A Guangzhou Guide to Yum Cha1
By Will Wu
Acclaimed as the food capital of China, Guangzhou has lavish2 delicacies3 to offer gourmands4. Arguably, its most famed repast5 is yum cha (literally ‘drink tea’), or, to be more specific, yum jou cha6 ( ‘drink morning tea’).
Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, traditional yum cha refers not only to drinking tea but also to the devouring of dim sum, an abbreviated form of the phrase dian dian xin yi (‘little greetings’). This expression was supposedly coined during the Eastern Jin Dynasty. A general of the period was so moved by his soldiers’ devotion and valor that he had numerous types of local pastries delivered to the frontlines so they could feast, as a symbol of his salutations and appreciation.
In olden times, Cantonese people used to enjoy yum cha at a very early hour, normally 5am or 6am – it was originally an exclusively morning refreshment7, hence the name. These days, many local teahouses and restaurants serve it all day.
Pu’er, oolong and chrysanthemum are the most common varieties of tea served during yum cha, while ha gau (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (open dumplings, usually pork), feng jau (chicken feet), cha siu bau (barbecue pork buns), nor mai gai (sticky rice with chicken wrapped and steamed in lotus leaf), cheung fun ( rice noodle roll), lor bak go (turnip cake) and dan ta (egg tart) are among the most popular items wheeled past on a dim sum cart.
A standard pack of eating utensils8 for yum cha includes a little bowl with a spoon, a small teacup placed on a plate and a pair of chopsticks. All except the chopsticks are typically ceramic9. Though sometimes misused, the plate is actually meant solely for waste. Cantonese often use the first serving of tea to wash the eating utensils, a ritual to sterilize the implements.
Several interesting customs have arisen around yum cha, each with a colorful story about its origin. When a teapot refill is needed, the lid is simply left ajar10, stemming from a folk tale set in ancient southern China. A rich man asked for a top up11, but when the waiter lifted the teapot lid, the rich man claimed that the server had released a rare thrush12 and demanded compensation for his loss. As a result, teahouses started to ask diners to lift their own teapot lids as a signal for more hot water.
When tea is served, it is customary to tap the table with two fingers of the same hand, as a way to say thank you to the person pouring the brew. This habit can be traced to Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, at a time when he was traveling incognito13 to Guangzhou. When he and his bodyguards stopped for lunch at a local teahouse, the emperor poured tea for his companions. In order not to draw any attention, his followers tapped the table instead of kowtowing to express their gratitude.
Now that you know a little about the history and etiquette of yum cha, it’s time to try some authentic examples. We have rounded up some of the mostloved traditional spots serving up this Cantonese tradition.
Built in the reign of Emperor Guangxu, Taotao Ju is a time-honored brand in Guangzhou. In 2005, it was declared a municipal cultural heritage spot. Located on Dishifu Lu in Liwan District, the teahouse has maintained its Lingnan architectural style, with a hexagonal14 pavilion at the top of the building. Every day between 6am to 8am it is packed with senior citizens. Feng jau and ha gau are a must-try here, brought around on the traditional dim sum carts that are becoming increasingly scarce.
Lianxiang Lou was first started as a bakery in 1889 and earned its name from the high-quality lotus paste it used to make moon cakes. Located in the same neighborhood as Taotao Ju, Lianxiang Lou can handle 600 diners at one time. Cakes, such as chewy pork biscuits and preserved egg puff pastry, are the main attractions of this restaurant, while the cream custard bun is another appealing eat.
Situated inside Liwanhu Park, Panxi Restaurant offers not only traditional Cantonese dim sum but also a scenic view. Built in 1947, it boasts several well-known delicacies, such as rabbit-shaped ha gau, pear-shaped lotus paste puff pastry, thousand-layer pastry, deepfried dumplings, deep-fried soup dumplings and steamed water chestnut pudding.
Currently, Guangzhou Hotel has a grand total of 11 branches. The location on Wenchang Nan Lu is the oldest, opened in 1935. Known as the ‘restaurant giant of Guangzhou,’ the brand is acclaimed for its crab meat soup dumplings and Shawan buffalo milk tarts. Hand in hand with its fame come steeper prices than the other restaurants listed here.
If you want to enjoy your tea and dim sum in a quieter spot, Nanyuan on Qianjin Lu is an ideal choice. The colorful windows, blue bricks and green tiles, pavilions, terraces and open halls all showcase Lingnan culture. Although the dim sum is average, the ambiance15 inside has made it a Guangzhou favorite.
Beiyuan enjoys a history of over 70 years. Located on Xiaobei Lu, the whole restaurant was built like a private villa in the traditional Lingnan style. The artificial landscape inside gives the whole restaurant the appearance of a well-preserved garden. Beiyuan is another hot hangout for senior citizens with a taste for the classic. Make sure to order red rice noodle rolls and be prepared to raise your voice – the hall is normally abuzz16 with chatter.
1. yum cha 饮茶，早茶。
2. lavish 大量的。
3. delicacy 精美的食物；佳肴。
4. gourmand 喜欢吃喝的人；吃货。
5. repast 餐；饭菜。
6. yum jou cha 饮早茶。
7. refreshment 食物和饮料。
9. ceramic 陶瓷。
11. top up（重新斟满杯子的）补充饮料。
12. thrush 画眉。还有一说放走的是金丝雀。
13. incognito 伪装；隐姓埋名。
14. hexagonal 六角形的；六边形的。
15. ambiance 周围环境，气氛。
16. abuzz 嘈杂的；闹哄哄的。