There is an old Chinese proverb which states: ‘The people is heaven for the Emperor. Food is heaven for the people’. In other words, eating is even more important than the Emperor. The Chinese certainly got their priorities right – they’ve been conquering the world with their Dish No.8, No. 27, and spring rolls as a starter. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all Chinese food are created equal. And it’s high time to throw out that takeaway sweet and sour lego and treat yourself to a lavish yum cha banquet this Chinese New Year.
Feasting together as a (very large and extended) family on the eve of Chinese New Year is one of the most important rituals of the year. The dishes served at this banquet symbolise good health, happiness, prosperity and abundance. For example, dumplings are always made and eaten together as a family on the eve of Chinese New Year. Their beautiful crescent shapes are a symbol of prosperity and wealth, resembling ancient Chinese gold ingots. Sometimes, a coin would be hidden in the dumplings to be discovered by the lucky ones (or not so lucky if it becomes a choking hazard).
My fondest foodie memories of Chinese New Year was during my childhood in Hong Kong, where I was spoiled by the endless delights of Cantonese cuisine. My absolute favourite was going to yum cha, the quintessential Cantonese dining experience, on New Year’s Day. Not only would I be stuffed with little red pockets of money from family and friends, but also a never-ending parade of scrumptious bite-size steamed parcels.
Yum cha literally means drinking tea in Cantonese but (more importantly) it involves eating dim sum, which are mouth-watering little dishes (Cantonese ‘tapas’ if you like), served in steaming bamboo baskets. Dim sum literally means ‘to pick what your heart chooses’. In Hong Kong, dim sum dishes are often served in trolleys which are pushed around the restaurant to be plucked by hungry, anticipating diners. It is unlikely that these trolleys would be rolling around in your local Chinatown these days, but you will still find a similar range of scrumptious dim sum that would happily replace your three meals that day.
Here are some classic dim sum you can order at yum cha:
- steamed prawn dumplings (har gao)
- pork & mushroom dumplings (siu mai)
- steamed chicken & sticky rice in lotus leaf wrap (lo mai gai)
- roasted/BBQ pork buns (char siu bao)
- spare ribs (paai gwat)
- pan-fried turnip cakes (lor bak ko)
- steamed rice flour roll (cheung fun)
- duck egg & pork congee (pei daan sau ruk juk)
- spicy fried squid (yau yu so)
- crispy egg tarts (daan tart)
- creamy custard buns (lai wong bao)
- mango pudding (mong go bo din)
For more adventurous foodies, try the soy-marinated chicken feet (fung zaau) or the ginger-scallion beef tripe (ngau pak yip). To learn more, here is a great visual Guide to Dim Sum.
And keeping with tradition, do drink tea with your dim sum. It also helps with digesting the piling mountain of dishes you’ve just ordered! The most common types of tea for yum cha include: chrysanthemum (guk fa cha), jasmine (heung peen), dark reddish tea with a strong earthy taste (bo lei), oolong and a premium type of oolong tea (tit gwun yam).
We will be doing a more extensive post in the future on some of our favourite foodie hotspots in Hong Kong. As a cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong offers a wide selection of cuisines from around the world. Whether it is Michelin-starred French cuisine or fresh sashimi prepared by top Tokyo chefs you’re after, you will never be deprived of excellent food in this city. If you are looking for an authentic Cantonese culinary experience, try the street stalls and eateries (dai pai dongs) where you can slurp a bowl of king prawn wonton noodles or munch on fresh seafood for next to nothing. Dai pai dongs can be found at the Temple Street Markets, Graham Street in Central, and Haiphong Street near Kowloon Park. Watch out for a post on this culinary wonderland soon!