"Arrive early, appoint a leader and say yes ... maybe that’s all one needs to know about yum cha. The food comes around: you say yes or no." Jennifer Wong/The Guardian
It's school holidays and holidays for my Italian lessons too, and so today was yum cha day. Yum cha? Yes yum cha. We have two ladies of Chinese heritage in our Italian group - one from Hong Kong who is the driving force behind what is now our tradition - even though alas she cannot now come to the lessons because her boss changed the days she worked, and not even there today because she was being grandma and babysitting. It shows dedication to tradition though doesn't it? So she left us in charge of Elaine - our other Chinese member - Malaysian Chinese this time, and, I think, married to an Italian. Such are the joys of Australian multiculturalism.
She was in charge because she speaks Chinese and knows what is good. The rest of us just say yes or no, and fumble around clumsily with chopsticks. Our venue is The Golden Dragon Palace in Manningham Road Templestowe in the heart of one of Melbourne's Chinese areas. I took the photograph above on arrival before the food had arrived, and most of the customers too. Today I have learnt that, according to Urban List it is one of Melbourne's top yum cha restaurants. So it pays to have inside knowledge of the Chinese kind. Even when really you should be eating Italian.
Or should you? I mean we all eat Italian at home all the time don't we? I bet there is not a single household in Melbourne, other than dyed in the wool immigrants of other cultures, which doesn't eat pasta or pizza at least once a week. So maybe it's very appropriate that we should try something new and foreign. After all the very act of learning a foreign language is a similar adventure into the unknown and new.
Like most Chinese restaurants it is large - apparently it seats around 200 people and it was full. There was a queue at the entrance when I arrived and when we were finally admitted to pass the gatekeeper we saw one group who had not made a booking being turned away. Apparently it is like this every day. The queue for the next sitting was forming as we left.
'Yum cha' did you know, means 'drink tea'? Nothing about food there. Because originally these places, in the time of the Xiangfeng Emperor, were simple tea houses. After a time they would serve one or two small tastes of something alongside the tea. There are four main teas that might be served - as shown below.
And here's the thing, if you are non Chinese you might not even be asked what kind you want and you will get the Jasmine - as did we. Well they are very prompt with serving the tea - as soon as you sit down - and it was just anglo Australians who arrived and sat down first, so Jasmine it was.
However, we were asked if we wanted Jasmine tea, so I suppose we could have been superior and asked for Pu'er, which according to most of yum cha buffs seems to be the one you should have. This is a black tea as you can see, and therefore, I assume, rather stronger tasting. The other two with the Chinese names in the picture of my original four are Long Jing - which is green tea and Tie Guan Yin - which seems to be a kind of Oolong tea. Jasmine tea is lovely though and the staff were very good at making sure that we had enough at all times.
One final thing about the custom of yum cha or dim sum - it's most prevalent in Hong Kong and southern China. Apparently in the north the similar meal is not nearly as varied in its offerings and they are not as good. Its also most usually breakfast - in Hong Kong service begins at 6.00am. Now it is more brunch - although as we filed out at 1.00 after our 11.30 sitting, there were a lot of people waiting to get in.
So what about the food? Now this is the dim sum which means: 'little snacks that tug at the heart' or something like that". And this is where you need an expert - a table leader who will choose what we eat. Mostly we just eat what Elaine - or Michelle - our absent Hong Kong Chinese member - order, but they always check on preferences, allergies, diets, etc. before they order. And I have noticed over time that they always choose at least one dish with which we might not be familiar. Today it was Chinese fried radish cake and yam dumplings. I confess I did not try the yam dumplings - I was full, but I did try the fried radish cake. Elaine told us that the radish was grated, squeezed of liquid and steamed, then fried. I think it was one of those dishes that tasted strange and not altogether pleasant on first bite, but improved on further tasting. I'm not adding it to the must have list though. Maybe I should have tried the yam dumplings.
Lots of food was served, and it was nice to catch up outside of our classes. There was even one brave husband. David was invited but (a) he doesn't do or like lunch and (b) Yum cha is possibly his least favourite food, so I didn't even ask him.
The service was super efficient and some of the ladies pushing the trolleys smiled sweetly but the boss men were a little brusque - even Elaine said as such. When they brought the wrong dish - one that had been ordered separately they were very slow to admit that they were in the wrong. She was not impressed.
We had lots of food and lots of tea, finishing with the traditional and really light custard tart. But the overall cost was very reasonable - $33.70 each. More than the usual $25.00 or so, but it's post covid and shortage of materials time, so probably understandable. I probably ate too much but nevertheless I am going to cook a quiche for dinner. David has to eat after all. And it's Friday. It will be fishy - smoked trout and celery I think. So sort of healthy. I'll make up for it by going for a long walk tomorrow.