What Is Yum Cha?

Soo Owens

Yum cha is a culinary and family tradition in China known as tea drinking. The word yum cha translates into English as "drink tea." The tradition can be ritualized, but it is not usually overly formal. Yum cha is typically undertaken while also partaking of dim sum. It is associated with the travelers of the Silk Road in ancient times.

Yum cha is associated with travelers on the Silk Road.
Yum cha is associated with travelers on the Silk Road.

The literal translation of yum cha into English is something like "drink tea" or "tea tasting." It refers to an activity that may or may not be ritualized, depending on the practitioners. Numerous Chinese families dedicate Sunday mornings and afternoons to tea drinking and typically spend this time with friends and family.

Though practitioners can drink tea by itself, in yum cha tea consumption is almost always accompanied by dim sum, which is a style of Cantonese-Chinese food. It is prepared and served on small plates, bowls, and in steamer baskets. The food itself is usually bite-sized and set out in individual portions.

To some Chinese, the activities of yum cha and eating dim sum are inseparable and always undertaken simultaneously. The menu for dim sum is extensive and usually includes various forms of dumplings, steamed buns, and other small dishes like rolls, cakes, and rice plates. Dumplings and bau can contain almost any kind of ingredient.

Yum cha is thought to predate dim sum and is believed to have originated along the Silk Road in ancient China. Farmers and travelers would be exhausted after a hard day's work and would seek out a place for relaxation. Tea houses were set up along the road to accommodate them. Although, initially, tea house owners were skeptical about combining food with the traditional beverage, once its positive effects on digestion were discovered, the owners began to serve small snacks and foods alongside tea.

There are specific customs and matters of etiquette that are observed during tea drinking. For example, an individual should not pour his or her tea first and should endeavor to pour tea for other people sitting at the table. The first person to pour the tea is usually thanked silently with a finger kowtow in which the drinker lightly taps or places two or three fingers from the same hand on the table.

This practice is explained in a Chinese folktale about the Qianlong emperor. According to this tale, the emperor, when traveling to South China incognito with some companions, visited a tea house on the road. To keep his identity from being revealed to others, he poured tea for his fellow travelers. The companions were moved but were unable to properly return the great honor that the emperor had just given them. To show their appreciation, the companions slightly bowed their heads and created the finger kowtow.

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