Gifs by Mario Chui
Mustached peanut buns, bird-shaped pineapple puffs, vomiting custard buns. With these cutesified twists on dim sum, the head chef at Yum Cha hopes to bring the traditional Cantonese cuisine style to the Instagram generation.
Yum Cha is the Cantonese phrase for “to drink tea,” and also refers to the Cantonese brunch style of serving dim sum and tea. Traditionally, folks gather for yum cha on a weekend, nibbling at goodies like har gow and siu mai dumplings.
But Yum Cha’s whimsical style is drawing a much trendier crowd. Its humor is pretty cheeky too—think barbecue pork buns shaped like pigs, and hot dog rolls looking like puppies.
“We live in a new era, where the entire world can see your creations on the internet,” says 34-year-old Winson Yip, the head dim sum chef of Yum Cha. “Before, dim sum chefs were more focused on the ingredients and not necessarily the presentation. Today, both ingredients and presentation are important.”
Fun doesn’t mean unserious food. Yip is a formally trained dim sum chef, educated at the Chinese Culinary Institute in Hong Kong. It’s the largest culinary trade school in the city, which churns out upwards of 1,500 students a year.
“I was taught the about the foundations of Chinese cooking there,” he says. “In the end, I chose to specialize in dim sum because it gives me an outlet to be creative.”
Yip represents a new wave of chefs who are changing the way dim sum is made and at Yum Cha, he’s given the license and space to flex his imagination. “I’ve always been inspired by the Japanese aesthetic, which is where I derive my inspiration,” he says.
His creations are heavily influenced by the Japanese animations of the 80s and 90s, which he continues to watch to this day.
“My favorite [cartoon] is Dr Slump,” he says, referring to a Japanese manga series about an eccentric little girl robot in a rural island town. “I love sharing funny and memorable scenes from cartoons to my teammates and [am] inspired by the cartoon authors’ directions and ideas.
One of Yip’s more famous creations is a vomiting egg custard bun, which he admits was influenced by an emoji on the popular messaging service WhatsApp. He also regularly rolls out limited editions specials like goldfish-shaped dumplings, bunny buns for Easter, and snowmen buns for Christmas.
It’s clear that in an era where photogenic food is highly valued, Yip’s creativity is what sets him apart from the old guard chefs of yesteryear.
“I especially am happy when I see the older generation like my dim sum,” he says. “Dim sum should be interactive.”