To the non-Cantonese, yum cha may as well be the literal description of this family-favourite Sunday ritual.
First there is the yum: delicious, tantalising, bite-sized morsels of heart-warming goodness glistening on plates, sizzling on griddles or hiding in the sauna'd comfort of stacked bamboo steamers.
Then there is the cha-cha of dimsum trolleys as they weave their way through packed tables, teapot-wielding waiters and the inevitable scurry of giggling hyperactive children underfoot.
Of course yum cha simply translates as "drink tea" but as any afficianado knows, this is more than just liquid refreshment. It is the opportunity to while away a couple of hours on a lazy Sunday morning, catching up with friends over a smorgasboard of dainty treats amidst the clattering din of 200 other Sydneysiders with the exact same idea.
Last week a couple of us hosted our second Sydney foodbloggers yum cha. Our first one had been held in February, only six months ago, but that's like, almost a lifetime in the blogsophere!
Sydney foodbloggers now number a hefty ten although I'm sure there are more I am about to discover. However due to an unfortunate clash of football fixtures, viral victims, work ogres, sibling birthdays and detox intentions, we ended up with just three hungry foodbloggers ready for camera-clickin' action at 10.30am on a Sunday morning.
Reviewing our yum cha options, we succumb to refined favourite East Ocean. The three of us had had yum cha at Dragon Star only a month before, and Saffron had yet to sample East Ocean goodness.
Ngao zhap (combination beef tripe)
There was a funny moment when our first dish arrived at our table (har gao wouldn't you believe! Last time we had to harangue every passing trolley lady for over an hour before we managed to track down some fat and juicy steamed prawn dumplings. This time they arrived first-up).
Me: I'm really tired. I don't think I can be bothered to take photos.
Pinkcocoa: Me too. I'm tired.
Saffron: I'm only going to take photos of the dishes I don't already have photos of.
Me: (as I remove camera from my bag) Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I mean, I've already posted on East Ocean's yum cha before.
Pinkcocoa: (as she snaps a quick photo) I took all the photos last time.
Me: (as I take a photo) It's too much effort.
Saffron: (as she rotates the dish for a better camera angle) Yeah. I know.
Me: (as I rotate the dish again) Let me just take another quick photo. I won't be long I promise.
Once a food blogger, always a food blogger.
And then wouldn't you know, but my har gao (prawn dumpling) and gow choi gao (garlic chive dumpling) photos somehow don't appear on my memory card later when I download onto the computer. But that's ok. Plenty more where they came from.
Ham soi gok (combination dumpling)
Saffron's eyes light up when the ham soi gok appear. As do mine of course. It's all I can do to stop myself from hurling my body into the trolley's oncoming path lest our table is passed on by and denied such addictive pleasure.
I smother mine with chilli sauce before biting into it with baited breath. Oh yes. Yesss. Freshly fried. Golden crunchy shell. Sticky-cooked tackiness of the starchy interior. Yeah babeeeee.
We unanimously agree that these are better than the ones at Dragon Star. They're firmer in structure, and the filling is more meaty and with tastier bits of dried shrimp.
"But they're smaller," Saffron frowns. I pout in knowing empathy.
The gow choi gao (garlic chive) dumplings are also better here. More chives. On the other hand, the har gao prawn dumplings are deemed inferior to Dragon Star. "The prawns are chopped up. And the whole dumpling is... smaller," Saffron notes.
We also deem the ngao zhap (combination beef tripe) to be a little chewier here, and not as tasty nor tender as Dragon Star.
Amusingly, the "smaller" theme continues throughout the rest of our yum cha and it's true. The sizzling hotplate carts (what Saffron called the yum cha chariots at Dragonstar) are smaller here. The daan tart custard tarts are smaller. "Even the waitresses are smaller", Saffron whispers, as we notice the whippet thin trolley pushers. "And younger too."
Deep-fried whitebait with chilli and shallots
It's deep-fried. Mmm.
We all peck at the plate of deep-fried whitebait with gusto. Like a bag of hot chips which tastes better shared, the whitebait is light, crisp and terribly addictive. And unlike anchovies, which have a more-than-subtle reminder of their boney skeletons as they slide down the throat, these lil critters get munched down with ease. In spite of their curious staring eyes.
