How to: Yum Char

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.

Tea and custard buns at yum char

Tea and custard buns at yum char

What happens?

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.

Paying

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 :)

Tips

  • 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!
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21 thoughts on “How to: Yum Char

  1. Ok, so now I really want to do this!! You wouldn’t happen to know of any good places in Christchurch, would you?

    Reply

    Chickie Little

    No sorry but this artcle might help:
    http://www.cuisine.co.nz/index.cfm?pageId=11212

    Reply

    Chickie Little

    Ooh, and Foo San sounds like a good start too:
    http://www.dineout.co.nz/restaurant.php?rest=2097

    Reply

    Rob Hunter

    I never went out for yum char in Christchurch but my friends liked the place just opposite the Town Hall (or Crowne Plaza or whatever it is now).

    Reply

    Charlie

    Foo San is really good I would highly recommend it – the service is pretty abrupt though (they’re famous for it) but the food is fabulous.
    Another good place is JCs place in Riccarton.

    The place opposite the town hall is a bit more pricey IMO but you can get a few more unusual things

    Reply

    Charlie

    Whoops meant to reply to you Holly but replied too far in…

    Reply

  2. So recommend the open minded bit – went with someone once who got up at the end and announced she was going home to order pizza as she was still hungry! But was still happy to pay equal share of the bill – so didn’t bother me.

    Reply

  3. i was just going to ask the same thing for auckland… I haven’t had Yum Char before and would love to! but would love a recommended place so if anyone else has a fav.. let me know!

    Reply

    Chickie Little

    We quite liked going to the Grand Harbour in the viaduct in Auckland. They’re a little upmarket so the prices are a bit more expensive, but in return you get excellent food, waiters with good English and a stylish clean environment with comfy chairs and clean crockery! See http://www.grandharbour.co.nz/
    You can park in their building for free if you get a ticket from them when paying for your meal.

    Reply

    Binh

    Our favourite spot for Yum Cha is in Papatoetoe. It’s off the East Tamaki exit in Auckland and about 20 meters before Hunters Corner. You’ll see the big KFC on the right before you get to it. It’s called The Crown. The prices are really good and it’s always busy. Not as ‘flashy’as Grand Harbour but well priced and they are the only place that makes this really nice sweet bean coconut ball (called “Snow Ball) desert!

    Reply

  4. What great timing! My team is taking me to Yum Char for a goodbye lunch, and I read this just before we left.

    I’ll completely endorse the “vegetarian = out of luck” thing when it comes to yum char. I’m no longer suprised when the “fried tofu” has a free gift of pork hidden in the middle.

    Reply

  5. What a great idea for a post! I hadn’t heard of yum cha till a few years ago when I went with workmates and I had NO idea of the etiquette!

    A lot of people wont try it because the thought is daunting but you’ve included all the ins and out so it shouldn’t be scary.

    One more thing, yum cha is really popular so if you’re going on a weekend make sure to book or you’ll probably be out of luck.

    And lots of places are sucky even for pescetarians. The Regal is awesome though. Haven’t had yum cha in ages and I really want it now!

    Reply

    Chickie Little

    Yeah I’ve put that part about booking already :)

    Will have to make another date soon eh!

    Reply

  6. ohmigod i LOOOVE yum cha!!! my tummy is rumbling just thinking about it. but yeah, it is hard for vegetarians, especially if you don’t have any chinese speaking friends at your table since you literally have no idea what you are eating!

    ps. glad Fez is ok!

    Reply

  7. Ooooo, this is such a favourite in our family. My husband grew up on it, as his father is Hong Kong Chinese, and our young girls (3 going on 4 and 6) love it. Our youngest, in particular, eats so much and is game on to try more than us at times!

    My favourite place in Wellington is Majestic Cuisine on Courtenay Place. We go there so often that the staff go out of their way to find a table for us and make a real fuss over the girls. Mmmm, I’m going to have to book a table for this weekend!

    Reply

  8. What a brilliant post – you explained it so well! I’ve been going for years with my family and my friends have only started to discover it now, I take the out and they just let me take the lead because the find it a bit scary but now they love it!

    In Christchurch most of the restaurants don’t follow the traditional bringing to food around style (maybe because a lot of them a smaller) and instead you order from a menu – which can be even more daunting because people new to yum char have no idea what the dishes are! Now some places include a picture menu too which is so much user friendly.

    Reply

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  10. Oooh, my boyfriend introduced me to Yum Char! We went to the Grand Harbor restaurant in Auckland and OMG it sounds exactly as you described it! Haha!

    There really are sooo many delicious treats. :) My favorites are the ice cream balls and these pineapple custard buns.

    Reply

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  12. Our extended family loved to go to restaurants to celebrate special occassions – b-days, new years etc etc….but often restaurants and with young children don’t mix. The great thing about yum char is: no wait time! a variety of food! it is child friendly! and you get dessert come around while you are eating the main! hehehe
    There is a mix of customers, families with young children, couples, bunch of teenagers etc etc, it all just works!
    Our fav at the moment is Grand Century in Wellington….always busy!

    Reply

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