I have a confession to make: sometimes I crave Chinese food.
This may seem weird as my background is Chinese. As a child I wanted little more in the way of food than to try a homemade roast dinner (reference: multitudes of sitcoms) or lasagne (reference: Garfield) as, to this day, neither of these things are in my mother’s cooking repertoire. I grew up eating Chinese food and, as an adult, I probably spend at least half of my cooking hours devoted to Chinese cuisine as well. But be it stemming from an honest food craving or searching for something familiar in smell, taste and texture, I do sometimes get a hankering for Chinese food. Usually it’s for something specific such as rice, congee, noodles or dumplings, and sometimes it is for the whole dining experience that is yum cha (飲茶).
Yum cha for me, like food experiences for many people, is not just about the neat little steamed and deep-fried morsels on offer left, right and centre in their glorious shapes and colours. Yum cha is typically something that’s been done with family either here or when visiting extended family overseas, and involves hours of sitting, drinking tea, waiting (or, these days, selecting off a ‘dim sum’ (點心) sheet), chatting, laughing and eating. It is a process by where we exchange information and gossip, and makes for happy times amongst the often raucous environment.
Yum cha literally means ‘drink tea’ and is not really restricted to any particular time of the day but does tend to be consumed during daylight hours. The focus was originally on the tea, with ‘dim sum’ dishes designed to complement the tea rather than the other way around. Tea houses tended to be frequented by well-off men with a caged bird in hand to while away the hours with other men who had the time to boast stories as well as to listen – much like a pub or bar but without the alcohol. My grandfather was one of these men and my mother, being the youngest of thirteen children, used to accompany him to yum cha in his older years. She recalls the corridor-like tea houses with their booth seats against the window side, linoleum or tile flooring throughout, and wooden ceiling fans spinning overhead. She remembers the ‘dai bao’ (大包) or big buns that were filled with a combination of pork, chicken and green vegetables that were larger than her child’s fist and that were steamed in their own individual saucer dish. The ‘dim sum’ were sold by men with trays supported by a strap around their neck (think popcorn or hotdog seller at an American football game) as the now popular trolleys were yet to become affordable with their individual gas heaters, and women did not partake in this line of work due to having to be around so many men. One of these ‘dai bao’ plus a spring roll at least an inch wide and 5 inches long and my mother would be full. These are images of an era gone-by but, if you look hard enough, there are still a few in this vein nestled in older suburbs throughout Asia.
Much more locally though, Monsieur Poisson and I like to frequent Fook Yuen. The décor is a bit 80s Chinese but, hey, aren’t the 80s back in fashion? That aside, the food is honest and, although there may not be as great a range of ‘dim sum’ as at other places, the food is definitely done well. The steamed ‘dim sum’ have thin translucent wrappers that manage to hold the non-overloaded fillings and manage to not rip open when the dumpling is removed from its steamer basket – a true sign of a ‘dim sum’ that is well-made. Of course the taste doesn’t disappoint either, which is why we’re here for lunch with Kiki and Dr King this particular day.
We start with some steamed beef mince dumplings (乾蒸牛肉燒賣 – ‘ngau yuk siu mai’) which somehow appeal to me much more than their larger, meatball-type counterparts (山竹牛肉 – ‘saan juk ngau yuk’), although I do like the layer of beancurd skin which is found underneath. Essentially the two have the same filling and both are served with Worcestershire sauce, but being smaller and differently shaped makes these easier to eat for me.
Next we have steamed beancurd rolls (鮮竹卷 – ‘sin juk guen’) which feature beancurd skin (made by skimming the ‘skin’ layer off heated soy milk and allowing to hang dry) wrapped around a filling of minced pork and finely chopped carrot and wood-ear fungus. Sometimes you will also find bamboo shoots or bean thread/green bean/glass vermicelli/noodles in amongst the filling.
This is followed up by the almost infamous ‘Phoenix claws’ (鳳爪 – ‘fung jau’) or braised chicken’s feet. For those of you grossed out by the ‘dirty’ concept of feet, this is how the dish is prepared: the feet have a tough ‘outer’ skin removed before being either deep or shallow fried prior to being stewed in a spicy black bean sauce. Perhaps I am just used to seeing them and am therefore immune to their ‘offensiveness’, but think of the cultures which consume pigs’ trotters (this includes the Chinese) and I really don’t see the difference. Granted there is almost no meat on chicken’s feet and what you are eating is pretty much skin and tendons; touted as being high in collagen and good for hair, skin and nails.
