A Little Heart, A Pot of Tea: Dim Sum & Yum Cha

When I was younger, my family and I would head into Chinatown, Boston to eat this brunch time/ lunchtime fare during Chinese New Year. I guess this was a way for us to try and maintain our Chinese roots. I never really understood the significance of this meal until moving to China. Therefore, I was unaware of its alternative moniker, yum cha. Curiously enough, the first time I actually heard the aforementioned name used was when I was studying abroad in Sydney. In the Eastern hemisphere,  yum cha seems to be the preferred name for this cuisine.

This made me wonder what the difference is between dim sum and yum cha?

“Dim sum” is a Romanized Cantonese phrase used more often in the Western hemisphere. In Mandarin Pinyin, it’s known as “diăn xin” and in Chinese it’s written as 點心 (traditional) / 点心 (simplified).

Translated directly in context, it means “little heart/ touch your heart.” Dim sum was first created for tired travelers journeying along the Silk Road. Supposedly, weary wanderers could rest at teahouses along the way and enjoy little steamed dishes, which are still traditionally made today with bamboo steamers.

But why did the Chinese decide to include the word “heart” in this phrase? Perhaps teahouse hosts wanted to pass along a little bit of encouragement for fatigued persons who happened to stumble into their establishments. These dishes could’ve provided them the sustenance and the energy needed to continue on to their destination. Or maybe the name describes the way in which the dishes were created – with a little bit of heart and soul put into each dish.

In any case, the custom of drinking tea to wash down these soulful little dishes wasn’t adopted until later on, bringing us to the second phrase associated with this cuisine. As previously stated, yum cha is the more popular phrase designated for this type of meal in the Eastern hemisphere. It’s also a Cantonese phrase, but known in Mandarin as “yĭnchá” and written as 飲茶(traditional) / 饮茶(simplified). Directly translated, it means to “to drink tea.”

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Originally, drinking tea while eating dim sum was believed to cause weight gain. Later on, that rumor was dispelled and another belief took hold – that drinking tea actually aids in digestion. And now, drinking tea while eating dim sum has become the standard. Traditionally, yum cha referred to the making and consumption of tea during the  early morning hours or in the afternoon without food. But now, you’d be hard-pressed to find any dim sum (or yum cha) establishment in the world that doesn’t serve tea along with the dishes.

Tea at Lin Heung 蓮香樓, one of the oldest Tea Houses in Hong Kong

Tea at Lin Heung 蓮香樓, one of the oldest Tea Houses in Hong Kong

Whenever I heard the phrase, dim sum, the first thing that came to mind were pushcarts filled with little steamer baskets. For me, the phrase was automatically associated with food. But whenever I heard yum cha, a substantial size pot of tea would appear in my thoughts. Before it was customary to drink tea with these steamed, fried or poached dishes, my mental images would have been more accurate. But because tea has been adopted into the tradition of this mealtime, neither of my analogies were entirely incorrect, just incomplete. Though the Chinese translations do have different translations, people generally know them  as one in the same. Now when I think of both of the names on their own, the images emerge as more complete.

Zha Liang 炸兩 Deep fried dough wrapped in a rice paper roll. (The Sweet Dynasty 糖朝).

Zha Liang 炸兩 Deep fried dough wrapped in a rice paper roll (The Sweet Dynasty 糖朝)

Before coming to China, I would usually just drink tea steeped from a teabag and take it on-the-go as I did hot coffee. But drinking tea in Chinese-influenced cultures has a deep and more meaningful history than it does in Western cultures. Tea is meant to be enjoyed slowly and tea drinking is seen as a highly relaxed activity. Because tea is always paired dim sum/ yum cha dishes, people believe that this is a meal meant to be enjoyed at leisure, in a relaxed state and shared among friends or family.
擔擔麵 "street cart" noodles in a spicy peanut sesame sauce

擔擔麵 “street cart” noodles in a spicy peanut sesame sauce

Hong Kong is the best place in the world for finding both traditional and modernized dim sum dishes, probably because they originally developed in the neighboring Guangdong (Canton) Province. Sometimes I feel so spoiled living here, having this amazing cuisine available at the end of my chopsticks on any given day.

Tsui Hang Village 翠亨邨 a different approach to steamed buns made into a cute piggy shape and filled with purple potato

Tsui Hang Village 翠亨邨 a different approach to steamed buns made into a cute piggy shape and filled with purple potato

For the last few weekends, I’ve tried lots and lots of dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong. Some I’ve not paid more than a few US dollars for, while some higher-end places have required me to dish out around USD $20-$30. Each time I’ve gone, I’ve asked a group of friends to join (mostly in the selfish hope) that we’d get to try more things. Dim sum/ yum cha is certainly something that people can easily bond over and enjoy – because of the variety of options available, everyone can order something they love and share a little bit with whomever else is at the table.

Meeting up mid-morning or early afternoon with friends, family or colleagues and sharing this slow meal together is a distinctive trait of Hong Kong culture and is one of the things that I know I’ll miss most about living in Hong Kong. And while I really love eating this historical cuisine, I’ve come to realize that the focus of the meal shouldn’t be the food itself, but instead the act of sharing a little bit of something you enjoy with everyone else. And that’s something I’m happy to drink (tea) over.


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