festivals or sports matches.
Dim sum, meaning "touch the heart" or "heart's delight", is the equivalent of Spanish tapas or Mediterranean mezze — small sweet & savoury dishes people order to consume while socializing. Yum cha(literally "to drink tea", but in this context it means going for dim sum), however, is a daytime affair and is most popular with families as Sunday "brunch".
Dim sum's origins are obscure, but it was the Cantonese who began preparing these morsels for teahouses in China during the Sung dynasty. Since the 10th century, a repertoire of around 2,000 varieties of dim sum has evolved. Most are deep fried or steamed (served at the table in bamboo steamers) dumplings, meat dishes, and rice or noodle dishes, but there are also sweet dishes like egg custard tarts, mango pudding, red bean soup, and deep fried sesame balls.
You'll find two basic types of dim sum restaurant — the traditional type with the serving carts and the more "genteel" type where you order from a menu list. If you don't see carts in the aisles, assume you're at the latter type restaurant if it does, in fact, serve dim sum (not all Chinese restaurants do). If you are going for dim sum for your first time, it helps to go with someone who knows the routine. But if you wing it without a "guide", then the cart-type restaurant would be the best place to start since you can actually see what you are getting.
If you don't want to wait long for a table, it is a good idea to arrive at the restaurant before 11:30am since Chinese seem to like going for yum cha at the last minute. Walk straight up to the host/ess and tell them how many people are in your party. You'll be shown to an available table when your turn comes or your number will be called. Don't dally around when they motion you to a table because they won't wait around for you if it's busy. They don't care if you don't like the service (unless you go there often and spend a lot of money on expensive dishes). There are plenty of people to take your spot, so don't bother kicking up a fuss.
At this point you should be asked what kind of tea you want. If you aren't, don't be shy; this is the time to indicate your preference. In Cantonese restaurants you essentially get two kinds of tea — black (bo lei) and green jasmine (heung pin). The black is dark and earthy; the jasmine is light and floral. There's no reason why you can't get a pot of each if you can't decide or group preferences are divided. Also, you may want to get a separate pot of hot water so that you can dilute the tea if it starts to get too strong for you. This avoids having to shake down the harried waiter who tends to not be close by when you need him. If you are pouring the tea, etiquette dictates you fill everyone else's cup before filling your own.
The host/ess will either set a card on the table or a small paper menu with squares beside each item. In the former case, you are in a cart restaurant and you just start ordering what you want from the cart ladies as they push their steaming contents by. They will then stamp your card, which the waiter will tally up at the end of your meal. In the latter case, you need to write the number of dishes you want in the square next to whatever item you'd like before your order will be placed. Remember each order consists of three or four pieces, so be sure to order enough of one item to serve everyone at the table. About 3-5 dishes per person should be sufficient for the meal.
These days, there's a wide assortment of meat, seafood, vegetable, and sweet dim sum snacks available. You may even find Shanghainese dumplings (siu loong bao) and northern potstickers (wor teep), which aren't typical dim sum dishes found in Cantonese restaurants, but are popular nevertheless.
For traditional dim sum, be sure to try har gau, siu mai, char siu bao, pai gwaat, tsun guen, and daan tart — respectively, shrimp dumpling, pork dumpling, baked or steamed barbecue pork bun, steamed sparerib pieces with black bean, fried spring rolls, and custard tart. For the more adventurous, there's chiu ngau pak and fung jau, steamed tripe and chicken feet with black bean sauce. If you eat fung jau, Chinese will be astonished and you'll gain a measure of respect. But many of the younger generation don't like them, so they will probably just shake their head.
In a cart restaurant, you wait at your table until the cart ladies come by before ordering. Unless your table is in a bad location and seems to be missed by them, jumping up from your table and going to a cart is frowned upon. And don't bother the cart ladies if you want anything other than what they are pushing around, including special dishes or items off the regular menu; ask the waiter.
It's usually hopeless getting the waiter's attention verbally unless he happens to be walking by your table. So if you want your teapot refilled, simply lift up the lid and set it on an angle or set it on top of the handle and the edge of the pot to indicate this. If you want to pay the bill, simply raise your arm and wave your hand side to side until you get his attention. Then make a circle in the air above the table with your index finger (to indicate counting up the dishes for the total). For anything else, wave to get the waiter's attention. Then lower your arm a little and open and close your hand (as if scratching) to beckon him to your table. Gesturing with your index finger, Western-style, is rude.
You may notice people tapping their fingers on the table after someone fills their teacup. This is another example of yum cha non-verbal communication which is simply an expression of thanks. According to legend, it comes from a Qing Dynasty emperor who liked to travel throughout China incognito. In order to preserve his anonymity when visiting teahouses, his servants were instructed to tap three fingers on the table when the emperor took his turn at pouring tea. This represented the bowed head and prostrate arms of the kow tow.
Got all that? Not to worry. If you eat dim sum to your heart's delight, the rest will come from osmosis.