A look at the cultural and historical importance of the Chinese teahouse and dim sum. Submitted as an essay for Principles of Gastronomy, Master of Gastronomic Tourism degree, Le Cordon Bleu March 1st 2013.
“The stuffed dumpling, humble as it may seem, is a dish with a
fascinating history going back many centuries and
interwoven into the cuisines of a number of countries.”[i]
The art of stuffed noodles dates back to the days of Marco Polo and his family, who were Venetian travellers that journeyed toward Constantinople. However a war blocked their return, so they travelled eastward and reached the eastern capital Kaifeng, Shangdu in C.1266. This was the summer capital residence of the great emperor of China, Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis Khan.
The Emperor became interested in stories of the native land of the merchants; thus, he sent the Polos back to the Pope as his ambassadors with messages of peace and interest in converting areas of China to Christianity.[ii]
So delighted by Marco Polo’s brilliance including his language skills, demeanour and intellect, Kublai Khan officially made him a member of his court by way of an observer and sent him off to travel to other regions and outposts to document his impressions and report back to the court. When Marco Polo finally returned home to Italy, he shared the secrets of the dim sum with Italy, which contributed greatly to the development of filled pasta.
In The New York Times Food Encylopedia, Craig Claiborne ponders the question. “Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how the two cuisines are related?”. He then goes on to declare “what cook travelled the roads from Canton, or wherever, to the Irtysh River in the cold plateaus of Siberia, bringing with him the goodness of filled pasta?”[iii]
In Chinese cuisine dumplings belong to the dim sum family. Dim sum is pronounced dian xin in Mandarin, being loosely translated as “to dot the heart” or ‘heart’s delight’ – it is part of the Chinese tradition of xiao chi (snacks).
Dim sum originated during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). This was “a time of plenty”[v] when a large tea house could offer a vast display of over a thousand dim sum varieties to choose from, starting from early morning through until the mid afternoon – a custom that is still vibrantly active today throughout China and South-East Asia and capital cities in the West. It was during this era that dining at the table – as opposed to the floor – became de rigueur amongst the high society, reflecting the dynastic era of peace and prosperity.
The Song Dynasty also gave rise to one of China’s most important regional cuisines – Szechuan (Sichuan) – a distinctive style of cooking from the southwest province. The namesake pepper is characterised by a dry heat, however just a third of the cuisine comprises of the hot stuff. What I find fascinating is the introduction of tea being used to smoked food – in particular duck – to create a harmonious blend of delicate flavours and not spicy at all. The rise of the teahouse during this time hallmarks a legacy that is celebrated to this day – more so in the East. On my recent visit to Singapore, for example, I was delighted to see numerous tea salons, in particular the luxurious TWG brand, opened in malls and shopping centres throughout the city.
During the Song Dynasty, teahouses were already enjoying immense popularity as a place to convene and discuss the day’s events – just as cafes are today – and a place to exchange ideas. These were also places enjoyed by bird fanciers, one of Chinese people’s continuing favourite pastimes. Tea became not just a commodity, but an esteemed gift often bestowed by the emperor of the dynasty to show his gratitude to worthy people in his court.
The Manchurian era of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) witnessed teahouses becoming an official place for governmental matters to be discussed and thus the status of the local teahouse rose. The technology of tea production became more advanced and improved methods were employed to enhance the flavour, which, in turn increased the popularity of the drink and generated more teahouses across the country.
Initially the verb dim sum described “to eat a little something”[vi], yet it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century in Guangzou that Cantonese dim sum culture began in tearooms as a result of the ban on opium dens which had been popular and a cultural and recreational mainstay.
According to Australia’s favourite Chinese chef, author and television presenter Elizabeth Chong[vii] “the dim sum tradition dates back to the tenth century and the beginning of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), an age of relative peace.”[viii] In her beautiful book The Heritage of Chinese Cooking she provides an exquisite display of dim sum amongst many other regional highlights. I attended a small private dinner for the launch of this book in 1993 at the Mask of China restaurant in Melbourne’s Chinatown. This restaurant was famed for its Chiu Chow cuisine and served kwun yum tea on arrival.
Also known as Teochew cuisine, the style originated from a province east of Guangdong, in the port district called Shantou[ix] and can be characterised by poached, steamed and braised dishes. A signature pastry is the Scallion cake, delicate round morsels usually comprising chicken, bamboo shoots and shrimp, pinched together in about 12 pleats. Elizabeth Chong notes that despite the traditional Cantonese heritage of the region, the people are “strongly independent” and a typical meal begins with a miniature cup of iron kwun yum tea “which is so potent that more than two tiny cupfuls can cause heart palpitations”.
Incidentally, Elizabeth’s father William Wing Young is believed to have created the first Aussie style dim sim, in 1945 at his Melbourne restaurant “Wing Lees”. Although technically not regarded as an Australian food, the iconic dim sim, whether it be steamed or fried is an essential part of our culture. A modern day tradition that can accompany a box of fish and chips makes up part of the old school fast food in this country. Long before we invited McDonalds onto our land, the after school hangout at the local fish ‘n’ chip shop cut its own definitive path toward a satisfying snack. Chiko Rolls, loosely based on the Chinese spring roll still roll out today – albeit that they seem smaller than I recall) and everyone loves a good dimmy in this country!