I am excited when I hear a ‘dim sum’ lady call out ‘lap cheong’ buns (臘腸卷 – ‘lap cheong guen’). These simple steamed buns which are wrapped around a Chinese dried sausage segment are increasingly hard to find at yum cha due to people – particularly, young females – ‘watching their weight’. This is one of those ‘dim sum’ that really takes me back to my childhood and you can still find some places that roll the bun dough into a long rod before wrapping it around the sausage in a spiral fashion to give a rippled appearance. The sweet bun outer is the perfect vessel for the fatty, sweet and distinct flavour of the dried sausage.
When I was a kid the steamed glutinous rice with chicken in lotus leaf (糯米雞 – ‘loh mai gai’) were square and at least the size of sliced sandwich bread, if not larger. The rice was also steamed almost from raw within the lotus leaf, allowing for much more of the lotus leaf fragrance to permeate the rice. These days the parcels tend to be individually-sized and the rice is much more subtly fragranced due to the rice being cooked first then wrapped in the leaf only for the final stage of steaming. Nonetheless they are sticky, filling and warming and offer masses of comfort. Depending on the chef, you will also find salted duck egg yolk, dried shiitake mushroom and/or dried scallop in amongst the chicken filling.
And although we are not yet ready for sweets, we still order the steamed Malay cake (馬拉糕) when we see it approaching. A light and airy sponge cake with a batter featuring heavily in eggs, I have never known of its origins although its name suggests it is Malay. None of my relatives have been able to enlighten me on this matter either, but what’s important is that it tastes good! We have ours snipped into quarters.
Steamed Teochew/Chiu-Chau dumplings (潮州粉果) aren’t very popular amongst my family, apart from an uncle whose own family hails from the area. But I love the filling of finely minced pork with crunchy water chestnuts and celery with the sweetness of roasted peanuts. When I was much younger in Hong Kong, you could find large versions of these at roadside stalls where, upon purchase, the stallholder would stab a couple of bamboo skewers through one before placing it in a small, brown paper bag. Perfect with some chilli oil too.
For the most of us, a yum cha meal is not complete without steamed prawn dumplings (蝦餃 – ‘har gau’). The ones here are the perfect size for me – definitely not a case of bigger is better. You don’t want to bite in and be overwhelmed with filling that explodes everywhere leaving you with the contents (hopefully) in your bowl and no outer wrapping to go with it. After all, it’s all about the filling to wrapper ratio.
One of Monsieur Poisson and Dr King’s favourites then happen to pass by and it is the steamed garlic chive dumplings ( 韮菜餃 – ‘gau choi gau’). The garlickly contents often include some lard or small prawns these days, so what was originally intended as a vegetarian dumpling is not quite these days.
Then it really is time for sweets. There’s mango pancakes which have eggy crêpes enclosing a filling of sweetened whipped cream and mango slices. My husband, not enjoying mango, declines having one of these which can only mean more for the rest of us!
And there’s sweet tofu dessert (豆腐花 – ‘dau fu fa’) which features a lighter version of silken tofu swathed by sugar syrup often scented with ginger. You want the tofu to be in thin slices, rather than chunks and the less breakage the better.
For our finale we have that all-time favourite loved by young and old, Chinese and non-Chinese: egg tarts (蛋撻 – ‘daan tart’)! The ones here are made with flaky pastry and sometimes, like on this day, there are miniature versions available which just ups the pastry to filling ratio. Mmmm…
For those of you who are unfamiliar, a final tip: look around you next time you’re at yum cha and you will see teapots with the lid left ajar on diners’ tables. This is the universal acknowledged Chinese sign to signal to waitstaff that their pots need refilling. I have no idea where this gesture hails from but it makes for effective, silent communication in a noisy dining environment!
Fook Yuen (馥苑)
Level 1, 7 Help St, Chatswood NSW
Tel: (02) 9413 2688
Opening Hours: 7 days around 10am-3pm (yum cha lunch)
around 5pm-11pm (dinner)
PS. I once saw Bill Granger eating here with his family!