The much-loved Hong Kong ritual of yum cha (literally, to take tea) dates back to the 10th century during the Sung Dynasty, when enterprising stall holders set themselves up along China's main roads to serve weary travellers a restorative cup of tea and a few light snacks. My personal theory is that when these snacks evolved into dumplings (dim sum), yum cha really took off. I mean, tea's nice. But who doesn't love a dumpling?
Dim sum is one of the remaining great, handmade, artisanal cuisines. Experts look for balance and harmony, for translucency in the rice-flour pastry, for sweetness in the prawns, and for a clean, juicy bite in the siu mai pork and prawn dumplings. They even count the number of tiny pleats in the classic har gau steamed prawn dumplings (there are preferably 10 or more) – or would, if their kids haven't eaten them first.
There are no real rules on how to do yum cha, but certain guidelines have evolved that are part cultural, and part strategic. The one about filling up the kids with a pile of big, soft, fluffy, white char siu bau (steamed buns filled with barbecue roast pork), so they leave your prawn har gau alone is just plain old common sense.
Tea is still an important part of the ritual; jasmine being the most delicate, then oolong, fragrant chrysanthemum, and the stronger smokier, pu-er. When the pot is empty, just lift off the lid and turn it upside down, the universal sign for a refill.
It pays to strive for that elusive balance and harmony, so order mostly steamed dishes, some braised, and only one or two fried, or you'll turn dim sum into a bad cocktail party. Most servings contain three portions, so for four people, you'll either need to order two steamers, or be very quick (the kids, remember?).
If you are in a restaurant where the dim sum comes on trolleys, lucky you. Just point and order, and the trolley lady will add your order to your bill. If there are no trolleys, you'll have to fill in an order form and hope for the best. As always, it pays to remember the names of the ones you love. Here, take my regular order along with you: har gau, sui mai, ham sui gok, cheung faan, xiao long bao, ngow jarp, and – when in Hong Kong – sugar-crusted baked barbecue pork buns. You're welcome. You too, kids.