Eat me! Eat me!
I am almost hypnotised as I look into their eyes. My brain wills my chopstick to move... towards the plate and grab a extra slice of chilli with that little fritter. And the leftover fried bits don't get wasted. I hasten to gobble them down with my darting chopsticks before the plate is whisked away by an efficient waiter. Waste not, want not, I say.
Fung jao (literally Phoenix claw, or, non-poetically, chicken feet)
Fung jao or chicken feet are another must-have at yum cha. I'm sure that chicken feet seem to have gotten sweet and milder in Sydney. Gone are the days when they were a stronger brown colour with visible bits of black bean and a noticeable chilli kick. These days they're almost too sweet.
A family favourite of ours has always been the har cheung fun, slippery long rice noodle sheets enrobing three whole plump prawns and doused in a pool of sweetened soy. I remember when I first spied cheung fun (rice noodles) with yow zha gui (deep-fried bread batons) inside. Steamed and fried? Ew, I remember thinking. That's just gross. But conversations with others had confirmed my worst fears: it was good. Really good.
So as the har cheung lady approached, I explained this as-yet unfulfilled taste sensation to Pinkcocoa. "Oh yes," she confirmed. "It's delicious. The deep-fried bread doesn't go soggy at all."
We end up having to place a "special order" for this dish (the cheung fun lady doesn't have any left on her trolley) and after an excruciating five-minute wait, it arrives with a flourish on our table.
Cheung fun with yow zha gui (long rice noodles with deep-fried bread)
Oh boy is it good. Somehow, I don't know how, the yow zha gui is as crisp and crunchy as if it had just left the deep-fryer. It would appear that after its delightful swim in a vast expanse of shimmering hot oil, it has wrapped a silky towel of rice noodle around its rock hard body (oh god, this really is food porn!) and presented itself on our table decorated with chopped shallots and a splash of soy aftershave (and don't get me started on the phallic symbolism!).
I'm converted. I'm sure it doesn't get any better than this, with our order whisked with speed from the kitchen (do they steam the rice noodle separately and then wrap the baton? or do they wrap the baton and then steam it?). Regardless, the yow zha gui is so crunchy deep-fried my eyes almost roll to the back of my head (easy there, tiger). And the rice noodle sheet is slippery smooth and hell-yeah sexy (Enough enough. I need a glass of cold water. Now!)
We are so full we have no room for the usually-mandatory pai gwut (pork ribs). But we do have room for dessert--which has actually been sitting on our table for over an hour as we had nabbed it like starving foodbloggers who like to pre-plan their dessert lest we *shriek* miss out later on.
Say may (sago pudding)
Unlike Western versions of sago pudding, Chinese sago pudding is rich and eggy. After cooking the sago pearls in water, they are then mixed into a sweet coconut milk and custard mixture before baking in the oven until golden brown on top.
For some reason, sago pudding in Sydney has also morphed lately with the addition of a sweet peanut filling to the centre (it never had peanuts when we were kids!).
Saffron had deliberately chosen the sago pudding with the brownest crust (at my insistence) and the crust offers a sticky but futile resistance to our probing spoons. The sago pudding is sweet and satisfying, although we agree it would have been much nicer had we consumed it whilst it was still warm.
The bill comes to $18 each which is fairly good value, although Pinkcocoa laments that "East Ocean used to be lot cheaper before they did their renovations".
As we make our way towards the exit, we pause in front of the dumpling lady in the glassed open kitchen to admire her deft handiwork with a mound of dough, a piece of dowel, and faster-than-lightning fingers. She looks puzzled but bemused by Saffron's advancing camera.
We edge our way through the hordes of hungry punters queuing down the stairs waiting for a table. They all look exhausted with hunger, irritated and impatient. I smile to myself as I pat my full but smug belly with glee.
Entry either from
421-429 Sussex St or
86-88 Dixon St, Haymarket, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9212 4198
Related GrabYourFork posts:
East Ocean dinner, Feburary 2005
East Ocean dinner, April 2006
East Ocean yum cha, October 2004
Yumcha with foodbloggers
East Ocean yumcha with Sydney bloggers, February 2005
Dragon Star yumcha with Saffron and Pinkcocoa, July 2005
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8/27/2005 11:50:00 p.m.