We all have a must order dim sum that comes to mind straight away. We will take you through how dim sum and the traditional Chinese brunch was born.

In traditional Chinese brunch (Zaocha), the word ‘cha’ means tea, which means Zaocha is closely associated with tea. China has a long-standing tradition of tea drinking that dates back thousands of years, and the systematic tea culture flourished during the Tang Dynasty and reached its peak during the Song Dynasty.

The tea rooms during the Song Dynasty provided tea snacks and meals, along with additional functions such as retail, entertainment, and employment opportunities, making them comprehensive social gathering places.

Most of the tea drinkers at that time were lower-class labourers who woke up early to go to the market. Tea was primarily sold by itinerant tea stalls or mobile tea vendors carrying tea flasks, far different from what we now recognise as ‘Zaocha’

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Yangzhou, as the centre of salt administration, accumulated immense wealth. The salt merchants then became frequent patrons of tearooms.

Although the common people at that time couldn’t afford expensive and precious ingredients, they brought intricate culinary techniques, giving rise to the ceremonious Yangzhou Zaocha.

In the late Qing Dynasty, during the reign of Emperor Daoguang, the salt administration was reformed, leading to the decline of the salt merchants’ fortunes in Lianghuai. Yangzhou lost its reputation as the wealthiest city in the world. However, the culture of Zaocha has been preserved and passed down intact to this day.

Since Emperor Zhu Di, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty, moved the capital to Beijing, the tea-drinking culture has spread northward along Beijing. These tea rooms began offering various commercial performances such as storytelling and opera. Of course, a variety of food was also indispensable. 

One popular tea snack is the steamed bun. The steamed buns are similar to the crab shell-shaped Xiaolongbao in Suzhou. They are about the size of a walnut, with a round and plump appearance, and are filled with various sweet or savoury fillings such as scallion oil, osmanthus sugar, or red bean paste. 

steamed bun
steamed bun

However, during the late Qing Dynasty, the influence of the banner soldiers declined, and after the Xinhai Revolution, society underwent even more turbulent changes. Consequently, the teahouses gradually declined, and the tradition of old Beijing morning tea slowly disappeared into the depths of history.

The renowned dim sum in Guangzhou today still has some connections with the tea rooms in Beijing. However, the tea rooms in Guangzhou at that time were merely simple imitations of the ones in Beijing.

In the mid-Qianlong period, Guangzhou became the sole customs port and trading hub for the Qing court. Tea from all over the country flowed into Guangzhou and was then exported worldwide.

As a result, the price of local tea in Guangzhou decreased, making it affordable for everyone. The tea-drinking culture gradually became popular, and the tea rooms are populated In the early Republic of China period.

With the increasing number of tea rooms, the competition between them became intense. The variety of dim sum exploded from a few dozen to over a thousand at the time. The four must-order dim sums are, prawn dumplings, siu mai, BBQ pork buns, and egg tarts.

siu mai
siu mai

During the early days of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, tea rooms gradually declined and even temporarily ceased to exist. However, in Hong Kong, as well as in Cantonese restaurants and restaurants in “Chinatowns” around the world, the culture of Guangzhou dim sum was fully preserved and gradually flourished.

After the reform, this dining custom was brought back to South China by overseas Chinese and experienced a revival nationwide. It also absorbed the characteristics of different snacks from various regions, forming a new, vibrant and popular Chinese brunch culture.