For many, yum char is very much a foreign concept. What is it? What’s so great about it? What happens? Is there yum char etiquette?
What is it?
The words ‘yum char’ translates to ‘drink tea’. If you think about what we mean when we say ‘high tea’, or ‘afternoon tea’, it’s kind of the same thing. You have tea while you are eating little delicious things.
Yum char is a lunch time event that most Chinese restaurants offer. It involves both sweet and savoury dishes (usually small steamed or fried dumplings) brought around to each table, and you decide if you want to try it or skip it.
The best thing is you pay for what you select and you’re shown what it is before you have to choose. You usually end up spending about NZ$15 each for a satisfying lunch, possibly with something to take home for later.
First of all, if the restaurant is any good for its yum char, then it’ll be busy and you’ll likely have to wait in line for a table. For places that do bookings, it’s wise to make one especially if you’re visiting on the weekend.
When you are seated, you are normally asked if you’d like tea for the table. Some places charge for tea (around $1 a person), while others don’t. It’s worthwhile having tea because it’s designed to be a pallate cleanser in between dishes. And you can’t really experience yum char if you don’t yum char! By the way, it’s Chinese tea. I haven’t had English tea at a yum char but have heard that you can get it. Go for the Chinese tea.
The tea is brought out in a tea pot, and is periodically topped up. If your teapot runs dry, put the lid angled upwards on top of the pot to indicate it needs refilling.
As soon as you sit down, there will be people coming by and showing you dishes. Choose what you want and the waiter will mark it down on your ‘bill’, and it’s tallied up in the end.
Eating and drinking etiquette
A table setting will usually consist of a side plate, a bowl, a pair of chopsticks and a teacup. You will find that using either the plate or the bowl for rubbish (any bones, wrappers etc.) is useful while you use the other to eat from. Emptying rubbish into the steamers/dishes the food came in is OK when you need more space on your plate.
When you are presented with an array of dishes, just point to the ones you want and indicate how many (“One please” if you want one of those dishes).
Use a polite “No, thank you” if there’s nothing you want from the choices. I found in Hong Kong that the gesture for ‘No’ is a gentle side-to-side waving of the hand, as if you are waving good bye. You can do that too while saying “No thanks”, if English isn’t well spoken.
It is assumed that the dishes selected are shared by all at the table. It’s good to ask the other guests if they agree with your choices before making them. Sometimes a few may want to try something while others will not want to touch it. Usually those who don’t want it are happy with you having the dish, and they can choose something for themselves later. Go with the flow.
Don’t be afraid to try everything though (unless you are allergic or can’t eat pork or something). You may be pleasantly surprised.
Put empty dishes (the ones the food came in) close to the edge of the table, and stack if you can. This makes it easier for them to clear and you’ll have more room for new dishes.
It is polite to top up everyone’s tea cups when you do your own. Apparently, the notion of tapping two fingers lightly on the table is a way of saying ‘thank you’ when your cup is being filled.
Once you’ve stuffed yourself silly and ready to leave, take the ‘bill’ with you to the counter. Bills are often easier if you split them equally.
If you are going with an Asian family, this is the time where the battle begins to see who will win the title of bill-payer. If you’re not on your toes, often someone will “go to the loo” and pay at the same time before you even realise it. Awesome, but be sure to pay back the favour next time :)
- Find out from friends and family what good yum char places there are to avoid disappointment. My favourite Wellington place is The Regal on Courtenay Place. Great range, decent service (like frequent teapot refilling) and it’s delicious. Reading web reviews is useful too.
- Book if possible if you know it’s a busy place (another sign of a good yum char restaurant).
- Go with a group, preferably of open-minded people. You can try more things that way before getting too full.
- Get Chinese tea. It really goes well with the food.
- If you’d like dessert, grab them when they come around. They might not be available at the time you want them.
- Watch out for the ‘Special’ dishes. Anything that’s not in a little steamer dish is going to cost more. (Usually there’s a price list on the ‘bill’ that the waiters mark each time you choose something.)
- If you are vegetarian, then you’re out of luck. You will have to at least eat seafood, and if that’s the case you should still ask what’s in the dish. A ‘vegetable’ dumpling may not necessarily mean ‘vegetarian’, and something that contains seafood may also contain pork.
- Unfortunately a lot of yum char places aren’t known for their cleanliness. A common practice is to wipe down your chopsticks with the napkin before you use them… and don’t be surprised if the crockery is chipped!
- Don’t be afraid to try new things!