• It's an excuse to try a bit of almost everything. (Flickr / Jen)
The essential items for any yum cha feast, says Dom Knight.
By
Dom Knight

30 Nov 2016 - 12:53 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2018 - 12:53 PM

I’m going to call it – there is no better mechanism for delivering food to starving, slobbering humans than the yum cha trolley.

Sure, I know that in Hong Kong, dim sum is generally cooked to order and therefore served extremely fresh. And yes, I acknowledge that the sushi train is right up there besides the doughnut-cooking robot as one of humanity’s finest inventions.

But I prefer sitting there while a range of steaming, deep-fried or roasted goodies are paraded past me, just waiting for me to eat them in return for a humble stamp on a card.

It’s sociable, it’s comforting and it allows you to get full value out of a lazy susan. What’s not to like?

Everyone will have their own list, but because I’m frequently the person who bossily orders for the table, I’m going to run through the ten items that are essential for any yum cha (or dim sum, if you will) session.

Dim sims (siu mai)

These round dumplings are perhaps the most iconic yum cha item. They’re steamed, they’re wrinkly and there’s usually both prawn and pork inside. Perfect to dip in chili sauce, this is a great way to start.

Prawn dumplings (har gao)

Thin, almost translucent wrappers encasing a piping hot prawn – simple and delicious. Dip in soy and/or chili sauce, devour and pretend that you’re eating healthily. It’s a total champion of a dish. Those pictured are a slightly more gourmet variety, but really, you can't go wrong with any kind of prawn dumpling.

Spring rolls

So popular with Australians that the Chiko Institute of Roll Science put its own version in every corner milk bar, the yum cha version is still the best. They’re best when served piping hot, and the pastry wrap should crumble at the slightest touch. The vego version is just as good as the meat variety, which is not something I could honestly say about many yum cha options. Dip yours in sweet and sour sauce that looks like the byproduct of a nuclear accident, and you’re good to go.

Steamed pork buns (char siu bao)

A lily-white dough bun with sweet barbecue pork mince inside, these are the ultimate guilty pleasure. Can you limit yourself to just the one? You'll sometimes be offered a chicken version – but for mine, it’s got to be pork. Chicken bao is like a bad tribute band to the pork’s original artist.

Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce (gai lan)

Go on, order the whole plate. As huge as it seems, you’ll get through it. Did simple, plain, steamed vegetables ever taste this delicious, especially when paired with tangy, salty sauce? Kids everywhere are more willing to eat their greens when they’re served like this – and the restaurant conveniently separates leaves from stalks, just in case you’re one of those odd creatures (like me as a child) who only eats half.

Rice noodle rolls (cheong fun)

Yet another way to enjoy the definitive yum cha combination of prawns and/or barbecued pork, these noodle tubes are perfect when dipped in soy sauce. If cooked right, they'll melt in your mouth.

Roast meat

Roast duck, roast chicken, roast pork and barbecued pork. The meat trolley contains so many ways to clog your arteries with amazingly delicious options. They're all cut into tiny pieces so you can kid yourself you'll only have a little bit. You won't. Reasonable minds may differ on which to order, but for me, barbecued pork is king. Less fiddly than poultry and with that oh so delicious sweetness.

Singapore noodles

Stir-fried egg noodles with soy sauce and spring onion are a delicious carby break from all of that protein - but only if cooked fresh at your table on the special hotplate trolley. They're also great if you mix in some gai lab.

Sticky rice (lor mai gai)

Not enough of my friends and family members like this, frequently meaning that I have to eat all three serves, so I'm going to try and win fresh converts to the sticky rice cause. It's a parcel of egg, chicken, lap cheong sausage, mushroom and rice that's been wrapped in a lotus leaf and steamed until the rice sticks together in clumpy deliciousness. It's the best! No, really. Have a bite. Honestly.

Mango pancakes

Yum cha isn’t replete with amazing desserts, unless you like multicoloured jelly cubes with little toothpick flags stuck into them. Fortunately, this is all you need: Freshly-sliced chilled mango, embedded in the kind of whipped cream that’s often dispensed via can, wrapped in a soft, luminous yellow pancake. It’s the most decadent pancake dish you can get besides Peking duck.

Of course, there are many other items that almost made the list, like radish pancakes, spinach and garlic dumplings, curry puffs and the amazing soy sauce-basted eggplant chunks that they fish out of a vast vat. (And sorry, I’m a chicken feet skeptic – although I know many people swear by it.)

Go forth and get trolleyed, and remember the golden rule – if it looks good, just try it, and you might discover a brand new favourite.

 

Have we got your attention and your tastebuds? It's Chinese week on The Chefs' Line and tune in 6pm weeknights. Check out the program page for episode guides, cuisine lowdowns, recipes and more! 

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter @domknight

Lead image by Jen via Flickr. Rice noodle rolls image by  Jnzl's Photos via Flickr. Noodles image by Lucas Richarz via Flickr. Other images by Dom Knight. 

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Yum cha at home
You don’t have to head out to your local yum cha restaurant to enjoy your favourites from the trolley. Instead, learn how to master Peking duck pancakes with real plum sauce, prawn dumplings and other classics in your own kitchen.
Prawn, ginger and black vinegar dumplings

Everyone loves dumplings – and here's a recipe that you can make in 30 minutes thanks to ready-made gow gee wrappers.

Egg tarts

These tarts feature a very soft, light custard and a delicate, crumbly pastry that melts in your mouth. You will need a 12-hole (⅓-cup capacity) muffin pan for this recipe.

Steamed barbecued pork buns

Rich barbecue pork fills these little parcels.