A bustling yum cha brunch is a Cantonese ritual Australians have happily borrowed and made our own. In the Cantonese-speaking regions of China, family get-togethers and milestones have been celebrated with feasts of dim sum for more than a century.
“Essentially, yum cha is small snacks taken with tea,” says Spice Temple executive chef Andy Evans. If you drink beer with yum cha, he says, there’s a very good chance you’re Australian. Traditionally, it’s tea that’s central to a yum cha meal – yum cha literally translates as “drink tea”. Washing down a yum cha brunch with good quality tea aids with digestion and is arguably a more suitable pre-midday beverage than a lager.
Spice Temple serves a range of teas with its yum cha banquet. The two most popular are West Lake Longjing, a renowned green tea that’s wonderfully fragrant and bright, and jasmine pearl, an incredibly light tea that “gets a little bitter at the end of the draw, which is really delicious,” says Evans.
There is no doubt the preparation of yum cha dishes is an art. The best yum cha, says Evans, is painstakingly prepared using sophisticated techniques. “There’s a lot of skill involved in the dumpling, wonton and spring roll wrappers, making sure they’re really thin and their fillings are really nice and light and crunchy, and you can taste prawn and scallop and pork mince – it’s not a horrible paste.”
At Spice Temple, table service takes the place of trolleys during the new yum cha lunch banquet ($59 per person) – the dining space was deemed too cosy and dimly lit to accommodate jostling carts laden with hot food – but the spirit and philosophy of yum cha take centre stage. The menu features a small selection of dishes that the kitchen executes with reliable excellence. “We try to keep it small, but do it really well,” says Evans.
Evans nominates his five essential yum cha dishes for Broadsheet.
Har gao’ steamed prawn dumplings
Har gao’ is the yardstick by which yum cha restaurants are measured. “If you have a really good har gao’ – it’s light, the skin is translucent and delicious, you can taste the prawn – that’s when you know you’re in for something special,” says Evans. “If it’s really thick and heavy and the prawn is a paste on the inside, I’d ask for the bill.”
White cut chicken with ginger and shallot dressing
An unpretentious dish that’s free from chilli, Evans says the white cut chicken with ginger and shallot works well for breakfast. “It’s good first thing in the morning if you’re feeling a little bit precious,” he says.
At Spice Temple the chicken breast is cooked in white master stock in a wok and then shredded. For the dressing, Evans mixes ginger juice, shallots, a little bit of white sugar, some vinegar and white pepper. “It’s very simple but deliciously tasty,” he says.
Crystal vegetable dumplings
No meal is complete without a serve of vegetables – especially when they come in the form of delicious dumplings. The crystal dumplings are so named for their transparent wrappers. “It’s a very difficult dough to make,” says Evans. Boiling water is added to potato starch, and the mixture is stirred until it thickens. Excess water is poured off, and the dough is rolled “right there and then with a special technique,” he says.
The dumplings can be filled with any ingredients. At Spice Temple, crystal dumplings are filled with shiitake mushrooms, garlic stems, abalone mushrooms and some carrot. “They’re vegan, which pleases quite a few folks,” says Evans.
Spice-fried chicken wings with heaven-facing chillies
If you’re not into chicken feet – a Chinatown staple – chicken wings are a worthy replacement, says Evans.
And Spice Temple’s chicken wings are pretty special, even if Evans does say so himself. “They’re deliciously salty and crunchy – they’re steeped in red master stock for a long time, and they’re double-floured and fried and tossed in heaven-facing chilli and lemon juice,” he says. “I think they’re the best wings in Australia.”
Fried salt and pepper silken tofu with spicy coriander salad
Silken tofu is drenched in Szechuan salt and pepper and then fried to create a vegetarian-friendly dish with a punch of spicy flavours. “I make a little dressing out of salted chilli and some coriander,” says Evans. “If I didn’t feel like chilli in the morning, I’d have pork and garlic chive steam buns.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Rockpool Dining Group.