With the pressures of modern ordering systems and less restaurant floorspace, Britain’s Chinese dim sum restaurants are abandoning the traditional trolley service that sees small hot plates wheeled around dining rooms.
Photo via Flickr user Chris Goldberg
Growing up, every Sunday morning without fail, my parents would drag my arse out of bed and force my brothers and I to endure "quality family time." This inevitably meant yum cha, a traditional, weekly get-together taking place during prime Sunday brunch hours. Glutinous little plates of dim sum would be brought out to us slowly on clunky trolleys, and we'd spend hours drinking Chinese leaf tea at a snail's pace.
The Italians have antipasti, the Spanish have tapas, and us Asians, we have our dim sum.
But since these Sunday morning excursions of my childhood, time has not been kind to dim sum transporters. In recent years, many Chinese establishments serving dim sum within the UK and beyond have replaced their trolleys with simpler ordering systems or closed altogether.
There are many reasons behind the decline of the dim sum trolley, but two of the main culprits are rent and space. With extortionate property prices pushing many restaurateurs out of London's Chinatown, even long-established venues are being forced to adapt.
Gone are the days of eagerly awaiting carts filled with rich, calorific delights to whizz by and potlucking your desired dish without actually knowing what it was—often ending up with something that resembled that creepy guy's hand from Scary Movie (I'm looking at you, chicken feet.)
Gone too is Asian dim sum bingo, a game that challenged hungry customers to eat as many dishes as they could and awarded a wet, inky stamp for each conquest.
"Back in the day, there'd be queues around the block," remembers former dim sum trolley worker Wendy Cheung, who was employed by the now-closed Man Fu Kung dim sum restaurant in London's Leicester Square Chinatown. "People were so hungry that they wouldn't even care about sharing tables and [there was] an endless array of trolleys filled to the brim with dim sum coming in and out of the kitchen faster than you could say 'char sui bao.'"
The role of the dim sum trolley worker was back-breaking work, with long hours, early starts, and very little pay. It was an undesired role, usually carried out by the elderly or underage workers.
"We'd be up at 4 AM chopping, steaming, rolling, and stuffing for hours on end, preparing all the food ready for endless waves of customers," says Cheung. "By 6 AM, there'd already be a giant queue of people eagerly waiting for the first batch of fresh, hot steaming dim sum."
Back in the day, there'd be queues around the block. People were so hungry that they wouldn't even care about sharing tables and [there was] an endless array of trolleys filled to the brim with dim sum coming in and out of the kitchen.
Nowadays, restaurants that still operate using dim sum trolleys are damn near impossible to find within the UK. But why?
"It's simply because they're old, dated, and unhygienic," says Cheung. "It costs more to have workers operating them and restaurateurs need to accommodate more space than regular restaurants for trolleys to freely move around. What's more, these trolleys only provided a limited amount of food."
Running a restaurant in a central London location like Leicester Square often means compromising on space: something crucial for a successful trolley system to run.
"I can't imagine any of the restaurants here having enough room to wheel a fleet of trolleys around," agrees Birmingham-based Chinese food blogger Lap-fai Lee. "I actually prefer waitress service and dishes coming straight out of the kitchen. It's fresher and less chaotic."
Despite the pressures of space and changing customer attitudes towards trolleys of unidentified dishes careering around restaurant dining rooms, what may be the UK's sole-surviving dim sum cart establishment, New World in London's Chinatown, is convinced of the dining style's benefits.
"We pride ourselves being the only place in the UK that still uses these dim sum trolleys because they are the very thing that make yum cha so special, they're iconic," says manager Hang Zhou. "When you generally think of yum cha, you're reminded of these trolleys. We still operate using dim sum using carts because it's the traditional way of serving and we want to keep true to those traditional values."
While many of New World's fellow dim sum restaurants are either closing shop or modernising to dish out a product made onsite, Zhou insists that the carts are "what appeals the most to British customers as they're interested to learn and experience proper, authentic Chinese food."
As a dim sum purist, I can't help but mourn the passing of the bulky metal cart carefully weaving its way between tables, wafting delicious, steamy scents of pork, prawn, chicken, turnip, and noodles from stacks of steel and bamboo containers, occasionally running over small children's feet in its wake. If dim sum trolleys continue their descent into irrelevancy with modern British diners, yum cha may soon be just a tasty, hollowed-out har gau pastry shell of what it once truly was.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.