Cantonese morning tea, or zao cha (zao meaning morning and cha meaning tea) is a beautiful tradition in the Southern lying areas of China, forming an essential part of local daily life. Whether it be drinking a cup of refreshing oolong tea with family or sitting down together with friends, the culture of drinking tea is almost sacred in China. Locals believe that tea drinking is a way to calm the nerves, enhance self-preservation and even help the body heal whilst providing some time to relax before the hustle and bustle of the busy day ahead begins.
Traditionally, the morning tea ceremony involves ordering a pot of black tea and at least two different kinds of dim sum or other steamed dishes. It is common to use either oolong, tieguanyin or pu’er tea leaves and it is believed that bitter black tea helps to aid digestion and rejuvenate the body. These tea leaves are also thought to pair best with the small savory dishes usually ordered. The serving of tea is usually done in the sweetest looking tea sets, served with boiling water and tea leaves on the side that still need to be brewed. In some traditional morning tea establishments, the waitress will take the time to brew and strain the leaves for you.
Dainty snacks form a significant part of morning tea as well. These consist of dumplings, steamed buns, glutinous rice, sago-like porridge (better known as congee), bean curd, egg tarts and egg-fried pancakes. Some are delicious while others take a little getting used to. Waiters walk around pushing a morning dim sum cart filled with dozens of small bamboo steamers, stacked on top of each other. Each bamboo steamer holds a different dish. Stop the cart, take a look inside and pick what you like!
Commonly eaten foods during a Cantonese morning tea ceremony:
Steamed shrimp dumplings: this is a morning tea staple and consists of full and fresh shrimp mixed together with ground pork and diced bamboo shoots. The filling is wrapped in wheat starch which becomes translucent after steaming.
Shrimp shaomai: a filling of pork and shrimp wrapped in a thin golden colored wheat wrapper and usually topped with crab roe.
Phoenix claws in bean sauce: chicken feet that is fried, dried, steeped in water and steamed to make them plump and juicy. All covered in a bean sauce.
Steamed buns with barbecued pork (char siu bao): small pieces of barbecued pork, flavored with oyster sauce and stuffed in a white bun. The tops are slit open to let out any steam and a glimpse of the delicious filling inside (one of my favorites!).
Custard buns: large round and fluffy on the outside (very similar to steamed buns) but instead contain a semi-liquid like custard fulling.
Egg tarts: crispy crust filled with a sweet inner. Similar to a custard filling but a little more egg-like in consistency.
Congee: also known as a grain like porridge with a broth. This is a staple breakfast of many locals. The broth is usually made by soaking fish or pork bones. Some congee may contain additional ingredients like egg, shrimp or crab meat.
The culture of sitting down for morning tea and delicious dim sum forms a tradition that is typical to the Guangdong Province. One of the things I quickly learnt while traveling through China was that cultures and traditions differ from city to city. Things common to the South are not done in the North and that includes the way of speaking too!