The ever-popular spring roll also comes from the Song Dynasty. Its shape believed to have been created as a sign of respect to abundant commodity that the silk trade provided. Worms that resemble a roll make the luxurious silk.
If dumplings are the food that can touch the heart of the nation, then tea is the mirror of China’s soul.[x] Chinese legend has it that tea originated in the Sichuan Province. It is believed that the fifth reincarnation of Buddha, Ta Mo had been meditating for years on when he eventually fell asleep. Upon wakening, he was so angry that he had failed his meditative duty that he sliced off his eyelids. The prosperous Sichuan soil embraced the heavenly donation by taking root and sprouting into the tea bush.
Teahouses are as important to the Sichuanese as pubs are to the British”[xi]
Similarly, in Japanese mythology, tea originated with Daruma, who was the founder of Zen Buddhism. Known as the “White Buddha” by the Chinese, he was given sanctuary in a Chinese cave temple where he meditated for nine years before falling asleep. Daruma was so devastated that he, too, cut off his eyelids to prevent it from ever occurring again. Where his eyelids fell, leaves grew that could banish sleep. Today, green tea leaves still resemble the shape of the Buddha’s offending eyelids.[xii]
The Cha Ching or The Classic of Tea was the first definitive book on the subject. The scholar Lu Yu after he spent over twenty years studying the subject wrote it in 780, during the middle of the Tang Dynasty. The custom of drinking tea became a tradition during this era. In the modern day The Classic of Tea remains a leading authority.
By 1820 thousands of tons of tea were being imported to Europe each year – about 30 million pounds being consumed by the UK.[xiii] This tea all came across from the coastal city of Canton, China, however tea purveyors were forbidden from knowing the origin, agriculture or cultivation details of the commodity they so fiercely traded.
“History’s joke on Europe is that for nearly two centuries a commodity was imported halfway across the world, and that a huge industry grew up involving as much as 5 percent of England’s entire gross domestic product, and yet no one knew anything about how tea was grown, prepared or blended.”[xiv]
When the Chinese ventured west in their “huge sailing ships with red silk sails”[xv] they soon became dispassionate about what their wester neighbours had to offer. As Linda Civitello notes, “China’s rulers would remain agrarian, that farming, not business, was the way to prosperity and a life of harmony” and so Kublai Khan “decreed that only one city would remain open to trade … Canton to the British and Guangzhou to the Chinese”.
Tea leaves are green when harvested, and turn black after the fermentation process has occurred. Oolong teas have a short fermentation period, whereas black tea has been oxidised at length. Japanese green tea leaves are harvested up to three times per year commencing in April, and the youngest leaves are considered the finest quality. After harvesting, the leaves are then steamed which inhibits oxidation, therefore preserving the unique colour, flavour and enzymes.
Japanese monks were so impressed by this Chinese delicacy and they are believed to have introduced powdered tea hiki-cha to Japan when they returned from China at the end of the sixth century. Tea soon took on a religious aura and was revered as a gift from Heaven. Tea was elevated to an art form in Japan and the tradition of the tea ceremony was born requiring years of dedicated practice. The Chinese, however, continue prefer to enjoy their tea as communal enjoyment and festivity to be shared with friends and family at meals and when entertaining guests.
The healing properties of green tea have been well documented for thousands of years. From a contemporary nutritional perspective, tea contains natural polyphenols, a powerful group of antioxidants known as catechins, whose major task is to scavenge pro-oxidants and free radicals. The predominant and most active catechin in green tea is Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG). This catechin is over 200 times more powerful than vitamin E in neutralising the pro-oxidants and free radicals.[xvi]
The evolution of dim sum has been a constant example of stability throughout imperial China. Like much of Chinese cuisine, the dim sum somehow managed to survive the anti-imperialist, communist domination of Chairman Mao Tse-tung (December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976) and the Great Chinese Famine of 1958–1962 where an estimated 45 million people died.[xvii]
The art of “taking tea” – yum cha – and eating dim sum continue to be culinary icons of the East as China marches into the new millennium. The startling custom of throwing unwanted tea across a tablecloth once the diners have departed the table is still practiced in restaurants today. Its purpose is to remove stains, however the tradition of tea and dumplings continues to leave an indelible mark along this fascinating food pathway.
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Claiborne, C, 1985. The New York Times Food Encylopedia. 1st ed. New York: Times Books.
Chong, E, 1993. The heritage of Chinese cooking. 1st ed. Sydney: Weldon Russell.
Solomon, C, 1992. The complete Asian cookbook. 2nd ed. Smithfield, NSW: Gary Allen Pty Ltd.
Kwong, K, 2007. My China. 1st ed. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Group (Australia).
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Yu, L, 1995. The Classic of Tea: Origins & Rituals. Edition. Ecco Press.
McKenna, T, 1993. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution. Reprint Edition. Bantam.
Sachs, P, 1996. On Tea and Healthy Living. Edition. Allen & Unwin.
Chang, J. 1991, Wild Swans. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Elisabeth Rozin, 1992. Blue Corn And Chocolate (Knopf Cooks American Series). 1 Edition. Knopf.