to enjoying Yum Cha
The Fiji food scene has come a long way in the past year thanks to increased tourism and our newfound culture of dining out more often. The change seems more prevalent in the tourism precincts, and especially in the Western corridor between Nadi International airport and Port Denarau. Queens Road in Martintar and Namaka has become the unofficial foodie street in the West; just as Hong Kong has Stanley Street and Melbourne has Chapel Street. Increased tourism from China and Hong Kong has also given rise to new regional Chinese restaurants in Suva and Nadi serving a style of Asian cuisine we have long been waiting for – yum cha. Yum cha is the equivalent of a morning or afternoon tea in regions of Southern China. The term yum cha literally translates to ‘drink tea’ in English and is a very popular brunch outing on the weekends. It also refers to the entire act of drinking tea and eating dim sum - small steamed and fried dishes served in bamboo steamers. Dim sum is a collective term for the sumptuous dumplings, dim sims, pastries and braised delicacies. It’s a popular, even revered, pastime for many a Chinese person to go to yum cha at least once a week with family or friends. Especially for the elderly, going yum cha on a Sunday morning is a bonding experience for the whole family. The phrase ‘I’ll treat you to yum cha’ is thrown around almost as commonly as westerners offer to take someone out for coffee. But the best part of yum cha is the food – and now we can enjoy this Cantonese experience in Fiji. Dim sum come in all shapes, sizes and varieties, constantly evolving to suit the locals. The dim sum available in Sydney yum cha may be vastly different to what is found in Hong Kong or Fiji. But no matter where you go, there are certain staples that you must have to fully enjoy the Yum Cha experience.
PRAWN DUMPLINGS (HAR GOW)
One of the most iconic dim sum in existence. Har gow in a Yum Cha restaurant is akin to a Big Mac at McDonalds or a Whopper at Burger King – they are the yardstick by which the eatery is judged. The skin of the dumpling is made using
wheat and tapioca starch and should be translucent; like looking through a white wedding veil. The filling is made with prawn, bamboo shoots, spring onions and various other seasonings. The number of pleats along the pastry’s edge reflects the chef’s skill in making this quintessential dumpling. The texture of the steamed prawn mixture should also be crunchy and firm, not soft and mushy.
PORK DIM SIM (SIU MAI)
Often paired together with har gow, the Cantonese version of this dim sum is made with ground pork, prawn, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and ginger, with various seasonings. It is then wrapped with thin pastry dough, then steamed. Like it’s prawn cousin, siu mai should have a firm crunchy texture. Chinese stores have the pastry frozen and once you master the filling, are easy to make with the family (even if they don’t look perfectly straight!)
PHOENIX CLAWS (FUNG JOW)
It’s a part of the chicken we seldom appreciate but deepfried chicken feet stewed and simmered in a sauce made from fermented black beans, bean paste, and sugar is a must try and an art to eat. I remember first seeing my grandmother put a whole claw in her mouth, chew it around and then spit out the knucklebones like a machine gun. Learning to suck and chew the muscle, tendons and skin off the feet is indeed an art, but once you learn they are not only fun to eat, but very good for you. Chinese people believe the gelatinous tendons are good for arthritis and joint ailments. An alternative version is the bak wan fung jow, where the chicken feet is marinated in rice vinegar, sugared rice wine, salt, and minced ginger before being served cold.
BEEF ENTRAILS (NGAU ZAAP)
This delicacy is not for the feint hearted but for yum cha connoisseurs, stewed beef entrails are a gourmet delight. A selection of the tripe, pancreas, intestine, spleen, and lungs of the cow, all are stewed in a stock sauce made of thirteen herbs. These include fennel, Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, dried citrus peel, cinnamon, sand ginger and nutmeg. It is highly nutritious and incredibly delicious.
STEAMED BEEF BALLS (NGAU JUK KAU)
These balls of ground beef steamed with preserved orange peel atop thin beancurd skin are like eating burgers without the bun. There’s something special about the aromatic peel with minced beef that make these are match made in heaven.
PORK BUNS (CHAR SIU BAO)
Also known as barbecue pork buns, these buns are filled with char siu, slow-roasted sweet pork fillets, and come in two variations: steamed or baked. Steamed pork buns are white and denser than regular Chinese buns. Baked pork buns are brown and glazed.
BEEF TRIPE (NGAU PAK YIP)
This is definitely a specialty dish you’ll either love or hate. The tripe, or omasum, is the third compartment of the cow’s stomach, and this is sliced and steamed with garlic and scallions.
There are three different kinds of savoury ‘cakes’ that are pan-fried. The different types of cakes include made of daikon radish, dried shrimp, and pork sausage; another made of taro (dalo); and another strange combination with water chestnut.
EGG CUSTARD TARTS (DARN TART)
At some of world’s best Yum Cha eateries, the egg tart needs to be ordered in advance as these delicate sweet tarts are difficult to make and extremely popular. The flaky pastry is made with two different types of dough that require refrigeration before they are combined into their multilayered outer casing. If made with skill, these little beauties are silky, sweet and “eggy”.
HOW TO ORDER
Overseas Yum Cha restaurants will usually have expressionless older wait staff navigating their way amongst tables pushing trolleys filled with dim sums in bamboo steamers. “Har Gow! Sui Mai!” they hail as they walk past your table. The staffs then stop and inform you of what they have
in their trolley; the dish is placed on your table and your bill card is stamped to mark the size and quantity of your order. Fiji’s Yum Cha is slightly different, in that bamboo baskets are pre-ordered, or you go to a self-servery to choose your own. WHY IS HOT BLACK TEA SERVED? This no-milk, no-sugar tea is important to aid in the digestion of food, helping to flush-unwanted oils and fats through the digestive tract. The little dumplings are deceivingly easy to eat so drinking hot tea during the meal helps to make more room for more! Chinese black tea is generally charged per head and added to your bill. It’s always a good idea to make friends with the manager of the establishment, as it’s also possible to get the tea price deducted (but you didn’t hear it from me!) if you play your cards right!
Yum Cha is the perfect weekend family reunion of cute, steamed and fried delicacies wrapped in pastry, dough and skins. The hustle and bustle of a typical Yum Cha eatery is what completes this Southern Chinese food experience. The variety of dim sum is now so vast, that you’ll constantly be surprised no matter how often you go to yum cha; the chef has come up with a new dish to stay ahead of the competition.
These are my favorite dishes at yum cha - what are yours?