Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Yum Cha… Tea Lunch… Dim Sum…
This meal took place right before the COVID-19 restrictions in New York City.
I went back to visit the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown; a yum cha emporium dating back to the 1920s. I was introduced to it 50 years ago when I first came to New York and every few years I return in the hope that they will be serving better variety and quality of dim sum. It used to be considered as an inexpensive alternative to more elaborate establishments, like the Golden Unicorn. Unfortunately, though a young owner has taken over and the restaurant has been refurbished, the food is still mostly mediocre though the prices have risen considerably and are no longer geared towards humble budgets.
Dim sum, are mostly bite sized steamed buns and dumplings (baozi) traditionally served as fully cooked, ready-to-serve small dishes that contain 4 to 5 steamed pieces or 1, 2 or 3 fried or baked tidbits. In traditional Cantonese- and Hong Kong- styled teahouses, carts with dim sum circulate around the restaurant for diners to pick up dishes; though at Nom Wah, that has never been the case. Traditional NYC dim sum restaurants typically serve dim sum from lunchtime until mid-afternoon; many dim sum restaurants in Taipei and Shanghai are open from morning to midnight. The food is consumed along with copious cups of fragrant tea – numerous green, black or floral teas are available. Yum cha in Cantonese means “drink tea”; in other parts of the world with large Chinese communities the meal is known as a tea lunch.
The dim sum tradition has its roots in travel on the Silk Road, where teahouses along with caravan serais were established along the roadside for travelers in need of a place to eat and a space for sleep or a respite from the long journey. During my most recent travels through Thailand, in addition to many yum cha restaurants in Bangkok's Chinatown I also found numerous roadside dim sum stands en route from Krebi to Phuket serving travelers from about 10 am to about 6 pm.
Some of the traditional dishes served during tea lunch are steamed or deep fried wonton; soup dumplings (xiaolombao); char-siu-bao (fluffy steamed buns stuffed with braised roast pork) or baked sweet pork buns; steamed bean curd skin rolls; braised chicken feet; pork, chicken or shrimp sui mai; pea shoot dumplings; shrimp rice noodle rolls and braised tripe amongst many other delicacies. I know it’s an acquired taste but I love tea lunch with a number of friends so that everyone has a chance to taste at least one tidbit of each dish and wash it down with jasmine, chrysanthemum or an aromatic black tea.
To connect with the Nom Wah Tea Parlor
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