Ashfield’s Big Yum Cha is a suburban cultural food festival, one of the official festivals that is a part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival (SIFF). A festival within a festival, much like the layers of a Matryoshka doll.
The festival is a reverse yum cha of sorts, where it’s the people that move around while the food remains stationary.
As promising as a yum cha street festival may seem, there was much disappointment to be had.
When it comes to outdoor festivals, I can’t think of anyone that is a fan of the big wet.
It’s cold. It’s dreary. It forces you to deploy the old brolly, raincoat or improvised portable shelter. Though the Franciscan monk/ancient secret society/computer game assassin look is entirely optional.
What should not be optional are wet weather provisions for the festival itself.
The festival organisers seemingly dropped the ball on this one. It’s disheartening to see an open air stage and seating without a skerrick of cover, prone to the whims of the wet weather.
The stand umbrellas surrounding the seating, that serves little apparent purpose beyond decoration, are a cynical punch line to a perversely unfunny joke.
Stall vendors make do however they can. Some are prepared enough to provide their own rain cover, as the sheer fabric of the prefabricated stalls, once saturated, provide as much wet weather protection as a moist towelette, without the lemony-fresh scent.
The truly sad thing was that the above images of the empty stage and stalls were taken minutes and not hours before the official commencement of the festival.
It would be an hour or two before the stalls were properly populated and the festival’s entertainment hit the stage.
Having dispensed with the idea of enjoying brunch grazing on street food, the group decided to take shelter and stave off their growing hunger at Taste of Shanghai Restaurant, one of the many fine Chinese restaurants in the area.
Ashfield is almost synonymous with dumplings, so there was no question that there would at least be an order or two. In this instance, Shanghai Pan Fried Pork Buns ($9.80 for a serve of 8), which are fried variants to the xiao long bao soup dumplings.
Wood Ear Fungus with Wasabi was seemingly ordered to take the curse off an otherwise carb/meat/fat loaded meal. To make the meal more balanced, more healthy, more complete.
Who are we kidding…
The wood ear fungus was nice enough, if you’re into that sort of thing. However, the wasabi wasn’t at all discernible. If you have an issue with spiciness, don’t let the “wasabi” in this dish put you off.
On the opposite end of the health scale, the heart-stopping Prawns with Salted Egg Yolk, is salty, rich deep-fried goodness. Not quite as good as the ones at New Shanghai Restaurant across the road in my opinion, but still goodness all the same.
The favourite for me on the day was the Handmade Shallot Cake ($8.80 for 4 pieces).
I’m not sure if it’s the flaky, crispy-fried pastry, the subtle onion flavour that the shallots bring, the wet weather or a combination of the three, but this really hit the spot.
With our hunger just held at bay and our spirits buoyed, we make our way back onto the streets to see whether the action had picked up.
Then we encounter this. Our renewed sense of spirit dissipates almost instantly.
The story almost tells itself. The cynical punch line of the previous joke was the lead in to the next. Whilst the stand umbrellas were brought on stage to cover any official speakers, it also made it very clear how the now modestly dressed stage left the cultural performers exposed to the elements.
The microphones on the stage were merely props as the audio either wasn’t working or wasn’t switched on for fear of short circuiting.
However, kudos to the performers of the day who showed up in their beautiful, ornate outfits and made the most of a bad situation. The show must, and did, go on.
In spite of the rain and the issues with the stage, things started to pick up as the food vendors finished setting up their stalls and the lunch crowd made their way through the streets.
A lot of the typical items you’d find at most yum cha restaurants can be found at the festival. If not at the stalls themselves (in the case of one person’s BBQ duck craving), then at a nearby store.
Aside from the usual food that you would expected at an event that touts itself as a Big Yum Cha, as with what I’ve come to expect as the norm for Sydney cultural food events, there were food items that had absolutely no relation to the event theme.
From instant noodles and coconut jelly samples from a Chinese grocer, to Indian food, corn on the cob and ribs & wedges.
With that in mind, it should be of no surprise that despite the yum cha theme, ironically none of the food stands I saw sold tea.
For those of you that don’t already know, yum cha is Cantonese for “drink tea”. It is a dining experience that revolves around the drinking of tea with various dim sum to snack on.
Perhaps I’m being overly pedantic. I mean at the end of the day, even if a cultural food event isn’t quite what it says it is, does it matter all that much if there is good food to be had?
For instance, freshly barbecued skewers of meat cooked over charcoal. I can’t think of a yum cha restaurant that would sell that sort of food.
However, do I want to see this guy work his magic again at next year’s Big Yum Cha? Hell yeah!
Despite the considerable disappointments, all-in-all it wasn’t such a bad festival. However, the organisers of the festival need to take a serious look at how they approach next year’s event.
If the festival start time is advertised as 10am, things should be ready by that time, and not an hour or two later. Otherwise change the start time to 12pm or something else more appropriate.
ALWAYS have a plan for wet weather. Case in point, the Cabramatta Allsorts BBQ. It rained just as heavily but with the wet weather provisions put into place, it was barely an issue and the festival was still a success.
Yum cha is meant to be about tea. Why not have a stall that sells various types of tea? Walking around with a warm cup of jasmine or oolong tea, grazing from a street lined with dim sum stalls is what I see a yum cha festival being.
Hopefully they’ll take the lessons learned with this year’s festival and see to making an even better festival next year. Here’s hoping.
Taste of Shanghai Restaurant (Ashfield)
264 Liverpool Rd, Ashfield
(02) 9798 2877