Cantonese, lit. 'drink tea'. A tradition of taking a morning or evening meal that dates back to 10th century Canton where tea houses began serving food with tea.
Yum cha is about drinking tea, meeting friends and eating dim sum. Yum cha and dim sum should not be confused - yum cha is something you do, dim sum is something you eat while you're doing it!
In Canton, yum cha is served twice a day - in the mornings as a social alternative to breakfast, and in the evenings, usually after dinner between 9pm and midnight. Yum cha is very popular in Australia, but is usually only had in the morning on weekends. The rest of the time yum cha is enjoyed as brunch or a long lunch.
Diners may be asked which tea they prefer - safe choices for yum cha novices are chrysanthemum or bo lai. In other restaurants, however, they simply serve a generic or 'house' tea. Each person should take turns to serve tea for everybody, filling their own cups last. If you'd like your pot refilled, simply open the lid and leave it hanging at the side of the pot - your waiter will notice soon enough.
The dim sum at yum cha are served on small plates or in tiny steamer baskets from trolleys wheeled about the restaurants by waiting staff. Diners simply choose from the dishes on offer, although most yum cha restaurants also take requests.
Novice yum cha-ers might be tempted to fill the table from the first trolley that shows up. Take your time - enjoy a dish, drink some tea, and talk. The trolley will be back before you know it, your food will always be hot, and you won't experience the embarrassment of finding yourself full with half a dozen baskets full of food sitting in front of you!
In some restaurants, the plates and baskets remain on the table. When the diner is finished, they cross their chopsticks across their plate, and the waiter will examine the plates and baskets and tally the bill. In most restaurants, however, the waiter will make a mark on a ticket as the diner takes each dish, indicating the cost of the dish. At the end of the meal, the diner presents the ticket to the cashier, who will tally up the marks for the final bill.
Be sure to try at least one new dish when you yum cha. Be adventurous - instead of the usual steamed pork bun or prawn dumplings, try chewy sticky chicken's feet, or crunchy jellyfish!
Always remember - yum cha is about drinking tea, not pigging out on spring rolls. It's a social occasion, and it's hard to talk if your mouth is always full!