Chinese Corner

At Dim Sum, Don’t Forget the Tea5 min read

Rosalyn Shih tells us what to pair with the classic Cantonese cuisine

When Hong Kong locals invite you out, they never say, “Let’s go for a beer.” Instead they “treat you to drinking tea” (cing2 nei5 jam2 caa4 請你飲茶).What they really mean is that they’re taking you to dim sum (dim2 sam1 點心).

The Cantonese phrase jam2 caa4 飲茶 or “to drink tea” – not to be confused with the Mandarin phrase hē chá 喝茶, a euphemism for being interrogated by the police – is synonymous with having dim sum. Although Hong Kongers emulate the global cosmopolitan by preferring chilled water at Western restaurants, they still require lots of hot tea to help the BBQ pork buns go down and aid the digestion of fried spring rolls. There is probably nothing I associate more with Hong Kong than the smells of starchy tablecloths and the earthy brew of pou2 lei5 普洱 – commonly known by its Mandarin name pǔ’ěr – floating over the din of family friends enthusiastically shouting at each other across tables.

As soon as you sit down, a waiter will hurry over to take your order for tea. Whether you consume the tea or not, a per capita “tea money” (caa4 cin2 茶錢) will be added to the bill at the end, so you might as well decide for the table.

My family has a running joke about this scenario: A waiter sees a pretty woman who has arrived first to a table. Eager to make a move, he asks, with eyebrows dancing, if she would like to order pou lei, which sounds almost like he’s asking if he can give her a hug (pou5 lei5 抱你). Eyes rolling, the lady replies that she’d like narcissus tea (seoi2 sin1 水仙) instead. But what she really means is that she’d rather “die first” (sei2 sin1 死先).

To my family, the real laugh comes not from the punning, but from the fact that we too would rather die first than drink pou lei. The strong-tasting pu’er tea is beloved to older folks, including my uncle and his family. When we meet for dim sum, each of our two families orders their own preferred type of tea for the table. The white ceramic pots face each other like cannons. It falls upon the filial children to make sure the correct tea is poured into the elders’ cups.

In rough order of light to dark, here are some of the most common teas you can order at a dim sum restaurant. I’ve rated them from one to five tea leaves (🍃). You’ll find the recommendations highly subjective, so try a few next time you jam2 caa4 飲茶 and determine your own preferences:

🍃 Narcissus (seoi2 sin1 水仙) – When it comes to dining, I would also rather die first than pair dim sum with narcissus tea. Made from petals of the white narcissus flower, this tea is way too light to hold its own at the greasy dim sum table. 

🍃Chrysanthemum (guk1 faa1 caa4 菊花茶) – Chrysanthemum is herbal tea made from flower petals that is also rather light. Both teas are an acceptable alternative if you are highly sensitive to caffeine or if you suffer from “internal heat”. In fancy restaurants they may also give you rock sugar to dissolve in your chrysanthemum tea.

🍃🍃Dragon Well (Lung4 Zeng2 龍井) – Is Dragon Well ever ordered at dim sum? My gut tells me that this high-grade pan-roasted green tea, picked near West Lake in Hangzhou, is far too refined to go with informal snacks rolled out to your table on a cart. Dragon Well is known among tea connoisseurs for its beautiful, vertically floating strands like thick pine needles, but I find their hovering presence a bit intrusive for my taste.

🍃🍃🍃🍃 Jasmine (hoeng1 pin3 香片) – Also known as mut6 lei6 faa1 caa4 茉莉花茶, this is one of the more labor-intensive teas to produce. Green tea is continuously mixed with jasmine flower petals during the drying process, giving it a beautiful scent and flavor. If you prefer herbal teas like chrysanthemum, I would move you on to jasmine instead.

🍃🍃🍃🍃Sau mei (sau6 mei4 壽眉) – The name of this tea evokes the image of a white-bearded elder from scroll paintings, his snowy eyebrows so long that they hang from the side of his face. This is an excellent tea. Not as strong as Iron Bodhisattva, but it has a similar, complex oolong taste and is crisper and lighter.

🍃🍃🍃🍃🍃 Iron Bodhisattva (tit3 Gun1 Jam1 鐵觀音) – Iron Bodhisattva, named after the Goddess of Mercy, has got to be the king – nay, queen – of teas. As it’s only partially fermented (an oxidization process that makes a tea more “black”) this oolong tea has the depth to go with dim sum, but is refreshing at the same time. A beautiful chestnut color, it is the perfect palate cleanser between bites of phoenix claw (chicken’s feet) and pork bun.

🍃 Pou lei (pou2 lei5 普洱) – As much as I enjoy maligning this option, there is plenty of great pou lei out there, and it’s easily one of the more popular teas at dim sum. It comes in two forms: suk6 熟, fermented, and saang1 生, “raw”. Like a good wine, pou lei improves with time. A 40-year-old pou lei cake, like the kind that has been oxidized along the journey from the Tea Caravan Trade Route, is about as priceless as it gets. Fermenting pou lei artificially speeds up this process, allowing the tea to darken in color and gain complexity in taste. Order pou lei at a Cantonese restaurant, and you will get this cheaper fermented kind that packs maximum effect in a tiny cup. It will taste as strong as muddy water but as deep as a puddle. Leave the tea steeping for longer than a minute, and it will turn black. Enjoy a good pou lei at home, but not at dim sum!

N/A Black tea (hung4 caa4 紅茶) – Trick answer! Hong cha or “red tea” – what in English speakers would call “black tea” – isn’t typically an option at dim sum restaurants. But head over to that Western-Cantonese fusion that is the Hong Kong “tea cafe” (caa4 caan1 teng1 茶餐厅) and you’ll find it combined with condensed milk and sugar to produce the world-famous Hong Kong-style milk tea (Gong2 sik1 laai5 caa4 港式奶茶 ). ∎

Header image: Dim sum at Yangtze in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (Pockfwye).

Rosalyn Shih

Rosalyn Shih works in education and is co-founder of Beijing Contact Improvisation. She lives in Kunming, is a member of the Hong Kong Writers Circle and has contributed to the anthologies Hong Kong Future Perfect and HK24.