I first ate yum cha when I was 2, I am told. Apparently I ran across the restaurant and stole a bun off a trolley after my parents had paid the bill. This caused quite some embarrassment. Not as much embarrassment, though, as caused by the son of the friends they were eating with. He was 5, ran over to another table, pulled down his pants and announced “look what I’ve got!”
Since then I have made it my business to go to yum cha as frequently as possible, for obvious reasons, the food being so utterly delicious. I have many memories of hungover sessions at the Marigold, the Sky Phoenix, and whatever that one is on the corner of Hay and Pitt St street where you could eat all you like for $10 at one stage.
It seems to me the formula for a good yum cha restaurant is as follows:
- It is run by Chinese people – they know what they’re doing and in any event it gives it the right feel;
- Tea is put on the table straight away and refilled promptly throughout when necessary;
- The food is served off trolleys. This is absolutely essential for four reasons. First, it satisfies the need for immediate satiation of the hunger that you will almost certainly have as a result of being hungover. Secondly, it enables you to regulate the consumption to the pace that you like. Thirdly, no menu can possibly tell you what you need to know about dim sum. What you need to know is basically “that looks delicious”. “Har gau”, or even “prawn dumpling” if the restaurant has bothered to translate it into Enlgish does not tell you that. Fourthly, you are forced not to worry about the price, which enhances the enjoyment of the experience by at least 20%.
All my favourite Sydney yum cha restaurants fulfil these criteria (although I concede that it may have tbeen that fact that I grew up in Sydney that caused me to choose these criteria in the first place).
Then I moved to England, and, oh dear, they have got yum cha all wrong. Totally and utterly wrong.
First, let us examine the properties of English people that might cause them to be a difficult market to sell proper yum cha to. At the risk of gross generalisation, and obviously with notable exceptions:
- English people do not like food, or at least not as much as the rest of the world does. We are talking about a race of people otherwise of sound mind who eat pre-packaged, refrigerated sandwiches for lunch.
- English people do not like foreigners.
- A fortiori English people do not like foreign food.
- English people do not like sharing food, even if it is designed to be shared.
- English people mistrust restaurants that are not part of a chain.
As a result your typical yum cha experience in England comprises the following:
- They incorrectly refer to it as “dim sum” rather than “yum cha”. “Yum cha” is the meal; “dim sum” is the actual food. You eat dim sum at yum cha. Inviting someone to “dim sum” rather than “yum cha” is basically like inviting someone to “sandwiches” rather than “lunch” (and, by the way, yum cha is a lunch time meal).
- You will probably eat it in a sanitized chain restaurant like Ping Pong.
- You will have to order off a menu.
- You may, depending on your dining companions, be forced to order and eat only for yourself, without sharing.
Accordingly the person in search of good yum cha, or, moreover a good yum cha experience in London needs to tread carefully. Basically you have to make a choice at the outset. Either you can choose to find a place that does “proper” yum cha with trolleys, or you can find the place with the best food (avoiding the places that do neither). Sadly, the two do not coincide in London, not yet at least.
The only two restaurants I know of that do yum cha the proper way with trolleys etc are New World and Chuen Cheng Ku, both in Chinatown. They each offer materially the same experience. You will get tea immediately. The place is full of happy Chinese people gorging themselves on dumplings. The trolleys will come by frequently. The food is good but not great. You will get out for £15 a head.
If you want really excellent food, you need to go somewhere like Hakkasan. I went on Friday, to the one in Mayfair. The food is amazing. The siu mai are plump and explode with fatty, porky flavour. The wrapper of the har gau is paper thin, and you can actually see that the filling really is made from real seafood. The cheung fan (rolled up rice noodles), which I normally think is a waste of time (just a stingily filled gluey mass) were silky and generously filled. And, importantly, the dumplings don’t stick to the paper in the bottom of the basket.
Although the food is great the experience on the whole left me cold. The decor is just revolting. Slate and blue lights in the entrance hall make you feel like you’re 8 years old and going to Laser Quest for the first time.
The service is highly professional by the standards of posh west end restaurants (which, admittedly it is) but I just don’t think that’s the best milieu for yum cha. I want tea, on the table, now. I do not want to be brought the tea list. I want a trolley woman to screech “Pork dumpling! Prawn dumpling! Scallop dumpling!” at me and give an impatient look as the table considers its needs and preferences. I do not want the svelte hostess to take my order and say in a low, husky voice “sir, the har gau comes in a serving of 3, is that all right?” Have they really had someone complain that some of the dumplings come in 3s? Whoever did that would have to be the miserablest person alive.
So the moral is that in London, all the features of a good yum cha experience do not yet coalesce in a single restaurant. You have to pick your battles. But as with everything here food wise, the scene is improving. Once people move past the juvenile taste for Ping Pong, we might expect greatness in this area yet.